Global Medical Brigades will forge ahead even in a pandemic. The UF chapter of GMB prepares for the first TeleBrigade, in which all volunteering will be virtual. (Courtesy of Cody Tsai)

Global Medical Brigades Ventures To Virtual Volunteering

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Kids were bouncing balls high into the sky – eyes wide and smiles big. This is the moment Drew Jimenez remembers his life perspective changed. The little toys he brought to the Panama clinic were so small, yet their impact was so big. 

But, kids can’t bounce balls through a Zoom screen. This year, Jimenez, a 20-year-old finance major on the pre-medical track at the University of Florida, will partake in a TeleBrigade, the virtual alternative to onsite visits. 

The TeleBrigade is a program that will help conduct conversations about global health issues, raise funds for medical supplies and impact impoverished communities through a virtual approach. 

Global Medical Brigades, an international nonprofit and the largest student-funded movement for global health, postponed all trips to program countries until 2021. Because of COVID-19, the Global Medical Brigades organization suspended all foreign trips and the UF chapter had to cancel its 2020 trip to Honduras. 

In August 2019, the UF chapter went on its first brigade to Panama. 

It was nine days long and students set up three-day clinics where they had hands-on interaction with patients and aided doctors in tasks like taking vitals and conducting physicals. 

The UF chapter is currently deciding between allocating its time and funds to either Greece or Honduras for an upcoming TeleBrigade in March.

Isa Koreniuk, a 20-year-old UF classical studies and linguistic major and president of the UF chapter of Global Medical Brigades said that the online version of the program costs $200-$400 per volunteer group, depending on how many people are volunteering and the community they are serving. 

The money raised is used for medical supplies, medication and to pay the workers stationed in the communities.

An advantage of virtual volunteering is that it is leaving a smaller carbon footprint than traveling abroad, Koreniuk said. The flights to and from the country and traveling within the community creates carbon emissions that are avoided by students volunteering remotely. 

Another advantage of the TeleBrigade is that it is a cost-effective method of volunteering.

“We don’t have to pay for lodging or airfare,” Jimenez said. “So we can use that extra money, through donations, to supply the impoverished communities with medical supplies.”

Koreniuk explained that Global Medical Brigades have employees stationed in the communities year-round who check to make sure the clinics are well-kept after the students leave. 

These people will be the point of contact for students during virtual volunteering, Koreniuk said. 

The students put together a presentation on specific topics of health care, like proper hygiene techniques, to share with the community they are helping. 

This year the representatives stationed in the communities will be showing the recorded conversations, called “charlas” to the community.

“As students, what we can give them is mostly our time and our money,” Koreniuk said. “We gain a lot of knowledge from them, from the different medical anomalies that happen in the community.” 

Jimenez said that the lack of personal interaction and connection with the local community members is a disadvantage of TeleBrigade.

“You lose some of the personal interaction with the local people,” Jimenez said. “But we had to adapt and, still, it’s way better to help these people virtually than not at all.”

Michael Saba, a 20-year-old biology major on the pre-medical track at UF, is the director of social outreach of the University of Florida Global Medical Brigade chapter. 

Through fundraising and time commitments, Saba said that the students can still make a huge impact on the communities without actually being present. 

“It was a huge culture shock,” Saba said. “Going from here to an impoverished village in the middle of Eastern Panama. It makes you realize how much you take for granted.” 

About Rebecca Leiman

Rebecca is a contributor to WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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