One thing I love about AUC is how involved the students are in giving back to the community. We are all here as guests on this island, and the least we can do is give back to the people who host us. There are numerous community outreach opportunities here, all organized and run by students. Yesterday morning, I participated in one of them, Community Action Day. At 8am, over 100 of us students gathered together in the rotunda to sign up to go out into various places in the St. Maarten community for a number of volunteer activities. We broke up into teams and volunteered in:
- Mental health screening for depression and anxiety, discussing stress management with patients.
- HIV screening with the St. Maarten AIDS Foundation
- Diabetes screening with the Diabetes Foundation of St. Maarten
- Working with the Lion’s Club of St. Maarten in assisting the elderly and the wheel chair bound in getting from booth to booth at the Health and Wellness Fair, and assist in paperwork and screening.
- Lagoon clean-up (where students paddle on kayaks and pick up trash in the water)
- Mullet Bay Beach clean-up
- Working with the ICAN Foundation, an orphanage for homeless children in St. Maarten, in supporting the kids with Easter-themed activities, lunch, and soccer.
- Planting a vegetable garden for the Sister Basila Center, a support center for the disabled in St. Maarten.
- Painting over graffiti and cleaning derelict buildings outside of campus.
- Painting and cleaning the UJIMA Foundation, a home and therapy facility for kids with emotional and behavioral problems.
As we wanted to do something medically-related, Arif and I signed up to help out with the St. Maarten AIDS Foundation in conducting HIV screenings. The Caribbean region has the second highest prevalence of AIDS in the world after Africa, and within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, St. Maarten has the highest number of cases per capita, 40 times more prevalent than mainland Holland. Just the day before, I attended a workshop in which doctors from the AIDS Foundation taught us how to speak with patients about HIV and AIDS, ask intimate questions, and conduct Rapid HIV screening tests. I signed up for the morning shift. After free breakfast in the Rotunda and picking up my free Community Action Day T-shirt, around 20 fellow students and I headed over to Festival Village in Philipsburg where we set up booths at the Health Fair.
Some students decided to do HIV pre-test counseling in which they explained the significance of HIV to the patients and conducted anonymous one-on-one interviews to determine whether they are at risk or not to contract HIV. Other students registered patients for the screening while others read the HIV screening results. I worked with three other students in the testing booth, conducting the rapid HIV tests to patients, which involves pricking their fingers, collecting blood, and running it through the assays. That morning, I personally screened well over 40 patients. Although all the test results had turned out to be negative during my shift, this does not necessarily mean the patient has not contracted HIV within the last three weeks in which the screening test does not apply. Hence, I continued to take extra precautions in sanitation when drawing blood from the patients, changing gloves often and preventing contamination of my workspace. For all those who tested negative, the survey questions conducted by the students volunteering in the pre-test counseling booths were used to determine the risk of the patients for HIV.
As St. Maarten is a multicultural society, I received some patients who only spoke Spanish while others only French. Although I could handle the Spanish patients fine, for the French speakers, I had to use a lot of nonverbal language. It made me realize the importance of language competence, even if it is just a few courtesy phrases in making the patient feel at ease. As I’m sure I will be volunteering more in the St. Maarten community for the semesters to come, I need to improve on my French. I screened one Papiamentu speaker and had the joy to tell her “Mi ke sina Papiamentu!” She was really happy someone like me was interested in learning her language, and subsequently felt comfortable with the pin-prick on her finger. People feel comfortable when you can relate to them in some way.
After volunteering our 4-hour shift, Arif and I carpooled back to AUC where we went over to Dr. A’s home for a Community Action Day party. Her house was really beautiful with beautiful coconut trees and an infinite pool overlooking the Lagoon across to the French side. There was catered food and many students. We met up with Chris, who had just came back from volunteering with the Lagoon clean-up. He and other Community Action Day volunteers set off on kayaks into the Lagoon and paddled around to different islands within the lagoon to pick up trash and clean up the water. It sounded like a lot of fun and something I’d like to sign up to do for the next Community Action Day.
As other volunteer groups came and left the party, I realized that my experiences at the HIV screening booth was just one of many volunteer efforts that I could have pursued that day. There are many others that seem like a lot of fun and a generous contribution to the community. I could have mentored local kids. I could have planted a community garden. There are so many ideas on how to help, and amidst our busy schedules, AUC students provide the greatest resources… ourselves. All it takes is organization and our drive as aspiring doctors and fellow human beings to help each other.
These wonderful pictures were taken by RF, a fellow student, volunteer, and our school’s photographer. For more photos of Community Action Day, please see here.