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Life in the Global Brigades: Bake sales, five-hour commutes and lots of love

Undergrad Elikem Togo is in her fourth year at U of T, pursuing a double major in global health and ecology and evolutionary biology

Honduras is a vibrant country, brimming with clear turquoise waters, pristine beaches, lush jungles, breathtaking mountains, challenging rivers, and fascinating ancient ruins,” according to the Central American country’s official tourism website.

But Nadine Narain and Sarah Wheeler and the other students in the U of T Global Brigades weren’t interested in the scenery when they visited Honduras last August. They were too busy helping local doctors, dentists and nurses at mobile health clinics in the small communities of El Jute and San Antonio de Oriente.

“It took two to three hours’ drive to get there, and we’d have to prepare the medications and supplies before we left,” Narain, president of the U of T Global Brigades, recalls. “We’d have to leave very early, and of course, we’d have to travel back to the Global Brigades compound at the end of the day. We’d be five hours on the road each day.”

“It’s definitely not ‘voluntourism’,” says Wheeler, co-founder and co-vice president. 

“I get emails from some students asking if we get to go hiking or to the beach, but we don’t do that,” Narain says. But, she adds, participating in Global Brigades is a richly rewarding experience. And participants do get to see that stunning scenery during those long commutes. “Even though you’re sometimes commuting for long hours, you don’t want to sleep, because it’s so beautiful.”

Global Brigades spend seven to 10 days at a time working with local groups to improve quality of life in under-resourced regions while respecting local culture, says Narain. Relatively new to U of T, Global Brigades began in 2003 when students at Illinois’s Marquette University went to Honduras to provide medical care. Since then it has become the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization with more than 800 university groups. 

“We don’t just enter into a community, dispense aid and then leave,” says Wheeler. “We’re constantly following up, playing an active role. It’s overwhelming because we get so emotional upon leaving because you become so close to the people you’re involved with.”

Besides Honduras, Global Brigades also operate in Panama, Nicaragua and Ghana (although operations have temporarily been cancelled there because of the Ebola outbreak). Students can start brigades in 10 areas: architecture, medicine, dentistry, water, the environment, engineering, public health, human rights or business. They’re also involved at home.

“We encourage members to volunteer locally,” Wheeler says. “There’s a lot of need right here in Toronto, and we’re starting partnerships here so we can do local volunteering throughout the year.”

During the first U of T brigade in Honduras, they helped 1,087 patients, Narain says, providing free medical consultation, medications, dental care, public health education and hygiene packs. The U of T students – many of them aspiring medical students – were given the opportunity to shadow doctors, dentists and a pharmacist.

“On the final brigade day, we participated in a holistic project which involved digging trenches to lay down pipes for a community to have access to clean water,” says Narain (pictured at far right, with Wheeler at left). 

Brigade members are expected to pay their own way to Honduras, and also to contribute $200 each for medical supplies to bring along. Costs are offset by donations and by bake sales and other initiatives.

Narain, Wheeler and the others are already busy preparing for next year’s brigades – an engineering brigade in May and a medical/dental/public health brigade in late August.

“We work hard,” Narain says. “It’s a lot of preparation; everything from bake sales to going to classrooms to pub nights. All these little fundraising activities take so much time, but we do it with lots of love, and we make friends. We gain experience, and it all pays off in the end. We see where all of our hard work goes.”

“You definitely leave with 35 new friends,” Wheeler adds.

U of T Global Brigades’ next bake sale takes place December 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Sid Smith foyer and the Medical Sciences Building. They will also be collecting food for Covenant House at both locations. (Read more about Global Brigades.) 

Terry Lavender writes about international issues and global citizenship at the University of Toronto.