It’s a project that’s been 10 years in the making. In January, the University of Virginia’s Nursing Students Without Borders celebrated the groundbreaking of a new medical clinic in San Sebastián, El Salvador, for which they’ve independently raised $95,000 since 2004.
The club, which provides students in the School of Nursing with global outreach opportunities, started its relationship with the people of San Sebastián after its inception in 2000. Students make two or three trips each year to provide health education and much-needed supplies to a small Red Cross clinic in the town of 9,000 in the central region of the country.
But soon after the trips began, their mission was literally shaken up.
“There was a large earthquake in the region in 2001, and it basically destroyed the clinic that Dr. Fernando Cortez, our partner, was running,” said Beth Loudin, the organization’s current president. “We kept taking trips down there and helping out with education, but a couple years after the earthquake had hit, he finally told us ‘You know, what I need is a new building. This is what you can do for me.’”
As they started raising money to build a new clinic for the town that was their first and favorite partner, Nursing Students Without Borders continued supporting Cortez by sending medical supplies and making trips to the site. They partnered with the Building Goodness Foundation, a nonprofit development company in Charlottesville, to draw up building plans and formulate the engineering needs for the clinic.
They were prepared to finally break ground in 2007 when violence broke out in another part of the country, and the U.S. restricted travel to El Salvador.
That was the start of a swamp of setbacks, Loudin said: money was lost in wires, communications to the government were lost in translation, the plot of land was found to be sitting on a site of ancient ruins. Despite constant fundraising efforts back at U.Va., members weren’t sure if they were ever going to get the clinic off the ground.
But the clinic still needed help. Cortez and his volunteer community assistants treat 100 to 125 patients per week, regardless of their ability to pay, and they were the only emergency medical care available within 30 miles of the town between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.
“In the old clinic, the difference between the front desk and the exam room was literally a sheet,” Loudin said. “Everything was dingy, water supply would be on and off, and it just couldn’t be very clean. In order to promote health, they needed a good structure.”
Having raised 80 percent of goal and despite the University’s continued ban on travel to El Salvador, the Nursing Students Without Borders executive board made the decision last fall semester to work with the Building Goodness Foundation and the people of San Sebastian to break ground on the site.
The new clinic will provide free, quality health care to people who would otherwise go without. Unaffiliated with the international or American Red Cross organizations, the Red Cross unit of San Sebastián is an independent, apolitical organization that will use the new clinic upon completion. It will have an increased capacity for seeing patients, with room for vaccinations, a pharmacy and a storage room for medical supplies – all of which are currently lacking.
Theresa Carroll, the Nursing School’s assistant dean for academic and student services, has advised Nursing Students Without Borders for the past 10 years and witnessed firsthand the stumbling blocks the students weathered to make the clinic a reality.
“These students have continued to move this forward – students that have never been there, but they just believe in providing health care to those that need it,” she said. “It would have been easy to drop, to put it towards something else – but they stuck with it.”
“It’s exciting for us because it’s been such a longstanding relationship,” Loudin said. “It’s one of the leading things they tell all of the nursing students at orientation. People join because they want to go abroad and help people; now our way of helping is raising money.”
They’re not finished yet: With the $95,000 currently funded, Building Goodness will be able to complete the main section of the new clinic by next summer. Nursing Students Without Borders is now seeking an additional $25,000 to add exam and treatment rooms to the building. Members also hope to travel to El Salvador this summer to take part in the building, if the University lifts the travel restrictions.
“People have asked me why, and I say, ‘Why not?,’” Loudin said. “We have volunteers, we’re wealthy – Charlottesville is generous population – and we want to help people within the scope of what a nursing student can do. We don’t have licenses, but we have a heart, and we want to help wherever we can.”
The club is accepting online donations through Nursing Students Without Borders Online Giving.