Monday, February 21, 2011

Wheeling Jesuit University: Celebrating 10 Years of Dedication to the People of the Yucatan

As I sat with Dr. Mark Drnach one breezy Mérida evening at the mission volunteer house discussing the day's events, it was hard to believe that I was speaking with a man who has been witness to a journey of life-changing service to the Mexican people throughout the past decade.  Mark, a clinical associate professor of Wheeling Jesuit University (Wheeling, West Virginia) serves as one of the founding members who has persisted through 10 years of excursions to places of medical need throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

Drnach stated that the program initially evolved from a need for nursing expertise in the Mérida area.  In early 2000, Sr. Janet Goetz, OSB (of WJU's 2000 Department of Nursing) received a small grant to develop and cultivate a program that might help relieve the nursing shortage while providing WJU students with an opportunity to hone their medical skills in an international setting. Through shared religious associate Sr. Claire Hudert, OSB, Wheeling Jesuit became linked with the Mission of Friendship and began to utilize the Mission as a gateway to various medical facilities in the Yucatan.  Since 2001, the program has grown from four to 40 volunteers partnering with a total of 11 pediatric and adult organizations throughout the Mérida, Izamal and Valladolid areas.
Volunteers giving a new coat of paint to playground equipment
at Los Amiguitos ("The Little Friends")  Daycare, directed
by the Mission of Friendship.

And what exactly happens in these interactions?  Drnach describes his relationship with local clinics and care centers as an ongoing partnership; he and other volunteers provide new and alternative methods of education and medical treatment to organizations while their Yucatecan counterparts allow access to their patients and provide the participants with an education on local interventions and care.  At the end of the day, U.S. participants leave with a better understanding of health care in the Yucatan while their Mexican partners receive an international validation and input to their work from any of the attending universities.  Simply stated in the words of Drnach:  "We don't save people; rather, we find out how and what they need, how their needs are being addressed, and if necessary, provide alternative ways to address the same outcomes.  It is our participants, and I hope those in Mexico, whose lives are enriched from our established friendships and conversations."

Volunteer specialties range from pediatrics and respiratory therapy to special needs and general medical assistance. With groups comprised of licensed medical professionals and educators, as well as graduate-level students from universities now including Wheeling Jesuit University, Humber College (Canada), University of the District of Columbia and Ohio State University (who has since created an independent program based on WJU's programming), each volunteer provides needed assistance in places such as free-standing clinics, mental health organizations and schools especially designed for children with disabilities. Volunteers throughout their stay offer their occupational talents as well as general assistance with service projects as seen fit by the university advisors.

Volunteers in front of the daycare after finishing various
renovations, including re-caulking of classroom windows
and playground equipment. 
Mark continues to encourage others to become involved in this ongoing project (he can be reached for further information at ).  Through the commitment of these professionals and staff, the quality of life for many in the Yucatan Peninsula continues to be changed in a radical and selfless manner; embodying the words of Mary Ann Evans Cross, which has become the motto of the Mission of Friendship, these volunteers ultimately ask: "What do we live for if not to make life less difficult for others?"

Gratitude goes to Wheeling Jesuit University, Humber College and the University of the District of Columbia for their time and commitment in another great year of service.

 Interested in working with WJU?

WJU offers a variety of service opportunities for medical professionals interested in dedicating their time to partner with Latin American clinics and fellow organizations.  Those interested in volunteering for periods of 10 days or less in either Mexico or Peru will be placed on a "persons of interest" list until further details become available.  Please contact Dr. Mark Drnach, clinical associate professor of Wheeling Jesuit University at for further details.

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