Volunteers Battling Covid South of the Border

by Jul 6, 2020

Despite tough headlines, let’s visit some volunteers making a difference “south of the border.”

First, let us fly to beautiful Medellín, Colombia, the land of “eternal spring,” nestled in the Andean mountains, served by its funicular tram. Partners of the Americas’ volunteers have begun a campaign to help feed their neighborhoods suffering under Covid’s lockdown. It’s called “Si todos ayudamos? Toma o dona.” (“What if everyone helps? Take or donate.”) Compañeros have set up food stands in popular barrios. With the help of donations, volunteers purchased food for the elderly and low-income families in 300 popular apartment buildings. Massachusetts volunteers are in partnership with their counterparts in Medellín.

Flying a couple hours to the northeast, we’ll land at the Dominican Republic and marvel at its Caribbean beaches. However, in the country’s interior, many of the poor congregate in villages hidden from tourist eyes. After serving in the D.R., returned Peace Corps volunteers created Friends of the D.R. (FDR) to undertake micro-development projects in 130 impoverished communities. Returned Peace Corps volunteers John and Jean Epler of Seattle are the shakers and movers behind the scenes. When Covid-19 struck the the island of Hispañola in April, volunteers reached out to local groups in the Dominican countryside. The village leaders identified Hygienic Handwashing Stations as a primary and urgent need for their townsfolk. To prevent the spread of the virus, FDR provided four grants to two non-government organizations to install 310 Hygienic Handwashing Stations. The stations are at entrances to hospitals, clinics, government buildings and communities in seven different provinces. In three short weeks,7,000 residents have used the new hygienic handwashing stations.
Scott Coppla, former Peace Corps volunteer returned to Constanza, where he served from 2017-19. With other volunteers, he formed a non-profit that focused on the needs of the poorest villages in the region. In 18 months, the new organization, Puente, has generated a dozen community-based projects, ranging from bathroom construction, cement floors for homes, latrine construction, health training, potable water supply, and community drainage control systems. Recently, they installed 130 hygienic handwashing stations and provided Emergency Health and Food Kits to hundreds of families. Flying 2,500 miles due south from the D.R. to landlocked Bolivia, we’ll find several clusters of Partner volunteers in Cochabamba, La Paz and Santa Clara. Their North American counterparts come respectively from the states of North Carolina, Utah and Arkansas. In little San Simón, a small student chapter has ventured outside to clean up contaminated refuse and safely haul it away to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the country.
Both Partners of the Americas and the Peace Corps were inspired by President John F. Kennedy, whose words still resonate today: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Returning north from South America, we arrive in Havana during its hurricane season. The city is entering Phase 1+, permitting more public transportation and socially distanced visits to Varadero’s pearly beaches. Aggressive steps to ‘lock down’ the extrovert Cubanos kept them safe but stuck at home for over three months. PNWA’s associate, Ronald, and his wife look out for two 80-year old neighboring señoras, who cannot withstand the long lines for any kind of protein. He reports: “I do their grocery shopping and my wife cooks for them. Instead of making food for only four people, she cooks for six. The ladies are always trying to give us things in return, even though we are just trying to help. Every so often, they come to our house with antiques they had before the 1959 Revolution, like plates, pendants, china or pictures. But what I love the most are their stories. It’s my favorite moment of the day, sharing a café Cubano and listening to their tales of yore.”

Cuban residents still must carry their Covid-19 card. For more vignettes and Havana intrigue, see my new Facebook author’s page, to go public on July 13, 2020, preceding the release of my new book, Havana Odyssey. Stay tuned, Steve = Esteban

Acknowledgements for photos and vignettes:

  • Returned Peace Corps volunteers, Scott Coppla, John and Jean Epler
  • Partners from Antioquia, Colombia, San Simon, Bolivia and Rachel Falek
  • Ronald Infante, Havana, Cuban associate, Pacific Northwest Advisors LLC

Contact: Stephen E. Murphy, Senior Advisor, Latin America, Pacific Northwest Advisors LLC, semurphy@pnwa.com