If you get sick in one of the 12 villages of the indigenous Pemon Indians in southern Venezuela, you’re kind of up the creek. Literally. The only medical clinic within a 100-mile radius is located in the largest village of Uriman and may be a 2-day walk or an hours-long canoe ride away. For the 3,500 indigenous people living in this beautiful landscape in isolation and poverty, that may be a journey too far.
Three years ago, Yongjun Heo, an aspiring medical student at Swarthmore College, began working with Dr. Simon Sambrano to bring medical care to these remote villages that are accessible to the rest of Venezuela only by plane. He saw the 66% incidence of malaria, the ravages of malnutrition that left most villagers under 5 feet tall, and the stillbirths that almost one in five women experienced. And he was totally committed to coming back to help.
In fact, Heo was so inspired by the work, he returned to Swarthmore and started Pemon Health, a project that sends passionate college students for three months every summer to live in the village of Urimán and work with local Pemón leaders to implement innovative and sustainable projects that will improve community health throughout the twelve villages.
Projects like building a new pigsty and stocking it with pigs flown in from the city. Or constructing a preschool and initiating health education classes for village kids. Or organizing a sustainable waste management project, that airlifts waste out with funds generated from recycling. Or starting yoga and dance classes for the village women, and soccer tournaments for the kids. Or distributing anti-malaria mosquito nets, treating tropical diseases, giving vaccinations, and handling medical emergencies.
These were just some of the projects that Kanayo Hakeem Onyekwuluje, another Swarthmore student, worked on this past summer in Uriman and he got so hooked that he’s working to go back again this summer. “The people are so great, and there is so much need, you just want to go back and do whatever you can to help.”
In between his studies at one of the most challenging colleges in the country (“Anywhere else it would be an A” is the wry Swat motto), Kanayo is helping Heo, now in medical school, and program director Elisa Lopez, a senior at Swarthmore, apply for grants and generate funds to keep Pemon Health able to meet the tremendous health challenges of the villagers.
I love that college students from Korean, Mexican, African- American, Nigerian and Moroccan backgrounds are volunteering in the wilds of Venezuela to help indigenous Indian communities build a healthier future. Talk about a global village! In celebration of that, I’m sending $100 today to Pemon Health and the Swatties who are working to keep it going. To join me, click here!