Ever wonder how to change the world?
Corps of compassion
By Barbara Mahany, Nurs ’79
It was no more than an offhand comment tossed from one friend to another in the fall of 2002. “We oughta go to Honduras over spring break,” were the words, more or less.
At least that’s how Shital Chauhan, PT ’06 (her first name rhymes with “lethal”), then a physical therapy major in her third year at Marquette in the College of Health Sciences, remembers it.
She was talking with her great good buddy Jeff Bodle, Bus Ad ‘04, also then a junior. Bodle told her about an amazing trip he’d taken the year before to an orphanage in Honduras with a bunch of friends and a crew of doctors from his hometown of Indianapolis.
Something about that suggestion — spring break in Honduras — worked its way into Chauhan’s heart. She didn’t know then that deep in the mountain villages of a third-world country thousands of miles from Milwaukee, something would be stirred inside her. Something about the dirt-poor children and women and men of Honduras who carve out lives at the remote ends of sometimes unpassable roads. People living in thatched-roof adobe huts that leak when it rains but who never fail to find reason for hope and joy.
Something about that place and those people grabbed hold of Chauhan and never let go, and so it became her life’s work to lift the yoke from their hard-working backs and give them the tools to cultivate a life as close to robust as possible.
She didn’t know then that, as Dr. Toby Peters, associate senior vice president at Marquette, puts it now: Chauhan and company “essentially created a corps of compassion, changing the lives of those served and those serving.”
What started as that spring break trip to Honduras in 2003 is now the nonprofit Global Brigades, the world’s largest student-led global health and sustainable development organization, serving the poorest of the poor in Honduras, Panama and Ghana.
The numbers speak to the power of Global Brigades. Not even 10 years after that first ad-hoc trip, some 12,500 student volunteers have served 300,000 people. More than 350 GB chapters have sprung up at universities across the United States, Canada and Europe, and they bustle with some 5,500 undergrads trekking to remote villages halfway around the globe annually to work in nine specialty areas: medical, dental, public health, water, business, micro-finance, law, environmental and architecture. So far, six service programs are set up in Honduras, five in Panama and four in Ghana.
From peering down the throats of kids with tonsillitis to extracting abscessed teeth, from teaching the villagers to build eco-stoves that keep their huts free from lung-clogging soot to building community banks to pouring concrete floors that cut down on parasites, Global Brigades wholistically transforms the lives of people who live in unthinkable poverty.
“It’s easy to toss around a number like 350 chapters, but when you go to Honduras and see it, when you drive through one of these small villages and see groups of college kids going every which way, hard at work on some project, that’s the real beauty of it,” says Pallav Vora, chief legal officer for Global Brigades and Chauhan‘s fiance.
“Getting inside young people when they are really quite impressionable and full of optimism and passion — I sound like an old man, but instead of texting and wasting their lives, this is really quite something,” says Vora, who is just 30 and sits beside Chauhan in the kitchen of a loft in Chicago’s West Loop. The condo serves as Global Brigade’s U.S. office, thus saving on office rent.
The two of them shove aside their ever-pinging laptops to talk about the brigade that is the heart of their lives.
Chauhan, whom her friend Bodle remembers as “side-splittingly hilarious, the sort of person everyone thinks is their best friend,” curls into a sleek armchair, sipping high-octane coffee.
It doesn’t take long to realize that with or without mouthfuls of caffeine, Chauhan is one animated spirit and wholly captivating storyteller.
“Right away,” she says, leaping back to the fall and winter of 2002 and the start of what would become the Global Brigades story, “we decided instead of just showing up at the airport, let’s collect meds and equipment.”
Rookies back then in the fine art of scavenging, she and Bodle and Stephanie Merlo, H Sci ‘04, pored through Milwaukee’s Yellow Pages, dialing local physicians, asking if they had anything to donate to this motley band of Honduras-bound Marquetters.
“We borrowed a car,” recounts Chauhan of step No. 2 in the scavenging short course. “For one week, we had Steph’s parents’ van,” a blue Plymouth Voyager. They managed to fill the van, packing it with donated goods, which they stored in a basement boiler room in a big blue house at 17th and Kilbourn, shared — in classic Marquette style — by nine girls.
“It was a dangerous-looking basement. It really looked like a drug den,” Chauhan says, rolling right on with the story. “Everyone who was going on the trip was allowed two 50-pound suitcases, so we went to Goodwill and got as many suitcases as we could. That, of course, saved shipping costs.
“It was all very undergrad students trying to make something out of nothing,” she says of the prevailing ethos still alive now and certainly then, when weekends were punctuated with “packing parties” and hip-hop-stoked Saturday nights were spent stuffing medical supplies into every last suitcase.
When spring break 2003 arrived, 20-some college kids and 40-some shoddy suitcases rode into the night to two Chicago-area houses — Chauhan’s in the suburbs and Merlo’s in the city. Benevolent parents fueled the kids with home cooking, and they all boarded a 5 a.m. flight to Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras.
Once on the ground, they boarded a bus and rode to the village of Nuevo Paraiso, where they stayed in an orphanage, six beds to a room. It took another three hours driving on bone-jarring mountain roads to get to the first stop on their medical brigade, where the students thought they’d be little more than “grunt workers,” hauling bags, translating a few scant words.
Instead, Chauhan recalls, the doctors threw them into the thick of it. Awakened at the crack of dawn, they drove hours to villages, each one poorer than the last, tended to hundreds of patients and worked until close to midnight, then packed up again for the next day’s excursions.
During the course of that week, while absorbing the joy of this culture that didn’t measure riches by material yardsticks, Chauhan was pulled deeper and deeper into the mission. Bodle, now a neurologist in his third year of residency, remembers watching her and witnessing the birth of something remarkable: “She was spending a really long time with each of the patients, getting much deeper than the rest of us.”
Chauhan remembers the end of the week, crying at the Tegucigalpa airport, not wanting to leave. And she remembers being picked up by her immigrant parents at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“As I told the stories of what we’d seen and where we’d been,” she says, “I remember my father, who is not a man of many words, quietly saying, ‘That’s how it was in India.’”
Suddenly, in the midst of telling the story all these years later, Chauhan’s eyes fill with tears. She stops to wipe one away. She talks about how her father, now a mechanical engineer, grew up so poor, his own father a struggling farmer who grew rice and sugar cane on a scant half acre in Gujarat, India.
Her parents lived in their little village with only a few hours of electricity a day. She talks about how when they came to America, they had nothing but the $10 bill stuffed in her father’s pocket and how they managed to raise her and her brother with all the trappings of a suburban American life and send them both to college. Not until she took that first Honduran trip though could she actually picture the stark frames of her parents’ impoverished earlier years.
Chauhan returned to Milwaukee forever changed, convinced that what she and her traveling band began in the mountain crevices of Honduras had to continue.
She searched for — but did not find — any organized service trip groups targeted to undergrads. So she made the hero’s choice: “If there isn’t anything out there, let’s just start it.”
And, so, they did.
At first, it was called Global Medical Brigades, and another Marquette-based trip happened the following winter break. By the end of their first year, they added a second chapter, launched at the University of Michigan. And, then, another and another. By 2005, there were 75 chapters.
It wasn’t long before the co-founders of Global Brigades — Chauhan, Steven Atamian, Enrique Rodriguez — who met in serendipitous ways, realized that medicine alone would not cure the ills of Honduran poverty. The name was changed to indicate a broadening of service areas.
So, in short order, they formed brigade after brigade, a multipronged grassroots approach that addresses everything from antibiotics to water-filtration systems and that aims to rid daily lives of a plethora of scourges ranging from parasites to deforestation.
Since the get-go, Global Brigades has never abandoned the make-something-from-nothing spirit of keeping costs at bare-bottom lows while maximizing people power.
Peters, who has traveled on nine Global Brigades ventures, bristles at anyone who refers to these trips as “volunteer tourism.” Far from it, he insists. “A week of transformation,” he calls it.
It was that very thing that got under the skin of one extraordinary physical therapy student all those years ago. And, now, one village, one college kid and one trip at a time, she’s hell-bent on making certain it gets under the skin of thousands and thousands of others.
Quite a spring break souvenir. Wouldn’t you say?