As I sat in the AYUDA offices on the first day of the VTP Summit, I reflected on just how I had ended up in some random office building, full of people I didn’t know on a cold morning in March. By some stroke of luck, I had stumbled across the AYUDA website through a Google search a couple months earlier looking for some combination of the words “Spanish” and “diabetes camp.” Turns out AYUDA fits the criteria. However, as I learned more and more about what exactly AYUDA is and the people that make it up, I realized it is so much more than simply a “Spanish (language) diabetes camp.”
I think that the best description for AYUDA is the one in boldface letters that spans the bottom of the website: “Empowering youth to serve as agents of change around the world.” AYUDA invests in its volunteers and truly believes that together, we can make a change in the world. At the VTP Summit, I was able to witness firsthand the incredible people that AYUDA attracts and the incredible passion that they bring to the table. I felt like the people I met through AYUDA and Aprendiendo a Vivir (AAV) truly strive to serve as agents of change in the world. If the future of diabetes education in the Dominican Republic and the world is up to them, I think we’re in good hands.
Throughout my life, I have always thought of diabetes as simply a part of my life and not my whole life. I think that through our work at AYUDA, my fellow volunteers and I can help impart this philosophy on other youth living with diabetes and help educate them on how to live healthy, happy lives with diabetes. I am counting down the days to Campo Amigo this summer and look forward to working with AYUDA in the future!
What am I going to do for the rest of my life? This is the question that haunts any junior in high school. There are so many factors that key into the making of this type of decision. I sit and I search and I search and I find the word “help” sitting right in front of me; this was exactly what I was searching for. AYUDA opened the door for me to a new feeling of knowing.How did I know this? I know I like to motivate, I like to meet new people, I like to volunteer, I like to help people, I like to learn, I like to travel, and I like to exercise. AYUDA is all of these things I like combined, so I was very interested. I applied, and I got accepted to be an AYUDA volunteer. My experience with AYUDA so far has been phenomenal. I got to experience traveling alone for the first time when I flew across the country to meet all the volunteers at the Volunteer Training Program Summit. This is where I learned all about diabetes and how to take care of it. I also learned how to efficiently fundraise and how to talk about AYUDA. I was introduced to a culture I was previously unfamiliar with; I learned about the traditions, food and dances of the Dominican Republic.My fundraising efforts have gotten me more involved in my community. I have met many people who love to donate to organizations like AYUDA, and I have made many long-lasting friendships with people who have been interested in supporting me. I cannot wait to go to the Dominican Republic in one week to volunteer in the Ganémosle program. I am looking forward to promoting exercise by encouraging people to participate in Ganémosle la Carerra a la Diabetes.
On May 11th I celebrated ten full years of living with diabetes. If you talked to me on May 11th of any other year, I would not have been so celebratory. In fact, I use to regard diabetes as a hindrance. It made every aspect of my life—sports, class and friends—more difficult. May 11th merely served to remind me of how much more challenging my life had to be as a result of diabetes. However, May 11th, 2014 was different. After finding my place last year as an AYUDA volunteer and spending three weeks in the Dominican Republic to support others with this same condition, my mindset changed completely. Diabetes is still a huge day-to-day commitment with a plethora of emotional and physical ups and downs, but for me, it has been a blessing in disguise. Last summer was the first summer I volunteered with AYUDA, and I’ll be returning this year for the Campo Amigo program in the Dominican Republic. It was an incredibly sobering experience to witness the poverty some Dominicans face on top of managing such an expensive condition. The experience showed me how lucky I am to have access to such great resources and to be supported by such a wonderful community. In this way, my experience with diabetes challenged me to take full advantage of the resources and knowledge I have and to bring them into communities that are less fortunate. AYUDA became the first experience in my life for which I felt I could personally make a difference. I learned that there are few things in life that bring as much happiness as assisting another to improve his or her life. So, thanks to AYUDA, this year and every year, I’ll be celebrating on May 11th.
The eight days I spent this summer in Santo Domingo with the Ganémosle Program made it clear that that AYUDA’s assistance is both crucial and welcomed. Our visit to Robert Reed’s public children’s hospital illustrated this, revealing the hardships of diabetic life in the Dominican Republic. Through the crowded halls we walked, witnessing the strange mixture of joy, shock, anxiety and despair that only a hospital can offer. A frail boy, with bones hardly able to support him, hobbled by with the help of crutches and his nurse’s support. The doctor touring us noticed that I was looking and said to me,“he has diabetes.” The only difference between him and I is that, being from Canada, I have had the education, access to medicine, and support from others living with diabetes that provided me with the essential building blocks to learn to live healthily with diabetes.
These things, that I have had and he doesn’t, are what AYUDA and Aprendiendo a Vivir (our Dominican partner) are working to offer and cultivate in the DR. Our mission is key to ensuring these young people live and thrive with diabetes.
For the rest of the week in Santo Domingo we raised awareness in the streets, conducted an educational program in San Pedro, and amped up for the big day: Ganémosle 2014’s 5K, 10k, and Zumba fitness festivities.
The events drew thousands to Santo Domingo’s central park, among them local celebrities and professional athletes. That morning we ran an educational day camp for young people living with diabetes, while their parents participated in the race. I was with the 4-7 year olds and taught them how to best react to extreme blood sugars and how to recognize which foods have carbohydrates and which don’t.
The race was hugely successful as it raised awareness of diabetes to those who knew nothing about it and had the participation of the entire city. At the end of the day I was doing yoga with an eager, smiling six-year old, who was a pupil at our day camp. After giggling at my inflexibility she tapped me in the shoulder and said that she had something to say to me “en ingles.” She then hugged me tightly around the waist and said, “Thank you forever.”
If I had to choose one word to characterize the atmosphere among the AYUDA volunteers as we head into our second Campo Amigo weekend here in the D.R., it would be “momentum”. We have already met new friends (and, in some cases, reuniting with old ones) at the Fundación Aprendiendo a Vivir; toured Robert Reid Cabral pediatric hospital to gain a sense of the context surrounding our campers’ self-management of their diabetes; and generated lots of creative and engaging activities for an anticipated 60+ campers of all ages. Last Sunday was finally time to roll out our message for young people living with diabetes: “Be your own hero”. We asked them to tap into some unique superpowers in order to take command of their condition, and they rose to the call. Now, we can’t wait to do it all again this weekend.
I have several new heroes of my own: the young leaders from Aprendiendo a Vivir, who have worked side by side with us since we arrived in order to make Campo Amigo a success. The tireless “Tía Sandra” Jáquez, who manages to make each one of the campers feel that he or she is special. AYUDA’s volunteers, who have applied the full force of their creativity to designing a memorable and life-changing experience for others, even as they undergo what I’m sure will end up being a memorable and life-changing experience for themselves. It isn’t always easy working on an international team. Sometimes we trip over the language barrier; other times, we bump up against differing cultural perspectives and expectations. But, just like the members of the Justice League, or the X-men or the Fantastic Four, each of us brings diverse strengths and abilities to the task at hand.
After a successful visit to a sister community of adults and children living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes in the port city of San Pedro de Macorís, about an hour away from Santo Domingo, this morning volunteers are clearly feeling pumped about making the coming weekend’s Campo Amigo even more dynamic, empowering and action-packed than last time. Superhero masks and capes have even started to flash up and down the hallways of our secret headquarters! And, with our powers combined, we know that we can make a tangible difference in the lives of those we encounter.
Jessica Lynman is currently volunteering in the DR for AYUDA’s Campo Amigo Dominicano program. This is her second blog post for AYUDA.
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