Sunnier Side of a Trip to Belize

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Promoting preventive health care in the Caribbean

By Anthony Giornalista

Belize boasts hundreds of miles of some of the most pristine beaches in the world, so it should be no surprise that a trip to this Central American nation would be a welcome escape to a winter-worn Chicagoan.

But for Keren Roberts, and a handful of her fellow students and some faculty advisers from Rush University, their December visit to Belize wasn’t exactly fun in the sun.

In just one week, Roberts, seven other Rush students and four faculty advisers built a house for an impoverished family and counseled residents on the benefits of preventive health care.

“I have seen the value of having a roof over your head has to a family in need,” said Roberts, a Rush College of Nursing student. “We take these things for granted, but they are priceless in life.”

The trip was part of an annual excursion organized by the Rush University Belize Immersion Experience, known as RUBIE, to help students gain exposure to health needs in underprivileged countries.

Almost two out of three people in Belize live in poverty, and the nation suffers the second-highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the Caribbean.  

And those beaches? They are kept clean for tourists, but garbage litters the ground inland, where most residents live.


The group from Rush met Ashanti, a 26-year-old with three children, and her boyfriend, who is the father of the two youngest. Together, they earn the equivalent of $210 a month but have gone into debt to pay for the $1,000 per month treatments for their 2-year-old daughter Kenrah. Her once-minor health issues became more pressing because of the family’s lack of access to health care.

Hand in Hand Ministries, a charity organization that works to empower families living in property, that collaborates with the Rush project, identified the family for help. The Rush group, with no construction experience, rolled up their sleeves and built the family a small house, the 11th such home built by Rush students since the RUBIE program began working with Hand in Hand Ministries in 2004.

The house took just 3½ days to complete. It allows the entire family to live together while keeping expenses down and giving Ashanti a chance to take more orders for the baking service she provides.

“Bernie called the house a ‘vehicle to build a family,’” said Lindsay Young, an advanced practice nurse at The Coleman Foundation Comprehensive Blood and Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic at Rush University Medical Center and one of the trip’s faculty advisers. “Indeed it is.  It may have seemed like a small, basic home to us, but it was exactly what was needed.”

In addition, the group visited community centers caring for children infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. 

“The entire trip was overwhelmingly good,” said Meenakshi Jolly, MD, a rheumatologist and one of the trip advisers. “We built a house, but the experience helped build us. I think we benefited from it more than the residents.”

Thinking globally

The Belize trip is just one of Rush’s global efforts.

In 2005, a group of volunteers in various clinical specialties formed a partnership with Peralta, a mountain village in Dominican Republic.  In 2010, Rush clinicians formed a similar partnership with several communities in urban and suburban Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 

The partnerships provide labor, supplies, medications, training and encouragement to these communities.

“It’s important as a human being to know what is happening in the world — to be appreciative of all we have and what others don’t have, and to be a positive member of society,” Jolly said.

“It helps us know where we stand so we can contribute compassionately.”