Christine Nitti Velaquez
Year of Graduation: 1998
Christine volunteered for a year in Honduras. Her volunteer work was a collaborative effort between the Catholic Diocese of Juticalpa, Honduras and the Catholic Medical Association based out of St. Louis, MO and New York, NY.
Current Job: Nurse Family Practitioner in Winona, MN
How did you decide to volunteer after graduation?
I studied Spanish from middle school through high school and really had a strong desire to travel somewhere where I could have a chance to use and improve upon what I had learned. During my first year I had the opportunity to participate in the "Ojos Abiertos" program in Cuernavaca, Mexico for J-term. It really was an eye-opening experience. I had always known I wanted to volunteer but that really solidified the decision for me. In the next few years I was able to travel twice more to Latin America and that reinforced my decision.
What are some things to consider when thinking about volunteering?
Of course considerations for the language and culture you will be working in are very important. There is a huge need for volunteers within our own country as well as internationally. Despite everyone's best efforts, it's hard to know what the experience will actually be like so an open mind and a lot of flexibility is a must. Some opportunities have a lot of structure, guidance and resources, whereas in others, you get some initial orientation and preparation but are then responsible for designing your own experience (with a loose support network in place). I think it's also important to consider what the organization you will be working with stands for, whether that be religious or not. Lastly, most organizations have a minimum term required which is also a very important consideration. This generally ranges from just a few months to about two years.
What did your volunteer experience entail on a typical day?
This is a challenging question because I don't know that there was a typical day. My experience changed considerably throughout the time I was in Honduras. Initially I was working with the volunteer surgical teams which came from the U.S. for a week at a time. That involved getting to the hospital early to get started on surgeries which we continued all day, with a break for a sack lunch. That usually went late but then we'd have a nice home cooked meal waiting for us at the bishop's house when we got home. In the evenings there was time to get to know the other volunteers. I met a lot of great people from all over the country this way. At the end of the week we usually took one day to explore the town, go to the market, go out for a nice meal and of course dance to some live Latin music! My role in all of this eventually became more of translator and liaison between the volunteers and the local hospital staff - interpreting, writing post-op orders, etc. There was also the opportunity to learn new roles - assisting with surgeries, anesthesia, etc.
About a week after I arrived in Honduras, just after the first surgical team had left and the bishop had taken off for the States for a fundraising trip, Hurricane Mitch hit. That altered the course of what we did for the next three months. We organized teams of volunteers to go out and do a lot of community clinics in very remote areas. In some instances we had to wait hours while the bulldozers finished clearing the mudslides so we could get through to the villages. There I worked more or less as interpreter and pharmacist. We would go out with our driver and the back of our pick-up loaded with supplies and usually stay at the local priest's home throughout the week while we traveled daily to the surrounding villages. At the end of the week we would travel back to the bishop's home where we would regroup and plan the next week's activities.
Eventually when the relief volunteers had gone home, I was left with one other RN who was a short-term volunteer and a very large room, literally overflowing with piles and duffel bags full of donated medications. It became our job for the next month or so to organize, categorize and distribute the medications. Soon that volunteer left and another arrived, at which point we were working to get a rural clinic off the ground in a nearby community
What was the hardest thing about volunteering? What was the most rewarding experience?
One response may be the answer to both questions. The more certain I felt about what was going to happen, the more likely it was going to change. This became apparent to me over and over again. I am a planner. I like to know what's going to happen and how well ahead of time. I like to be in control of things. Being forced to shift gears suddenly and "go with the flow" has been an invaluable lesson to me and is one that I continue to learn daily
Would you recommend students to consider volunteering after graduation?
Absolutely! It may be one of the most challenging experiences of your life but almost certainly you will look back at it as one of the most rewarding!
What resources did you use when deciding on whether to volunteer?
I think I probably looked online some (although internet then wasn't what it is today!). Because it was important to me to volunteer with a religious organization, I did most of my research using Catholic volunteer directories (RESPONSE and CONNECTIONS from the Career Resource Center) that was put out annually with volunteer opportunities across the country and the world.
What was your favorite part of volunteering?
Perfecting my Spanish, meeting others - both volunteers and others, opportunities to travel, learning more about and improving myself, learning from those I worked with - both volunteers and local people, learning what it is to "live" in another culture and not just "visit" it, and the opportunity to provide a service to others in a way that I truly believe affects their life in a personal and lasting way!
The experience helped me to reflect a lot on what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I already had a pretty good idea but it definitely gave me a different perspective. I currently work as a Family Nurse Practitioner, which is a decision I owe almost entirely to my experiences working with volunteer NPs in the relief clinics after Hurricane Mitch. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met while volunteering and they continue to enrich my life and provide me with new opportunities to learn and grow!