Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican Focus
In the mid-1970s a pair of Cuban exiles who became Jesuit priests assigned to Creighton University saw a need to increase North American awareness of developing nations in the region. Revs. Ernesto Fernandez-Travieso and Narciso Sanchez-Medio formed the Institute for Latin American Concern.
The program originally focused on raising consciousness through immersion experiences in the Dominican Republic, a nation of physical beauty and abject poverty. As ILAC’s evolved, its mission has, too. Creighton students and professionals venture there to provide medical-health services and to engage in cross-cultural exchanges.
Creighton annually sends 500 volunteers. Teams of medical surgeons, dentists, specialists, ophthalmologists, nurses, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists and students visit different times of the year. A water quality control team and a law team also go. Area high school students visit, too. The groups vary in size.
Creighton physical therapy program director Julie Ekstrum said the trips offer “a profound experience. Personally, I can’t help but be impacted by the amazingly generous and warm people. Professionally, it challenges me to think more creatively about how I do physical therapy and care for people by making do with fewer resources.”
Ekstrum has been to the D.R. eight times.
Holly Fuller, ILAC director at Creighton, first went to the D.R. as an undergrad.
“I just absolutely fell in love with the experience, the sense of community, and the friendliness and willingness of the people to be open and to take you into their family,” said Fuller, who now spends three months a year there. “It’s very rarely I feel lonely — there’s too much going on.”
Fuller said she applied for her present job in response to “a calling” she felt to address the needs of people beset by unemployment, chronic disease and subsistence living. “I just can’t imagine sitting around hoping that somebody else is going to fix it.”
Over time, ILAC’s presence in that poor Caribbean island nation that shares the same land mass as Haiti has increased. The ILAC center, La Mision, near Santiago in the northern reaches, has been built-up into a complex housing clinics that serve rural campos residents. ILAC clinics also operate in remote mountainous territories.
A major thrust is educating Dominicans about preventative care. Village leaders are trained to conduct basic screenings.
“Without the cooperadores and promodores we would not be able to do any of the programs that we do in a legitimate fashion,” said Fuller. “They are one hundred percent our liaison to the different communities. The Dominicans are the experts in their own culture and in their communities, so we really do rely on them. That’s really the only way you can make a successful, sustainable long term program. There’s also mutual collaboration — they share their gifts and talents with us and we share ours with them.”
Dominican native Radalme Pena directs ILAC activities in the D.R., where he heads the nonprofit NGO Centro de Education Para La Salud Integral or CESI that CU’s affiliated with. In an e-mail, Pena, said Creighton visitors “are openly accepted” by Dominicans because of the school’s long-term commitment there. “Creighton students and professionals contribute to the lives of Dominican rural families in a number of ways,” he said. “First, many groups that come to the country help change the infrastructure of rural villages by building schools, homes, aqueducts and bridges” and by serving medical missions at the ILAC Center and in outlying communities in the Cibao Valley.
“Finally,” he added, “these groups contribute to the spiritual development of Dominican communities” through “an intercultural exchange rooted in basic Gospel values and Christian faith.The cross cultural exchange…breaks down stereotypes, builds bridges and creates a world less fragmented and more unified.”
“What ILAC does is kind of two-fold,” said Fuller. “We provide quality health care to people who don’t normally have access to it, but what we really do is help transform Creighton students’ lives. Part of that transformative process is exposing students to the reality of living conditions that most of the world experiences and developing in students a responsibility for being be a part of the solution rather than sitting on the sideline.”
Creighton Public Health major Leah Latenser has made two trips to the D.R. and is prepping for a third this summer. In an e-mail she described how she’s been impacted: “I gained significant perspective on my responsibility as a citizen of the world to stand up for the justice of all people.”
During her visits she worked on a clean water project and an aqueduct, supervised a rural health clinic and assisted women’s groups. For Latenser, Third World poverty is no longer abstract. “Each one of these stories now has a face, a name, and they are a member of my family,” she said. “It makes these issues much more real and urgent.”
When the Haiti earthquake struck in January, ILAC’s Holly Fuller went to the D.R. two days later and helped assist a series of Creighton medical teams that cared for injured refugees over the next month in the southern border region. She’ll be back in June to facilitate CU’s summer program, when 75 students and 20-some professionals go. Three thousand Dominicans are expected to be served.
Pena said as the D. R. has exported the materials and technical knowledge necessary to rebuild the Haitian infrastructure, “bilateral cooperation and relations have improved greatly.” Creighton relief efforts have played a role in the recovery and healing.
For more information about ILAC programs, visit www.creighton.edu/ministry/ilac/ or call 280-3179.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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