A helping hand in Costa Rica

She walks into a room full of small children, huddled around their parents, anxiously waiting for the only doctor that they are able to afford. Some have a pale, malnourished appearance and others have ulcers on their bodies. When senior Valerie Peh looks around this room, she feels the desire to help these people.

In mid-September, Peh volunteered at a clinic called Project Alajuelita under the Foundation For International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC) at Costa Rica in order to assist Nicaraguan refugees and impoverished citizens. Alajuelita is a small town in Costa Rica containing 12,500 Nicaraguan refugees, who have fled to Costa Rica in order to escape political conflict, natural disasters and lack of economic opportunity. Because they are not citizens of Costa Rica, these refugees do not receive medical insurance and proper medical treatment. Project Alajuelita’s goal is to provide these refugees, who often have illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, HIV and skin infections, with free medical aid.

“It was very impactful, [and] it was something that I [have] never experienced before just because a lot of the time in the United States, you don’t see a lot of kids coming in that are uninsured,” Peh said. “It felt really rewarding [helping them]. It also saddened me because of the massive amount of people that come in because they couldn’t be treated at a regular hospital.”

Peh worked in the pharmacy, reception area and the doctor’s office. When she was working with the doctor, Peh witnessed a six-month baby named Dylan develop an ulcer as a result of a skin condition.

“He was the cutest baby – very happy, never crying – it looked really painful, but still he didn’t feel that pain and that completely blew my mind,” Peh said. “Definitely seeing that and seeing how they’re living everyday impacted me immensely, and [when] I saw Dylan and his family living in one of those slums, it definitely hit me the most.”

Peh also worked with another patient, a woman who had a dog bite on her leg that eventually grew into an enormous ulcer because she was unable to receive medical help without insurance. Because of a lack of resources, the doctor in the clinic was unable to help the woman apart from giving her painkillers and cleaning the infection.

“It definitely made me feel sad, but it also made me really frustrated because of how these patients cannot be treated properly and [how] they’re putting themselves at risk just because of the situation that they’re living in and the crises they’re living in,” Peh said. “Not being able to help them, I think, that’s what’s most frustrating.”

Peh is planning to return to Costa Rica this December for a Christmas celebration, in which the project leaders throw a party for the children in the community, and she plans to make clothes for them through her nonprofit organization, Peh-It-Forward.

“The thing that I learned most was the need of underdeveloped countries. I think a lot of the times, we hear about these situations and the poor living conditions but actually witnessing it and seeing it happen before your eyes [is] completely different,” Peh said. “It’s almost transformative, and I think personally, before I went to the trip, I never knew about these things. A lot of the times we take for granted what we have until we see people who have a lot less than we do.”

By Raymond Dunn, Arts editor
Photo courtesy of Valerie Peh