UCLA students bring much-needed medical aid to Mexican community.
In a community less than 150 miles south of UCLA, Enrique Juarez Gonzalez, his wife, Mercedes, and their children live without running water or electricity. Their sanitation system is sub-standard, and access to health care was almost nonexistent.
There are many families just like them in Tijuana’s Colonia Margarita Moran, families that are struggling to survive in an area where poverty is rampant and opportunities are slim.
Thanks to life-changing efforts by UCLA undergraduates, a small community medical clinic is the family’s only source of medical care. It was there late last year that they received an invaluable gift that lifted a huge weight off the family’s shoulders — a wheelchair for their 14-year-old son, who had to be carried everywhere because he has cerebral palsy.
“Watching Mercedes wheel Emmanuel out of the clinic with such relief, and realizing the impact the chair will have on their family, illustrates the reason we operate our clinic,” said UCLA senior Becky Barber, who along with fellow neuroscience student Lyolya Hovhannisyan founded the UCLA chapter of Flying Samaritans in 2013. The nationwide group brings together volunteers and health care providers to deliver basic medical services, including clinical evaluations, medication and health education classes.
“On a micro-level, knowing we can improve the quality of life for people in this community makes our work here worthwhile,” said Barber. She and Hovhannisyan, both seniors and aspiring doctors, received a $10,000 scholarship from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation in 2013 to support their efforts.
Barber learned about the need in Colonia Margarita Moran after hearing about the work of Dr. Maria Sarabia, a Mexican-trained doctor and Huntington Park resident who, for roughly three years, had been providing religious education and the best medical service in the Tijuana colonia. After speaking with Hovhannisyan about Dr. Sarabia’s efforts and considering what they could do to help, they founded UCLA Flying Samaritans and its small medical clinic in Colonia Margarita Moran.
In May 2013, the group began the first of nearly a dozen visits to the clinic and saw 26 patients. Now they see more than double that number each month, with the group’s outreach efforts making more residents aware of the clinic’s services. The clinic opens the third Saturday of the month with volunteer doctors and often more than a dozen UCLA students.
Most of the ailments the volunteer doctors see are preventable, said Hovhannisyan. They include hypertension, diabetes, sexually transmitted infections and waterborne illnesses, all of which can be sharply reduced through education and outreach programming, she said.
Other factors, including little to no access to fresh fruits and vegetables, clean water or warm dry places to live, make health prevention efforts more challenging. Barber said that ongoing community assessments and speaking with locals will help them better serve the people living there.
“This is a big part of our current efforts to identify the resources available to the community and give us a better understanding of the factors that are leading to a decreased quality of life,” said Hovhannisyan. “Our clinic will target the issues we find to be most clearly decreasing quality of life and implement projects to directly address these problems.”