Volunteering with Medlife, Peru

19 March 2019

Over the summer, Linda, a Social Sciences student from the IOE volunteered with Medlife, an organisation that focuses on access to health care, education and basic infrastructure through sustainable development in Latin America and Africa.

medlife testimonial
Linda Wystemp, Social Sciences

In March/April of 2018, I volunteered two weeks of my Easter break to work with the non-profit MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere) in Lima, Peru. As a Social Sciences student at UCL, topics like global poverty and health inequality naturally cropped up in many of my lectures and seminar discussions, but my knowledge felt very theoretical, almost unnatural. Essentially, I felt like I was lacking field experience and I wanted to learn how to apply what I had read in textbooks about development and aid to real-life cases. 

MEDLIFE is an organisation that focuses on access to health care, education and basic infrastructure through sustainable development in Latin America and Africa. What I strongly believe distinguishes MEDLIFE from other non-governmental organisations is that all of their projects are community-led. This means that the people they work with are the backbone of MEDLIFE, they actively voice their opinions, serve on the MEDLIFE executive board, and determine which projects funds are directed towards. 

Over the course of the opportunity at the MEDLIFE headquarters in Lima, I visited many different communities but there was one community I was most closely involved with: the community of Pamplona Alta based next to the controversial Wall of Shame that directly divides the poor from the district of Surco, one of Peru’s richest areas. In Pamplona Alta, most families lack access to water, adequate sanitation facilities, a functioning sewage system, electricity, bank accounts, and basic educational opportunities. Years spent reading about poverty and watching documentaries definitely couldn’t prepare me for what it was like to engage with families that have to raise their children in these conditions. 

MEDLIFE gave me and my fellow volunteers the opportunity to look into all of their three major areas of work. For the first week, I attended several educational workshops providing health and sex education to women living in the outskirts of Lima. Additionally, I had the chance to shadow local doctors and nurses as part of MEDLIFE’s mobile clinic programme that offers free health care to families and I helped deliver dental, gynaecological, and general health care to patients. Towards the end of my volunteering period, we spent two days in the heat building a staircase from the ground up and consequently painting it in MEDLIFE’s colours: white and red. The reason that infrastructure projects are essential to community development in Peru is that without fulfilling certain developmental requirements (including staircases and retention walls), families are unable to request land titles – and without land titles, communities are legally barred from accessing water and electricity. 

health work on project

Overall, I would categorise my time in Peru as extremely eye-opening, rewarding, and impactful. It may sound cliché, but I have found much greater appreciation for my life in London since returning from Latin America. This short-term opportunity granted me the chance to put my textbook learning into context, and expand my knowledge horizon beyond what I already knew. It showed me the importance of active listening and open dialogue between the developed and developing world. However, above all else, it confirmed that I would like to pursue a career in the charity sector post-graduation.

For now, I am focusing on launching the UCL MEDLIFE society with my fellow Peru-traveller, Tyffany. Our society’s main goal is to assist students in fundraising over the year to fund their own expedition with MEDLIFE to Latin America/Africa next summer. If this is something you might be interested in (shameless plug ahead), you can contact us over Facebook (MEDLIFE UCL) or send us an e-mail at medlife.society.ucl@gmail.com. We’d love for you to get involved!