Volunteering Abroad with AYUDA

Melanie Goldring, Washington University in St. Louis '17

American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad (AYUDA) is a nonprofit, volunteer based organization that works to empower youth to serve as agents of change in diabetes communities around the world. Each summer, AYUDA sends a group of volunteers and staff to Latin American countries to work closely with a partner organization in order to reach out to the local community. AYUDA currently is focusing its programs in the Dominican Republic, where it works with a diabetes foundation called Aprendiendo a Vivir (AAV). AAV also brings in local youth volunteers with whom the AYUDA volunteers work very closely to produce successful programs.

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2007 and right away was given thorough education on the condition and on how to manage it. Because of this, I have been able to live with type 1 diabetes with no hindrances to my daily life. After my first summer with AYUDA, I was extremely humbled by the realization that so many others have not had the opportunity to gain as much knowledge about and support for type 1 diabetes as I had, and I was much more appreciative of and grateful for the education I had received. During this time and each summer thereafter, I was confronted with children with type 1 and their families who have lived with very limited knowledge of what diabetes is and how to properly manage it. A lot of this has to do with a lack of availability of diabetes educators and endocrinologists in developing countries. As a result, many children continue to have serious complications even after diagnosis. One of AYUDA’s principles is that a lack of education is just as dangerous as a lack of insulin, and this is something that has stuck with me throughout my work. What good is it to have all of the necessary supplies if you have not been taught how to use them? This is where AYUDA’s work has been so influential. Through its programs, the children and their families are provided with that education, so that the children can go on to participate in the activities they love and live the life they desire.

I have been volunteering with AYUDA since 2012 and have since gained the positions of volunteer mentor (VM) and, currently, volunteer program associate (VPA). Through my role as a VM, I not only took part in the summer programs with the volunteers but also had the additional responsibility of leading the new volunteers in training and assisting them in meeting their program requirements. Now, as a VPA, I have the opportunity to work on a more macro-program level directly with the AYUDA staff and local partners. My participation thus far has focused on the Campo Amigo summer program, which is a day camp that takes place over two different weekends.  The first weekend is focused on children with type 1 diabetes and their families who have attended camp in the past and have been with AAV for multiple years. During this weekend, programming goes in depth about diabetes, diabetes management, and the psychological aspects of living with the condition. The second weekend is geared toward newly diagnosed and at-risk children and their families and focuses more on the basics of what diabetes is and how to improve management.

A particular story from last summer that stands out as an example of AYUDA’s work is from the first weekend of Campo Amigo during a 1-day camp called Día de la Familia. On that day, the parents of the campers living with diabetes joined their kids in the sessions. As part of the education session, one group did an activity called “Role Reversal.” In this activity, the parents pretended that they were their children living with diabetes. The children, conversely, acted as the parents who were there to help guide them through the steps of testing one’s blood sugar. To begin, the campers generated a list of the steps required to test one’s blood sugar.  Then, blood testing kits were distributed and the parents – acting as the children – followed the instructions and tested their blood sugar. At the end of the activity, parents discussed their thoughts. One mother spoke to how scary it was to have to do that and that she could not imagine having to do that multiple times a day, every single day, for the rest of her life. She said she was humbled by the experience and had a deeper appreciation for what her child does every day without letting it stand in the way of her life. Another parent spoke and said how much he appreciated this activity because it was practical, educational, and extremely powerful for him. In addition to group activities like the role reversal, the volunteers focus on fostering independence in the campers to empower them to take control of their own diabetes.

 A key take-away from my years with AYUDA is that knowledge about diabetes, and its care and management, is not something that should be taken for granted. Through AYUDA, I have witnessed the tangible impact its programs have on local communities. I have made friends locally and abroad for a lifetime, have established a diabetes support network, have learned about other cultures and immersed myself in them, and have gained extremely rewarding leadership opportunities. Beyond the personal impact this work has had on me and my diabetes, AYUDA’s programs with AAV have created a space in which children living with diabetes in the Dominican Republic can connect with others who have the same condition, providing that support network that the majority of the children have not had before. Throughout the year, AAV continues to hold education sessions for the children and their families to further maintain this support network. Diabetes in many of the countries AYUDA has worked can be very isolating; however, through the work it has done, I was able to witness children becoming empowered to take care of their diabetes in order to live happier and healthier lives with the condition.