Does your social impact depend more on qualifications or commitment? A Lesson from Timor-Leste

Today we hear from Nate Bessa a Computer Science and Business major at Northeastern University, and co-founder of Project Plus One (PP1), a non-profit organization that emerged from inspired student activism at Brandeis and Northeastern Universities. PP1 galvanizes students to support a hospital in Timor-Leste (East Timor) where they implement sustainable development projects aiming to improve health of those living in poverty. In true Everyday Ambassador fashion, part of PP1’s mission is to foster the development of strong relationships between students and the people they aim to serve.

To the young and inspired activist, ready to start a non-profit, build a hospital, or save a life, I want to ask you to pause for a minute. This is a critical pause that most of us in the social sector at first overlook, myself included.

For two years, I have helped run a 501(c)(3) organization called Project Plus One (PP1). I was aware of unreasonable hardship around the world and had always wanted to dedicate my time to reducing burdens of disease and poverty in the world. In 2011, together with a great team of friends, I learned about the Southeast Asian nation Timor-Leste, and the challenges their healthcare system faces.

Timor-Leste is a small island country off the coast of the Australia that gained its independence from Indonesia in 1999. The nation’s young healthcare infrastructure often lacks the structure and resources to fully care for the sick. Oftentimes prematurely born babies do not have incubators to protect them or children lack access to vital vaccines easily available here in the U.S. Despite these difficulties, local nurses and international doctors still treat patients for a variety of diseases, conditions, and traumas – up to 500 per day at some hospitals.

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You can imagine how much my team and I wanted to make a difference. In the summer of 2011, two of our members touched down in Timor-Leste, fully energized, with the rest of us back in the United States feeling gung-ho and ready to gather for them whatever money or tools they needed to start making an impact.

Paul and Donny began working at the Bairo Pite Hospital with great enthusiasm, but their energies dampened as they grew overwhelmed by the nature of the cases, their lack of formal education to administer advanced care, and the general unknown.  “I have no clue about the people, the language, the culture, or the system of the Hospital” Paul told me via e-mail. “How am I supposed to do this?”

Similarly, when members Max and Jake went to Timor in the summer of 2012, they too struggled at first to adapt to the pace and intensity of the work at the Hospital.  Following the death of a patient, Max shared: “I feel like a doorman. I wonder if it gets easier. I wonder if it gets better. Because right now I am so tired. It was so, so difficult, and I didn’t even do anything. I couldn’t do anything.”

Meanwhile, our domestic team here in the U.S. also struggled. After fundraising thousands of dollars, building an intricate organizational structure of twenty members, and devising various plans to expand the Timorese Hospital’s capacity, we faced roadblock after roadblock when trying to transmit these blueprints into action in Timor-Leste. For one, when Paul and Donny returned to the U.S., no one was left there to implement our plans. Then, our plans to start a nutritional garden at the Hospital, to feed patients and lower monthly food expenses, was shut down by a local community leader wary of our international backgrounds.

The reality was that, having never been there before, we had no local friends, and we were just students with very basic medical skills.

 My frustration only began to abate in 2012, when I attended a gathering at Northeastern University called the Millennium Campus Conference. My team and I were struck by two speakers in particular, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee and Dr. Paul Farmer, and the emphasis they placed on the importance of human connection and patience in service work.

 Ms. Gbowee particularly told us two things: “It’s not the level of qualification you bring… but the passion and commitment you have to the people you work with”, and, “You need to go into communities not as an expert, but as a person who is going to accompany them through a journey.” Dr. Farmer added: “And patience is a virtue too, if your grandmother never taught you that.”

A-ha! These words struck me and stuck with me.

As we set back to work in Timor-Leste, we tried to live this advice. First, we came to terms with what we were capable of doing and what we were not. While several members of the team are on their way to graduating as medical doctors (Donny recently became a licensed pharmacist), we reevaluated the skills we brought to the table. We also realized that simply “accompanying” the people we wanted to help could be powerful, but we first needed to better understand the culture, the history, and intricacies of the existing structure. We met with the country’s Minister of Finance, Emilia Pires, and learned more about the Timorese government’s health systems strengthening strategies (while also being gently scolded by her for not being aware of those already!)

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Back at the Hospital, PP1 focused more on befriending the patients, staff, and general community. For example, when one young boy with a ventricular septal defect and a severe case of endocarditis refused to be treated, Donny offered him “a few Beng-Beng chocolate bars and a Sprite or two” and taught him a secret high five that would be known only between the two of them. Soon after, the boy was ready and willing to go with Donny to the Hospital to be treated.

Since we made these changes, PP1 is a name much of the Hospital staff now recognizes. After two years of continuously showing up each summer and winter, bringing our positive spirits, and focusing on listening to the Timorese, we have earned some trust and respect. Hospital directors are tasking us with important tuberculosis adherence projects and the garden project we have been trying to start for over a year is finally making headway.

Today, PP1 co-founder Paul Sukijthamapan and member Alice Luu are living and working in Timor-Leste, and our organizational culture has been transformed in so many positive ways, thank to the lessons we have learned about basic relationships.  The importance of the human connection between us and those we want to support is critical. Though it has taken a long time for PP1 to reach this point, we know that our commitment to the community must be real and long lasting. We know we will not be able to sustain any permanent impact without being fully dedicated for the years (yes, years!) it may take to see through the health systems changes we are dedicated to fostering.

The impact of the human connection is summarized by PP1 field member Jake, “I think I remember the face of every patient I saw in Timor. It might sound like hyperbole, but each person I saw at the Hospital influenced me in his or her own way. Every single patient had a special narrative, something that made them stand out from the rest. There was Clementina, whose TB meningitis robbed her of sight, who exercised by walking directly behind me, using only my voice as her guide. And Alianca, the brave little artist whose leukemia was fought in Jakarta, Indonesia, who plastered her door in colorful drawings. It is these connections – and my experiences helping these patients – that continue to inspire me.”

Thank you for joining me on this long pause.  I hope you will think about what I’ve explained here. I hope you will reflect on your own life, and then pick up your bags, get out there, and make some friends with people in the community you want to help. Learn about them through their eyes. Only through their eyes will you find the right ways you can help and you’ll enjoy it more than ever when you’re helping friends instead of strangers.



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