ILAC bridges cultural and health barriers

Creighton University's Institute for Latin American Concern facilitates service-learning immersions in the Dominican Republic that forge deep bonds between participants and inhabitants of that poor island nation.

Cuban exile Jesuit priests Ernesto Travieso (then-medical school chaplain) and Narciso Sanchez (then-campus ministry director) started ILAC in the 1970s to increase U.S. awareness of the region. Today, ILAC supervises teams of students and professionals who provide health prevention and treatment services and engage in cross-cultural exchanges there.

Spin-offs have resulted. In 2010, Creighton's Dr. Charles "Chuck" Filipi formed Chronic Care International (CCI) to address diabetes and hypertension in-country.

ILAC staff members and mission participants are impacted by what they experience there. Director Andrea Montoya is a CU graduate who did a Peace Corps stint in Honduras. She went on to practice law but felt called to resume humanitarian work when the opportunity to lead ILAC came up.

"I was far removed from things I really cared about. The pull to me was the idea of again working in Latin America and serving people who are very warm and inviting and the feeling the work I did every day really made a difference in the world," she said.

"Our office coordinates about 27 groups or programs that go to the ILAC Center – a Dominican-run nonprofit near Santiago. We are their partner. We serve as the liaison between the center and Creighton's Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Law and the undergraduate programs. The vast majority of programs are annual and long-standing. We coordinate about 550 participants a year, including 100 to 110 Creighton students. We also have high school students, medical mission teams and students-faculty from other universities. We provide participants with a reflection guide and encourage them to write their daily consolation and desolation."

"Reflections are a core part of all of these experiences," said coordinator and Dominican native Jacquie Marte, "in trying to figure out the meaning within the experience and how you take it home with you."

Montoya said many participants "become agents of change" in their vocations, life and and service choices."

ILAC is the bridge between visitors and their Dominican host families and service recipients.

"We are a small part of a process to provide an opportunity for transformation to our participants while making some positive contribution to the Dominican people," she said. "We're doing a better job collaborating with the local people trying to really figure out how can we best contribute to make changes that help the underlying structural systemic problems."

Each immersion is different.

"Every group has its own personality, goals, objectives that we help them accomplish," Montoya said. "We want to make sure the service is done in a respectful-mutual way, that students take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on a deeper level about what the experience is for them and what it may mean for their future. Then there are all the logistical things – making sure everybody is safe, healthy."

Marte enjoys "seeing the a-ha moments" participants experience "while living in community with those we serve and learning more about themselves and a culture completely different than their own. We primarily work with health science students. The public health care system in the Dominican Republic is a big challenge. A lot of the people we serve don't have access to it or if they do it's not the adequate care they need. It has been changing, but it's very slow progress."

Intense relationships form.

"I don't think people are prepared for being so emotionally attached to people for a three to six week period of time," Montoya said.

"You go through this really intense emotional thing," said ILAC specialist Katie Kaufmann, a CU grad who was a summer program leader and Encuentro student. "You can barely say ola, but you think of this person as your mom or dad or sibling and it's terrible leaving them."

Montoya, who's in and out of the D.R., said of bicultural living: "Both places are home for me. My kids come with me during the summer, but my husband doesn't. It can be challenging."

For Marte, who lives nine months in the D.R., her homeland is never far from her heart or mind.

It's not unusual for ILAC alums to return and reconnect. While a CU student In the early 1990s, Pat Brown coordinated an ILAC site on the D.R.-Haiti border. He said the "profound sense of community and affection" he found "shaped my life, perspectives and values." A quarter century later the retired non-profit human services executive director went back, only this time with his four grown children. What he could only describe before, they now shared.

Occupational therapist Dawn White-Williams, a CU grad, has returned eight times since her initial 2010 trip.

"I enjoy visiting with former families I've stayed with. I consider Republica Dominicana my second home. I find each visit healing and cathartic. I am able to recharge and recall why I love my profession in the homes of those we visit and assist."

Dominicans also come to CU for advanced medical training and professional development in partnership with Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra.

Visit www.creighton,edu/ministry/ilac.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.
Leo Adam Biga

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