From Building On-Site Programs to Creating a Virtual Volunteer Platform: Q&A with FIMRC CEO Meredith WelshApr 16, 2020
Interested in global health volunteer opportunities or a career in global health? We recently spoke with our very own CEO, Meredith Welsh, about her career path, FIMRC’s amazing evolution since we first started in 2002, and how our organization is innovating by creating virtual volunteer programs in response to COVID-19. Read on for inspiration as you explore your own journey in global health!
You’ve been with FIMRC since the very early days, how did you become a part of it early on?
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador and absolutely fell in love with the country - the people, the culture, the way of life. I knew that after my 27 months with the Peace Corps were done, I wasn’t ready to leave. I began exploring opportunities in El Salvador that would allow me to continue doing community-based public health work, but also build upon the skills and knowledge that I had gained. After a recommendation from my Program Manager, I interviewed with Vikram Bakhru, MD, FIMRC’s founder, and instantly knew that this was an organization that I believed in and wanted to be a part of - and more than 12 years later, I haven’t once looked back!
What drew you to a career in global health and development?
When I left for the Peace Corps, I thought that I wanted to study medicine, but wanted some real-life experience working in health prior to going to medical school. As I began my work internationally, I quickly realized that I had a passion for community-based programming and preventative health work. I learned the importance of health literacy and cultural competency in building a strong base for living a healthy lifestyle, and also really started to understand my strengths as an individual. As a result, I quickly decided that global health and development work was how I wanted to dedicate my time. I truly believe that everyone has the right to quality healthcare services, and that includes access to health education and the resources to take health into your own hands.
What was the most challenging part about transitioning from being in the field to working at FIMRC HQ?
I really missed the immediate, tangible connection to the communities and the work. It gave me an excellent perspective and enables me to be a much more informed, compassionate leader today, but it was definitely hard for me to not go to the community day in and day out and see the direct impact of our clinical and preventative health services.
What’s been the most surprising thing about FIMRC’s growth and journey as a global health nonprofit?
While not surprising because I believe in the work that we do, but maybe it’s better to say the most gratifying, is seeing that as individuals and organizations try and be more socially responsible and ethical in development work, I continue to be proud of how we have functioned as an organization since our conception in 2002. We have always prided ourselves on being an ethical volunteer organization, working volunteers into year-round programs that are now run by 94% local staff members. It means that no matter how many volunteers are on-site, we know that our communities are receiving the clinical and preventative health programming that we promise.
Seeing that other organizations are striving to achieve what we have been doing for nearly 20 years has been especially inspiring. When our volunteers or potential volunteers start to ask questions centered on sustainability, medical services that are tailored to the community, or maybe even why they are working on a specific project and how it impacts the community long-term, it makes me proud that they are asking hard questions that need to be asked.
Can you share one of the greatest successes or achievements you’ve seen at FIMRC?
Can I really only share one? This is such a difficult question because I think there have been so many successes over the years. I would break successes down on multiple levels as well, so there are volunteer successes, community successes, patient successes, program successes. Maybe the best way to describe one of our greatest achievements has been our ability to learn and adapt. The best way to serve our patients, communities, programs, and volunteers is to be humble enough to learn over time and grow as an organization.
Juana in Costa Rica is able to receive the limb-saving treatments that she needs because we listened to her needs, took the time to invest in the patient, and worked with her over months to help save her leg after a severe infection. Our community in Uganda asked for many years to bring them more clinical services, and finally, after nearly 10 years, we were able to open a maternity ward to help meet the needs and requests of the community. Now, babies are safely born there every day. We have seen nutrition programs that are an instant success, but hard to maintain over time. Taking all the lessons we learned, we were able to develop a successful nutrition program in Huancayo, Peru and turn it into a long-standing program that continues to show improved weight and growth of the enrolled children. We listen to volunteer feedback and adapt our programs to make sure that volunteers understand what they are feasibly able to achieve while on-site, and adapt the way in which we work to ensure their time is maximized.
Every opportunity that we have to work with our dedicated teams, communities, and volunteers is an opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed, and I am tremendously proud of the entire team to learn and grow so that we can continue to serve our communities in meaningful, relevant ways.
Why do you think that it’s important for future healthcare providers to have an experience such as the one they have with FIMRC?
I truly believe that individuals understanding their role in the larger context of global health can only mean positive things - more informed patient interactions, a more culturally competent workforce in an ever-increasing diverse population, and a better understanding of social determinants of health, both in the U.S. and abroad are just a few examples that come to mind right away. We are not a homogenous society with a one-size-fits-all solution to healthcare, and our sites are not the same across the board. Exposing oneself to a different culture, language, medical systems, and ways of doing things can truly broaden one's own perspective and allow the individual to be a more inclusive healthcare provider.
COVID-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges to nonprofits worldwide, how is FIMRC adapting its programs right now?
In what felt like the blink of an eye, we were forced to adapt. More than 90% of our revenue comes from our volunteer programs, and COVID-19 hit us during not only one of the busiest times of the year for volunteers on-site but also for enrollment in summer programs. We had to quickly assess our current model and how we could adapt.
It has always been our view as an organization that we provide services not only to the community but to those looking for responsible, ethical volunteer opportunities. If people can’t travel, how can we make sure they still get this opportunity? That’s where virtual volunteering was born. I waged that if we have meaningful volunteer experiences on the ground year-round, then why can’t we recreate the experience virtually? Our entire team immediately jumped at the opportunity to make this happen, and we have seen an incredible reception to remote volunteer opportunities. While you may not be standing in the patient consult room, we have worked hard to provide resources and information to help you feel that you are there. We have an enormous list of projects that volunteers can contribute to remotely. Volunteers have always been our way of being able to run programs how the community deems necessary, and we want to maintain that.
How was the FIMRC team able to move to virtual volunteering so quickly?
We were able to move so quickly because we have people on the ground year-round, living and working in the communities we serve. Everyone is 100% invested in creating opportunities for our communities and providing healthcare and preventative health programming, so our field staff quickly jumped on the opportunity to continue building out their project sites and wanted to help FIMRC continue to not only exist but thrive!
In addition, we have an incredible headquarters team that is accustomed to working at a fast pace and giving it their all. Using each person’s expertise and experience, we were quickly able to draw up a plan on how we would move forward.
Without our dedicated team members and a lot of internet and Zoom meetings, none of this would have been possible!
How will the virtual volunteer programs make a positive impact on volunteers and at FIMRC sites?
To be completely frank, the virtual volunteer programs will be what keeps FIMRC going. These are not easy times, and we are counting on the partners, volunteers, and dedicated individuals who have always supported us to know the value in our work and continue to support us because they know that we are really good at what we do! The impact of the continued support will provide us with the financial stability to continue to serve each of our communities, albeit in an adapted way at this time until we are able to operate fully with programming and clinical services.
Every piece of this virtual program has been developed with impact in mind. We asked our international teams what could be done remotely to have a long-term impact on our communities. We really focused on what we do on a daily basis, and the needs of each project site, to make sure that the different components would be meaningful and sustainable long after the virtual experience ends for the volunteer.
In terms of volunteers, I think that virtual opportunities are a fantastic way to start to get your feet wet with international development in an immediately accessible way. While we aren’t able to travel, it provides the opportunity to learn from a team of experts and also impact operations on-site. We really thought about what volunteers tend to want in a volunteer experience and how we could provide that remotely. We took expertise from doctors, specialists, public health individuals, nurses, development professionals, and others to create an experience that would enable a volunteer to have a meaningful impact on our project sites, as well as learn and grow, even from the comfort of their own home. That’s why we have used the tagline “Think global, stay local.”
What advice do you have for someone thinking about a global health career?
There is nothing more rewarding than a career in global health. The best advice that I can give to someone is to start by gaining experience in the field. I truly believe that it is so important to immerse yourself in meaningful experiences, and it is never too early to seek out responsible opportunities. Whether you have a week or a year, just start. It may not be your ideal situation, and there may be something standing in your way, but you have to start somewhere. Whether you are interested in community health programming or policy, it is so important to actually understand the context in which you want to work, so get out there and learn by having first-hand opportunities!
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