A Letter from Jeff Solheim (Founder of Project Helping Hands)
I recently had the privilege of co-leading one of our Project Helping Hands (PHH) medical teams to the Philippines with Ann-Marie Summerhays. Although Ann-Marie and I have travelled together over the years, it has been a long time since we have been on the same team. I have always had the utmost of respect for Ann-Marie and her leadership skills, but on this recent Philippines trip, my admiration for her leadership was multiplied. She did an amazing job of guiding the clinical aspect of the trip and quickly gained the respect of the entire team.
As the Philippines trip unfolded, I came to another realization. Although Ann-Marie and I have not travelled together for quite some time and both of us have led multiple teams in the interim between our last trip together, our ability to co-lead seemed flawless. I believe this has to do, in part, with the fact that both Ann Marie and I both adhere to the foundations upon which Project Helping Hands was built, foundations which have stood the test of time. Many of the principals upon which PHH trips are built today are the same as they were during those first trips in the early 90s.
As I pondered this thought, I began to think about the principals that underlay a PHH trip:
· Team members take on the responsibility of gathering the needed supplies – I remember the very first medical trip that I undertook, before the name Project Helping Hands was even in use. We had less than one suitcase of medications and medical supplies between us and we were woefully under-prepared, but we creatively made do with what we had. Today, our PHH volunteers continue to take responsibility for gathering much of the medication and supplies that are taken on our trips. Of course today, we have learned what types of supplies make a successful trip and provide ideas and suggestions to our team members. Some of our larger teams will carry upwards of one to two tons of supplies with them, but they continue to take responsibility for this process. At times, we purchase medications in-country and we have a small warehouse now that houses excess medications, but the bulk of all medical supplies is gathered by our team members and carried in-country by them. This has allowed us to remain one of the most cost effective humanitarian medical organizations and allows our team members to take increased ownership in the trip on which they travel.
· Team members come from varied locations with varied backgrounds – Since the earliest trips, PHH has always attracted team members with a variety of backgrounds. These have been as varied as physicians and nurses to paramedics and physiotherapists. We have had non-medically trained personnel ranging from dairy farmers to physicists. Our team members have come from nearly every state in the Union and other countries, some from above the Arctic Circle. It is this amalgamation of personalities and talents that creates the successes (and sometimes challenges) of our trips. I can remember one trip where we had to amputate part of a man’s hand. We had no surgeon on the trip, but the combined efforts of an obstetrician, an emergency department nurse, a plastic surgery nurse and an operating nurse allowed us to perform a complete amputation with skin graft. The melting-pot that occurs when we bring these varied personalities and skills together gives our teams a broad range of skills and perspectives that strengthens each trip.
· We rely on local hosts and nationals to take care of our basic needs – PHH has always utilized national hosts that live in the countries we travel to make in-country arrangements. This creates both challenges for our organization, but more importantly, it gives our team members the distinct advantage of being able to experience the culture of the country they are visiting close up. Over the years, I have eaten and slept in the homes of local nationals and had the opportunity to see the lifestyles and cultures of those we serve closer than most could ever dream. Because we use local hosts, we can get closer to the people we serve, can be assured that we are taken to areas that truly need our services and our local hosts are more aware of conditions on the ground which increases overall safety of the team.
· The process of providing health services is standardized – As Ann Marie and I set up our mobile clinics throughout the Philippines, the process was the same – determining where our patients would line up for care, how they would be processed, where the intake station would be, how the assessment stations would be set up, where procedures would take place, how the pharmacy would be positioned and how we would provide education to the people. This is the same processes we set up in the very first clinics we held in Mexico and the Dominican Republic as Project Helping Hands was just starting. The processes we have established allow us to maximize the strengths of our team members while simultaneously being able to provide primary care to the greatest number of patients.
· Adventure with Heart – the tagline of PHH (“Adventure with Heart”) remains the core concept of our teams. Our teams give from the heart self-sacrificially, donating thousands of their personal dollars and precious vacation time to serve people they don’t know and may never see again. It is this caring attitude that is central to PHH. The desire to love one person at a time, to somehow add quality to an individual who feels as if no one cares for the plight that luck has left them in. PHH continues to be built on a basis of providing primary health services to those lacking access to healthcare and providing education which will have sustaining effects on a community following our visit. Yet, in the Philippines, I also remember fondly the cultural dinner that the government officials put on for us as a “thank you” token and the trip to the beach for a day of relaxation at the end of the trip. My trip meant to come from the heart included adventure and PHH continues to build adventures into every experience. Only because of PHH have I visited the Masai Mara reserve of Kenya, sailed the lakes of Lake Titicaca Bolivia, body surfed the Atlantic Ocean in the Dominican Republic and straddled the equator of Uganda. PHH continues to be built on providing an ability to care mixed with a sense of adventure.
It was exciting for me to serve with Ann-Marie in the Philippines and see her embrace the very values that have made PHH strong. It is exciting to realize that the principals upon which the organization were built work well enough to be carried on by the volunteers, like Ann-Marie, that make our organization strong. Don’t get me wrong, PHH is striving to make changes that will keep us relevant and competitive as we move forward. But I hope that as we continue to grow as an organization, the basic tenets that have brought us to today will remain core to all future decisions made.
To all our past volunteers – thank you for helping to grow the vision of PHH. For all potential future PHH volunteers, we hope that you will consider joining us and experiencing these principals which make us unique and strong.
Jeff Solheim – Founder – Project Helping Hands.