Exploring Opportunities, Ignoring Boundaries

The power behind having a vision is often underestimated among groups of all ages. But student leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University realized that “a vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more (Rosabeth Moss Kanter).” Such a vision to establish a student chapter of the American Red Cross at Virginia Commonwealth University was ironically conceived during a time when most students turn off any remnants of constructive thought in order to enjoy the warmth and sunlight of their summer days. Robin Kuriakose and Akash Patel, both sophomores at VCU, however kept their minds open as they enjoyed their summer with family and friends. By the end of the summer, a collaboration between these two students had resulted in a vision to initiate a novel organization that had never before existed at VCU.

After countless meetings and planning sessions, the organization was finally launched with the purpose of providing Red Cross services to the local community and students on the VCU campus. The goal is to help people prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies while advocating lifesaving skills and actions. But how could they stop there when the idea of having a vision, to become something more, was an innate quality instilled within each and every one of their members? It was this appeal to better themselves that inevitably led to the organization’s partnership with The Highland Support Project. This partnership would facilitate participation in a spring break study abroad opportunity to the Highlands of Guatemala in order to learn about the potential needs of another population.

The Highland Support Project operates with a mission to create transformational development models that foster agency with Highland Indigenous Communities of the Americas to address critical environmental, social, and economic issues. It specializes in creating synergistic programming initiatives that develop partnerships between indigenous communities and service organizations. The travel team this year consisted of eight members of the American Red Cross Student Organization at VCU, and six other VCU students. Aruna Anbazhagan, team leader and  International Relations Chair for the American Red Cross at VCU, had specifically hoped to plan this year’s trip around objectives regarding a holistic approach to healthcare and global medicine. Students built stoves for indigenous families to prevent the onset of respiratory infections, organized basic health checkups to screen for risk of high blood pressure and/or diabetes, and educated the indigenous communities about various skin problems which remain prevalent in their areas. Most importantly, however, students became aware of the significance of sustainable programming, which serves to empower communities and cultivate agency in the long run. “Agency is the ability to act rather then being acted upon—the capability of  imposing ones own vision on reality,” explains Ben Blevins, the founder of Highland Support Project. Dependency fostering programs rob a community of agency and that is why the Highland Support Project works to empower the indigenous communities of Guatemala.

Additionally, with the help of Highland Support Project, a visit to the local Guatemala Red Cross was planned in an attempt to foster an international relationship between the Red Cross in Guatemala and the student chapter at VCU. On arrival, Cruz Roja Guatemalteca not only welcomed and invited the group of VCU students to a tour of their facilities but also encouraged conversation and dialogue despite the language barrier. As Bianka Patel recalls “They willingly went out of their way to answer any questions we had and were very thorough with their explanations. They even brought out Raulito, their only practice mannequin, for us to see!”

As both groups exchanged ideas and current needs for their own organizations, a mutual understanding and cooperation emerged, as well as an agreement to keep in contact and to plan future endeavors in tandem. With the help and partnership of Highland Support Project, both Red Cross organizations will have the capability and resources to work together and reach out to the highlands of Guatemala into indigenous communities that remain in dire need of aid and relief. In fact, the Highland Support Project is currently working on an emergency preparedness initiative in hopes of fostering such relationships. “We’re now friends with Cruz Roja Guatemalteca on Facebook,” says Basil Mathews excitedly, treasurer for the VCU student organization, “it’s international relations at its finest.”

But still, these students seek to develop their vision even further and will pursue it wherever potential lies. Ultimately, the partnership of both organizations is based on the shared ideal of humanity—something which transcends all boundaries.


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