Today, Solidarity Bridge sends 21 missioners on a Multi-Specialty Mission Trip to Punata, Bolivia—our largest trip of the year. Doctors, nurses, interpreters, and Solidarity Bridge staff will work with our Bolivian partners to serve patients in surgery and clinics and offer daily training sessions at Hospital Manuel Ascencio Villarroel. On the eve of their departure, Ann Rhomberg, Solidarity Bridge’s executive director, reflected on mission trips as a chance for many to heal, connect, and find nourishment.
SB: This year you celebrated 10 years at Solidarity Bridge. How many mission trips have you been part of?
Ann: I think this will be number 12. My first was in 2007 when I departed for Coroico, Bolivia along with our founder, Juan Lorenzo Hinojosa. Like many first experiences, it laid deep seeds in my soul and I’m grateful for that foundation.
It really clarified for me that doing this work, and doing it there, was very right for me. It also happened to be in one of the most beautiful places in the Andes Mountains, the Yungas region of Bolivia, which is very rural, quiet, and sparsely populated.
What’s special about this upcoming trip?
We are returning to the small town of Punata, which is about 30 miles from the major city of Cochabamba. We have a great opportunity to reach and connect with a lot of medical professionals there, as well as a large catchment of patients who could use medical help. Last year was our first time there and that always comes with challenges: we needed to gain trust and find our legs. Thanks to committed partners, we were invited back, and this year we’ll have deeper engagement from our partners because we now know each other.
Why is Puente de Solidaridad, our partner in Bolivia, so important and how do they support the mission trip?
We embrace the leadership of our Bolivian partner organization, Puente de Solidaridad, as they are the mission’s eyes and ears on the ground. They provide lived experience and essential cultural context. They are like a mirror—if we have a program decision, we need to hear their perspective so we know how to move.
On the personal side, I’ve developed friendships with their staff. They are the first people I see when I get off the plane. There is lots of hugging and a feeling of family reunion. And that's in fact what it is: our human family is coming together again. I feel very reassured when I'm with them or when I'm working with them from our home office, because I have enormous trust and respect for who they are. I’ve learned much from them. I’m inspired by their creative and effective ways of working. I have fun with them and just talking about this gets me excited!
What does a successful mission trip look or feel like when it’s over?
We name success in different ways. Many times we start with our outcome in numbers of patients served in the clinics and the number of surgeries we were able to support. But I find myself going to other places with that question, in particular, reflecting on what else happens in terms of the transformational elements of mission. Things like our volunteer missioners looking at their own lives differently or the Bolivian medical community having a different view of the US medical community.
When you’re put in a different place you have the opportunity to look at things differently. It’s the being elsewhere that invites “elsewhere” thinking. This dimension of our work isn’t discussed as frequently, but it’s what really keeps me interested and engaged.
As we talk, we're surrounded by giant suitcases, packed with medical supplies, numbered, and ready to go out the door with missioners to Bolivia. Tell me about the suitcases.
One of the greatest obstacles Bolivian patients have to safe, affordable surgery is access to the equipment needed for their surgery. We receive donations in different ways and that includes corporate donors; it includes hospital partners here in Chicago who desire to donate needed supplies. Mostly we bring high-value surgical instruments and supplies, and this is because our partners have named this as their greatest need. And it’s an example of how we invite other stakeholders into the mission effort. Donors are very central to our impact.
Missioners each check two big suitcases of medical supplies, and bring only a small carry-on bag for themselves. What else do you ask of them?
We ask them to bring patience and openness, and to pack hunger for learning. We ask them to disconnect from what is familiar so that they can be open to what awaits them: new learnings, opportunities for growth, a new threshold for their own personal development. It really is about transformation—not only, “What work I will do when I'm there that I'm used to doing as a physician or a nurse?” but also, “How am I going to be different because of what I experience? How might I evolve as a person, in the light of or because of this experience?”
How can other Solidarity Bridge supporters get involved?
I hope this mission is a source of nourishment, a bridge that allows people to connect to the challenging global realities of wealth inequalities and cultural biases. Mission is about more than the teams of people who go and have a good experience. It’s an expression of how we are called to live in the world. I hope our supporters will stay connected through our blogs, visit our office in Evanston, pray for us, volunteer, come to our events, and donate. Being part of this bridge of solidarity takes many, many people—so grab on wherever you can!
The 2017 Multi-Specialty Mission Trip takes place September 29 to October 8, 2017, in Punata, Bolivia. The team is comprised of a general surgery operating team, and clinical physicians in cardiology, gynecology, pediatrics, family medicine, physical therapy and dermatology. The team will work alongside their Bolivian colleagues to provide care to hundreds of patients in need.
Ann Rhomberg has been on staff at Solidarity Bridge since 2007 and has served as Executive Director since 2012.
Interview and editing by Betsy Station, Communications and Development Associate at Solidarity Bridge.