Medical Volunteer in Haiti
"Until I learned about Haiti I felt as though my childhood was the worst it could be, that there was nothing worse."
Like many young social entrepreneurs, Wilfredo Perez Jr. learned about his cause in a book, but he didn't need to read about the harsh realities of the world in order to really know them. Wilfredo, or Will, spent much of his young life homeless, attending many schools before becoming the first in his family to graduate high school.
Nevertheless, at 17 years old, Will read about the struggles of Haiti in Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer" and became "obsessed" with the issue of healthcare in Haiti.
Will spent his undergraduate years at Brown University, educating himself on Haiti, politics and medicine. The day after his 2008 graduation, Will deferred enrollment in Brown Medical School, and was on a plane to Haiti with $25,000 of grant money and the lofty goal of tackling tuberculosis.
Will learned his first lesson in foreign aid soon after he arrived in a small village prepared to execute his tuberculosis prevention program. Today Will calls the program "a complete flop" and admits that it did not serve the most pressing needs of the village -- a village that faced daily battles with scabies, ringworm, fungal infections and parasites.
"I couldn't create this program from my dorm room at Brown an expect it to work in rural Haiti," Will acknowledged.
Undeterred, he went door to door to figure out what issue he should tackle. The answer? Bedbugs. Will set his sights on this less-than-glamorous foe and managed to eradicate the village of bedbugs and ringworm during his first year there.
Ridding the village of these "torturous" bugs earned Will the respect of the villagers but led to new challenges. "The program was hugely successful, but I had empty pockets. I could either pack up and leave or fundraise. I had never fundraised," Will said.
Through his blog, Will proved to be an adept online fundraiser, raising over $200,000 to put toward his new goal of training community health workers to create systemic change in the healthcare system. "I realized I couldn't do the work on my own, so I began to recruit Haitian youth," Will said.
He established a training program to teach orphans how to administer CPR, oral hygiene, disease prevention and medicine distribution. With this fleet of mobile medical workers, he launched 14 programs with huge success. Malaria rates in his village were down 60%.
After his year in Haiti, Will returned to Brown Medical School. Months later, he recalls struggling through the "hardest section of med school, the neurology block" when the 2010 earthquake hit, devastating his village and destroying the healthcare infrastructure.
"I couldn't focus because I had friends in Haiti who were dead," he said. "All the work I had done for three year had ended in two hours. I was embarrassed to go back to Haiti."
Will already knew of the problem the international community would confront with the outbreak of the recent cholera epidemic: the swelling populations in rural Haiti.
"Everyone was evacuated from Port-au-Prince, which held half the population of the country. All of these villages are doubling and quadrupling in size. You evacuate the city and overwhelm the villages."
After the earthquake, Will waited to return to continue his work, knowing that his presence directly after the disaster would only burden the country, which was overflowing with aid. When he did return, he was amazed at the disorder despite the many NGOs on the ground.
"You got off that plane and you just felt chaos. I could not believe that people were surviving without order."
Will's hope was renewed in the summer of 2010 when he was awarded $10,000 from VH1 and DoSomething.org to expand his healthcare program. He has since teamed up with the non-profit, Hope for Haiti, to identify underserved communities as candidates for program expansion.
To date, Will has provided 2,000 Haitian children with health education and his program continues to grow.
"I'm studying for my next exam and they're training 24 public health workers. It's really an incredible thing it's been able to get to a point where it's all happening and I don't have to be there."
Stateside, Will balances a full medical school courseload, aggressive fundraising goals, planning for his long-term return to Haiti and a packed speaking schedule.
"In med school we don't have time for anything, including sleep, but you make time," he said. "I feel driven. Haiti has been the only thing I live for."
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