Mercedito Martir Delbus, whom everyone calls Lilo, is a 25-year-old man saving lives in his community in the Dominican Republic.
Lilo, the son of a Haitian immigrant and a Dominican mother, grew up in the work camps that house the extremely underpaid sugarcane laborers. For the past few years, he's been going back, armed with much-needed vaccinations.
About 17,000 people live in the small Dominican town of Guaymate. The closest city, La Romana, is about 20 kilometers away, and not many people outside of the Dominican Republic could place the township on a map.
But for the 10,000 Haitian and Dominican residents Lilo says live and work in the town's work camps, called bateyes, the situation is often dire. With little running water and electricity that is faulty at best, life in worker camps is labor-intensive. Nearly all of those who live in the bateyes work on sugar cane plantations, and all the cheap labor comes with a significant cost. Food insecurity and poor healthcare are rampant in these communities, and Haitian immigrants and their descendants often face harsh discrimination. Simply put, there are few schools and little to no viable healthcare options.
Lilo is trying to fill that void. Working with the Spanish NGO 180 Grados, he has been able to create a vaccination program that has helped his community vaccinate a third of the population for illnesses such as cholera.
"In 2008, only 9 percent of the 4,600 surveyed were properly vaccinated," says Lilo, who taught himself English at home. "In medical terms, this is a scandal. So after we took the census, we -- a group of 45 youths and teenagers -- were taught to vaccinate by the hospital, and we went to the bateyes every two months."
They began putting on plays in the communities to familiarize locals with the idea of vaccination. After the initial success, Lilo -- with the support of 180 Grados -- now hopes to have 70 percent of the community vaccinated.
When asked what his ultimate goals are, Lilo says, "I'm working to manage the accounting of our NGO, working with a group of youth volunteers and coordinating our work with an epidemiology department of doctors to prevent illnesses like dengue, leptospirosis, tuberculosis and cholera."
Lilo, who was studying marketing at a university but had to drop out due to insufficient funds, understands the importance of having solutions come from within his own community, adding that he hopes to "be a professional and help my community develop itself -- with conscientious people who know their rights and duties. That way we can be capable to solve any problem by ourselves, together, while being open to the help and expertise of others."
And his message for the world?
"I'd like people to know that we are young people that want to make a change in our community. Our job is important because this is the first time our young people are working with the strength of our hearts and voluntarily developing and helping our community."
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that the organization vaccinates for dengue fever. There is no vaccination for dengue.