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Fisher Team Serves at the US-Mexico Border Over Spring Break

March 16, 2020

Like many of her classmates, Ashley Blaakman ’19 (Pharm.D.) chose a career in health care because of her passion for service. So it’s no surprise that a team of students and faculty from Fisher spent their spring break serving those in need at the border of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, volunteering with local human services organizations.

A team of students and faculty spent their spring break serving those in need at the border of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, volunteering with local human services organizations.

“As part of the Wegmans School of Pharmacy, we make a commitment to service. We are encouraged as students to become active members of our community,” said Blaakman. “I wanted to engage in this trip to make a difference and leave a positive impact on the lives of others.”

The trip was organized by the Wegmans School of Pharmacy, but included individuals from across campus and the Rochester community.  Along with Blaakman, the team included Dr. Christine Birnie, dean of the Wegmans School of Pharmacy; Dr. Alex DeLucenay, associate professor; Giovanni Magliocchetti ’20 (Pharm.D.), Lirika Emerllahu ’21 (Pharm.D.),  Jessica Kyte ’21 (Nursing),  Kendall Miller ’21 (Nursing), Megan Solimano ’20 (Nurse Practitioner), and Donika Emerllahu ’20, a biomedical sciences student at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  

The team volunteered at Siguiendo los Pasos de Jesus (SPJ - Following in the Footsteps of Jesus) in Juarez, Mexico and Annunciation House in El Paso, TX, throughout the week. Housed in El Paso, the team drove across the border each day into Juarez, Mexico to serve an impoverished community of individuals who have been transplanted to Juarez and are building a new life there.  With no support from the government and only meager-waged jobs available from American-owned factories established at the border, families are finding it difficult to make ends meet.  The team worked alongside SPJ to provide meals, deliver food to families, conduct children’s programs, and along with three local providers conducted a full day medical clinic for the people of that community. 

Emerllahu, in thinking about her own family’s footsteps to America, was drawn to the idea of using her medical background to serve others.

“I was not sure what to expect; however, my heart and mind were in sync in regards to this trip,” she said.

Students sort medication at a clinic.

The experience of working with underserved patients in the clinic was eye opening for Emerllahu. “As I shadowed one of the pediatric doctors, we came across a patient with an infection and needed treatment with antibiotics,” she explained, recalling she thought the doctor would simply write a prescription.  However, the doctor explained that the patient likely would not be able to afford a prescribed medication from an outside pharmacy and needed to be given something before leaving the clinic, if they we going to have anything. “I had to shift my mindset and remember where I was and I had to find the closest medication that would help the patient. We are trained to use first line agent medications, but the people in Juarez were relying on donated medications, some of which were expired. We had to find whatever we could for the patients because they were never going to be able to get anything else.”

Emerllahu said she would recommend others engage in service trips as they continue their studies. “We can hear stories of poverty and maybe even see pictures and videos; however, nothing can compare to real-life experience. As disturbing as a picture or a story, we do not carry it on our shoulders the way we do with real-life experience,” she said. “Only a real-life experience can be shared authentically and used to spread advocacy.”

Back in El Paso, Blaakman was among those who spent time at Annunciation House, which temporarily houses guests that have recently been released from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. The House is run by a combination of community volunteers, short-term and full-time, who provide hospitality to guests, providing hot meals, clothes, toiletries, a hot shower, and a safe place to sleep  Guests reside at Annunciation House for just a few days, as they transition to stay with family or friends throughout the United States, awaiting their court dates requesting asylum

While there, the team assisted guests with their health care needs, as well as organized medication and supplies in the clinic.  They also worked closely with the guests when first arriving, serving meals, helping them choose new clothes and supplies that had been donated to the center, and making care packages for mothers with newborns.

“The most impactful experience for me was seeing the emotion in the faces of the guests as they were welcomed into a safe place and provided with food, shelter, and clothing,” Blaakman said. “It was very inspiring to see the resilience and spirit of these people who have faced extreme hardships and continue to move forward despite their circumstances.”