Within U of T, there are boundless opportunities for students to act on whatever passion they wish. Some students desire to help others in need, whether it be through academic assistance on campus, or across seas and borders to provide humanitarian services. UTM Global Brigades (UTMGB) helps connect students with the resources they need to fulfill the latter.

The UTMGB’s call to action is broadly described as “students empowering communities,” as noted on their official website. In more precise terms, the UTMGB, which represents a “chapter” within the Global Brigades as a whole, dispatches a handful of students and professionals to less developed communities in countries such as Honduras to provide a wide variety of services—UTM’s chapter focuses on medical and dental services.

Bismah Khalid, co-president of the UTMGB and a UTM undergraduate student, was eager to offer her insights into the organization and its inner workings. “Global Brigades is known as a holistic organization in that it doesn’t just focus on medical and dental; it has engineering, and it has water; it has microfinance, business. So, various different sectors that all come together in a holistic model,” she says. Different chapters internationally focus on different components of this model. For example, the University of Waterloo possesses a sector in engineering.

The Global Brigades are by no means exclusive in their selection process. At UTM, the only requirement for one to participate in a brigade is to be at least eighteen years old. No prior medical experience is required.

“Each student that’s on our brigade gets to participate in the different sections,” Khalid states. “For example, I got to do optometry and general consult, and others get to do whatever they choose.” The majority of each brigade is composed of students, with a select few practitioners such as physicians and nurses as additional company. 

Expanding on why UTM chose to focus on medical and dental, Khalid remarks that “what you open is basically what you think your campus is interested in. So, for example, we started in 2016 and our first two co-presidents and cofounders started medical and dental because they had just come back from the first medical brigade during August—so when they came back, they were very inspired to begin a new chapter at UTM, because it had never seen global brigades before.”

Throughout the academic year, UTMGB fundraises to support their brigade to Honduras every August.

Khalid elaborated further on what exactly occurs day to day during this Honduras brigade: “We choose three communities that Global Brigades chose for us […] We build clinics in each community we go into. And at these clinics, we’ll be serving, for example, general consults, basic triage, gynecology, we do optometry, which is one of the coolest stations, and my favourite.”

This presents itself as a fantastic opportunity for those considering public health as a career to observe and partake in relevant activities first hand. Khalid, for example, was able to watch a pap smear procedure performed by a trained gynecologist in person. 

Perhaps not obviously implied within the scope of medical and dental assistance is the concept of prevention before inception. The Honduras brigade last year, during a day dedicated to public health, “assisted seven different families in building eco-stoves, which are basically stoves that aren’t open flame—so, for example, if there’s pregnant women or children around, they are openly breathing in flames. So, what we did was build eco-stoves that are basically closed flame; like a chimney sort of deal, so that they’re not actually breathing in all the toxins that are coming out. So that’s public health, just making sure their daily hygiene is good.”

Although the UTMGB heads over to Honduras every summer, they are not the only brigades to do so. Brigades that arrive in the area during other times start up projects that are left to be completed by UTM as they come. This shows the effort that the organization invests as a whole into these communities. One such project involved the water sector of the Global Brigade. “They have a long-term project running for eight months, for example […] They were building a water pipeline for one community that used to travel long distances just to attain water, a basic resource. What we did was dig deep trenches that were above your knee’s height and lay a pipe down so that a small community could get water on a daily basis.”

Despite the sheer determination required to partake in a brigade, the result is well worth it. In regard to the implementation of the water pipeline, Khalid recalls that in spite of the physical exhaustion caused by the project, “We knew that day that an entire community of fifty families would be able to get water. And we could actually see their homes from where we started digging, so it was pretty good motivation to continue.”

All successful applicants to the brigade are brought to the same level of knowledge through education sessions that teach cultural differences within Honduras, as well as Spanish at a rudimentary level so that communication with the citizens of the country is possible.

The trip, taking about a week overall including travel time, will cost $1275 CAD. Included within this cost are living accommodations, food, and transportation. A compound collectively houses every member of the brigade for the duration of the stay, where one can relax and absorb the natural beauty of Honduras when not tending to their communities.

Applications are currently open for their yearly August trip to Honduras and will remain so until March 1st.