It has become a ritual, of sorts. To escape the cold and have some fun, hordes of university students head south for spring break.
Greta Pucci, a junior premed student at the University of Pittsburgh, also took off for warmer climes earlier this month, but instead of spending her days partying in the sand, she spent nine days providing health care to the underserved in a jungle 25 minutes from the town of Tena, Ecuador.
Pucci, originally from New York City, traveled with MEDLIFE, a nonprofit organization that works to improve access to medicine, education and community development in poor communities. It sponsors volunteer trips to a variety of disadvantaged areas, including locations in Peru, Tanzania and Nicaragua.
Pucci, who is active at Pittsburgh’s Hillel Jewish University Center, spent her days in the jungles outside of Tena assisting at a mobile health clinic and helping to build a bathroom for preschoolers.
During her time there, Pucci not only helped the residents of Tena, but gained valuable experience in a range of health fields, including dentistry and gynecology.
While her accommodations were not lavish, “it was the best week of my life,” she said.
She could not drink anything but bottled water while in Ecuador, and she had to take cold showers. There also was no Internet connection.
“I was nervous to go,” admitted Pucci. “I knew it would be a great experience, but I’m not the outdoorsy type, and I knew there would be an outdoorsy component. But I was happy the entire time I was there.”
Pucci worked alongside about 20 other students from Pitt, as well as several students from other universities around the country, including the University of Georgia, the University of Virginia and Penn State.
The experience was eye opening, she said. Some of the homes of the residents have no bathrooms, with people having to bathe themselves in the overflow of the river. The schools have few books, and sometimes there is just one room to be used for two grades.
“It was different than anything I had ever seen,” Pucci said.
The clinic where she worked offered education to the community, including videos to teach about breast cancer and other health issues. Pucci helped with triage one day and another day observed a physician doing a Pap smear and a breast exam. She also helped instruct children in proper hand-washing and tooth-brushing techniques.
The experience solidified Pucci’s commitment to medicine.
“It made me realize I am interested in actually becoming a doctor,” she said.
Pucci was raised with solid Jewish values, she said, spending her summers growing up as a camper, then a counselor, at Ramah Day Camp in Nyack, N.Y. She helps to run a mentoring program at Hillel JUC, reaching out to freshmen to encourage them to get involved in Jewish life on campus. She is also a campus engagement intern, volunteering her time to make personal connections with other less involved Jews on campus and bringing them to Hillel JUC events.
She works on other volunteer projects at Hillel as well and has been a dedicated participant on Mitzvah Days.
“In Judaism, you’re always taught that you should be helping others,” Pucci said. “And I’ve always liked volunteering; I volunteer at Children’s Hospital every week. But I had never before helped communities in need. The experience was like all these volunteering things I’ve done in my Jewish life multiplied by 1,000.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.