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A Journey of a Lifetime: Spotlight on Katia Espalter

Text Author: Sam McMahon
Photographer: Soyref Polina, Kamil Aysin

At Health & Help, our clinic volunteers usually make their decision to volunteer in service of others. They volunteer to change the lives of the communities we serve in our health clinics in Guatemala and Nicaragua.


Like us, they’re passionate in their belief that every person, regardless of their ability to pay, should have access to life-saving health care.
Through the course of volunteering, however, they begin to realise the remarkable and life-changing impact the experience has on them personally. This was certainly the case for Nicaraguan Country Director, Katia Espalter.

This month we put the spotlight on Katia Espalter who recently completed a two-year assignment as the Director of Health Clinic in Nicaragua where, not only did she change lives, she had the journey of a lifetime.

In 2018, Katia was living and working in Antigua Guatemala and first heard about Health and Help while perusing a volunteering website, Idealist.  There she saw opportunities to volunteer at the H&H Guatemala clinic but, at that time, it was too far for her to travel.

About two years later, in 2020, she moved  to Nicaragua and discovered that H&H were building a second clinic and looking for volunteers. Katia originally applied for an administrator position which had just been filled but we weren’t going to let her go that quickly! Indeed, we were so impressed with Katia’s experience, we invited her to assist with other important aspects involved in setting up and registering the clinic and Katia was happy to help in anyway she could.

 

“I became a hybrid volunteer, doing a lot of work with the legal team and submitting documents to the municipality and the Ministry of Health. I was also working online to map potential donors and giving support to the volunteers at the clinic.”

 

In January 2020, Katia visited the clinic site and met the architects in charge of the clinic construction. As the building was not finished, she made a quick inspection to see if it met the Ministry of Health requirements and gave invaluable recommendations, ultimately allowing us to meet the requirements faster. The following month, Katia met with Health & Help founders, Victoria and Karina to discuss issues with the land and to compile the documents required for the clinic registration.

While keen to be up and running and part of the local community, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the clinic went into forced closure and Katia was tasked with finding the right person to take care of the clinic and the community relationships during that period.

Fast-forward to late 2020 and Katia successfully applied for the newly created role of Nicaragua Country Director and began a full-time role with Health & Help.

We interviewed Katia about her experience:

Q: Tell us why you decided to transition from volunteering to becoming a full-time director?

 I saw the H&H organisation was new and needed someone full-time for many important tasks, especially for adapting to the new circumstances with Covid-19 and Nicaraguan regulations. I’d had a lot of experience working with NGOs and in the health sector so it felt like a good fit and logical to embark on this new adventure”

 Q: So how different was the experience of volunteering to full-time work with Health & Help? Did you experience any moments when you wished you didn’t get into this?

 “My volunteering was very flexible, I was able to choose the days and times convenient for me. When I started my full-time job, the responsibilities and working time increased exponentially that I found myself working after hours, on the weekends, and holidays. I was able to create my own schedule but I was constantly working and solving issues outside of hours. Yes, there were times when I wished I had a different job, especially when working to comply with the current laws and regulations of the country.”

Her first tasks were to register our organisation, Health & Help, as a Foreign Agent according to a new law in Nicaragua and find local volunteers to re-open the clinic. Simultaneously, she prepared the clinic registration to obtain the necessary sanitation  license, restocked with new medicines and created multiple operational processes. Clearly, it was a big undertaking. 

Q: What was your typical day like as a Director?

 “My job was to start, shape and run a medical project with a tight budget and in difficult socio-political circumstances. There is no typical day for the Director of the Nicaragua project. The work varies a lot, from waking up to video calls with the team or traveling for hours to reach the clinic in the daylight, to making cues in the bank or a government office for some errands. Approximately 30% of the taskscan be done remotely from the computer, while the rest is work that requires your physical presence around the country.”

The physical demands were more than Katia expected but she was able to adjust even if,  at times, she did not find it easy. Nevertheless, she was always up for the challenge to personally find solutions to difficult situations and take on unusual tasks such as fixing broken pipes and installing a new water pump down for their well.

Katia loves gardening and was able to plant and tend to many trees and flowering plants in her community. One of the things she loved most about her experience, however, was taking a lead role in the launch preparations. 

“It gave me new experiences that I will never forget, especially the opportunity to design and implement processes and programs. I met so many amazing people and saw how our existence in this community can bring about positive change. Not only did I witness, first-hand, the positive health outcomes of our work. I felt privileged to be a part of the newly flourishing international community in the middle of the jungle!”

 Q: We have written a lot about the community in La Salvia, but it would be great to hear a bit more about your own perspective.

 “La Salvia is a new and small community in the northwest shore of the Cosigüina peninsula in Chinandega, Nicaragua. It was founded by people who came from other parts of Chinandega looking for a place to dock their boats and fish after the Mitch hurricane in 1998 reshaped this territory. Being so new, small and rural, it lacked basic services that we know as essential for modern life: potable water, electricity, schools, health centers, public transportation, and paved roads. But this is very common in the countryside of Nicaragua and people are resilient enough and manage to make a living and grow their families despite these conditions. When I started working here, I didn’t know there were many communities up the mountains of the Cosigüina Natural Reserve, but I was happy to know that we would be able to provide medical care for them as well.”

Q: Can you describe the impact of the clinic that you have observed in your time there?

 “It’s difficult to accurately answer this question without properly measuring our work, but for me it’s noteworthy that people are more confident to attend to their health concerns on time because our clinic is close to them and we give a quality and pleasant experience. People often tell us how happy they are that our team is very attentive and friendly, and that our services are free or affordable because they can give a monetary contribution that is within their capacity.”

 Q: What has been the biggest highlight(s), or perhaps the most memorable moment(s)?

 There are many highlights, like obtaining the different permits for operating and being able to provide medical care for people who would otherwise struggle to obtain it. Some of the most memorable moments are the medical brigades to other communities and the leisure times I spent with our volunteers, patients and neighbours where we swam, hiked, played games, laughed and ate meals together.”

 Q: For anyone thinking about volunteering, what advice would you give?

 “Volunteering is for everyone. It is putting your heart into something you believe in and your skills at service. It is also about exposing yourself to new experiences and perspectives. I will always recommend volunteering as a way to be engaged with life and gain more knowledge.”

According  to Katia, and given the choice, she would ‘most-certainly’ go back in time and take the position again. This time, however, with reliable transport to improve the quality of the life and work of the H&H volunteers and staff.

As Katia hands the baton to Anna Melnikova as the new director of Health and Help Nicaragua, her most important advice is to make sure to build strong, lasting relationships along the way, especially with the communities we strive to serve. Also, as with any demanding position, it’s important to find some time for yourself and  to make sure to separate personal and professional time so that  motivation and energy is sustainable.

Katia’s wish for the future is that Health & Help continues to grow in order to provide more valuable solutions. Click the links if you have the same wish as Katia and would like to learn more about volunteering or supporting our projects.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank Katia Espalter for her service of two years at Health & Help. Katia has had a significant impact on the community and we are so proud of her! 

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