Community is a verb

November 20, 2015

Alumni find community in places as far away from home as you can get

By Nicole Farn (Originally appeared in M Alumni News -- Winter 2015/16)

As I witness the people of San Carlos, Nicaragua rallying around the water well being drilled in the heart of their village, made possible by a group of people thousands of miles away, something occurs to me. Although “community” describes a place, a group or even a feeling, I am convinced that it must also be a verb. An action-word. And this must be what it looks like, feels like and sounds like to engage in it. And I don’t want to stop. 

I started the For the Well of It campaign to make a tangible difference through the provision of a basic need that we all too often take for granted—water. After having my own eyes opened and my own heart touched in remote corners of the world, I wanted to give others the opportunity to touch the lives, to change the lives, of people a world away. People who I have met through my involvement with the Edmonton-based organization Change for Children. People whose homes I have visited in places that I have travelled and whose struggles I know to be all too real. People from whom I have collected contaminated water, the only source available, and whose stories I am committed to share.

Two years earlier, witnessing for the first time the work of Change for Children, I met Jose. “Water is life,” he said, with ease and sincerity. Jose hadn’t meant the proclamation to be insightful. It was merely a declaration of truth. It was no more than a statement of fact coming from a man who, until the year before, had never had the convenience, the advantages or the luxury of a clean, safe, reliable drinking water source. In the small community of La Esperanza in northern Nicaragua, none of its residents had.

Nor were they about to take it for granted. It is here that I met community members who had contributed labour to the water well project, empowered women who formed the newly established Water Committee to ensure its long-term sustainability, and residents accountable to one another to maintain a system that brings improved health to their families. I had never before seen a community actively engaged in this way, and I knew I wanted to help bring this “life” to another community.

With the belief that small can be big and with the conviction that the power of a united group can drive change, I invited friends, families, classmates and co-workers to do something relatively small—contribute a dollar a day for a year—to collectively bring a sustainable water solution to an entire community going without. 

One year later, I stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of San Carlos, my hands clasped tightly in those of Angela, a woman I’ve only just met. We watch water flowing into her community for the first time. It is a powerful thing to witness one small community of people impact another, to realize that the considered toss of a single stone can indeed start a ripple, and I return home knowing that I will do it again. Another community. Another ripple. For the well of it. 

A stone’s throw

“It’s kind of like a mosaic. No one piece is more important than the others. All the parts come together to make this one really unique body,” says Cassidy Galan, MacEwan University nursing alumna.

Cassidy’s definition of community rolls off her tongue easily and without hesitation, and I hear the passion in her voice. The commitment to connect. She understands that it is indeed a commitment. In the few years that she has been working with the community of Darbonne, Haiti to establish a health centre, she has learned that while physical progress may seem slow, the relationships at the heart of sustainable international projects take time to build. 

Cassidy’s first exposure to international community was in 2012. Travelling with her church community, she visited Darbonne where, working with a local partner, they had helped fund the construction of a church and school post-earthquake. The resiliency of the people who lost everything and the unabashed happiness of the children who attended the day camps she organized should have left her feeling hopeful and optimistic, and they did, but she also felt dissatisfied. Despite the progress being made to rebuild this community of new hope, new beginnings and now new friends, it was still without a critical community component—a health centre.

Armed with skills learned in her community clinical placement as part of the nursing program at MacEwan, Cassidy and a small team returned to Darbonne in 2014 to complete a full needs assessment, to ask questions and to let the community provide the answers.

Such community engagement is what Cynthia Puddu, an assistant professor in MacEwan’s Bachelor of Physical Education Transfer program, encourages with her students. Cynthia developed
PERL 300, a cross-cultural wellness service learning course that takes students to Ecuador to study community health. “Find out community needs. Then ask how you can use your strengths and talents to work with that community.”

She hopes that travelling abroad will help more students understand that community can be wherever you are. “Whether it’s local or international, it’s really about the connections that you make with people.”

Cassidy is connecting. “We want the community to learn and grow. They have all the skills and just need help executing their vision,” she says. In the short term, a referral system—a room with a nurse, a table and a phone—would go a long way in bringing the community comfort. And while on each of her visits she has brought a small health promotion project to keep the community engaged, she is using the confidence gained in her Leadership in Nursing placement to draft a project proposal to work towards a more long-term solution for Darbonne—a community-run health centre.

Looking ahead, she wants to work with MacEwan to foster global community by encouraging the establishment of an international placement option in the nursing program. She is hopeful that a new
health centre in Darbonne will one day host MacEwan students—that this project will continue to ripple on.

“It’s changed my life. I have tangibly applied what I learned in MacEwan’s program in Haiti, and it’s also changed how I see health care in Canada. This,” she says, holding tightly to her papers, her
vision, her passion project, “this is why I’m in nursing.”

Community is a state of being

Former MacEwan student Ravi Jaipaul thrives on community. Whether he’s building it, sharing it or working to be accepted into it, Ravi has spent the last 10 years cultivating community around the
globe. For Ravi, community is a state of being.

“To me, community is a group of individuals who feel a sense of belonging, whether it be in mind or geography or whether it be in a shared human experience.”

Ravi has shared the human experience in some of the most seemingly inhuman places. Last year, Ravi spent nine months in war-torn South Sudan with Doctors Without Borders. From performing field nurse duties in the pediatric room to running a satellite hospital, Ravi immersed himself in a community that tested him to his core. He was called on to work within earshot of gunfire, spend nights in a bunker covering his head and, above all, offer hope amid so much hopelessness.

And he was there to answer that call. “You gain a toolkit as you go through life. Your toolkit grows if you allow yourself the time and the skill. You could just sit back and be comfortable, but you can also push yourself a little bit further.” 

Although Ravi’s toolkit includes literally building communities in Peru, developing and teaching nursing curriculum in Rwanda and completing his dissertation for his master’s degree in public health in Thailand, he is also proof that one need not leave the country to foster a sense of international community. 

In his final year as a MacEwan student, Ravi found his own community of people in “a group of random, eclectic, like-minded individuals who were all passionate about the world and who just happened to be at the same place at the same time”—2007 to 2008, a time of unspeakable suffering in Darfur. 

Together, his community of friends organized the Walk for Darfur to raise awareness by walking from Calgary to Edmonton, simulating the distance covered by the refugees. Along the way, they inspired thousands of others to join the movement. “That was community,” Ravi reflects, as if assigning this particular definition to the experience for the first time. “We didn’t know these people, but everyone felt connected to something greater than themselves.” 

That feeling drives Ravi to encourage others to “find the thing you care about.” To expand your definition of community. “Test who you are. Where does your soul bend and where does your soul break? How do you live your life on that line before you get to the broken part, but where you’re still feeling something very impactful?” That is the place from which to toss your stone into the water. To create your ripple. 

I believe in community. But my definition of community is constantly being refined. Broadened. Expanded. By my definition, community is also a verb.

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