Project Helping Hands (PHH) is a not-for-profit humanitarian organization that sends teams of volunteers on medical missions to developing countries. These volunteers bring vital medical care to local residents and education to health care providers. The organization was founded by Jeff Solheim, MSN, RN-BC, CEN, CFRN, FAEN, in 1994. Since then, PHH has sent hundreds of volunteers to help the poorest populations in the most remote areas of the world.
“The key to the teams’ success has been their commitment to improving the lives of the people they meet,” says Jeff. He explains the organization’s mission this way: “We provide quality health care where there is none and develop locally operating clinics in these locations. We also strive to provide an unforgettable personal growth opportunity for the volunteer.”
To Treat and Educate
In a relatively short time span, the organization has grown from one that Jeff ran alone on his days off, recruiting volunteers and donations mostly through word of mouth, to one that has become significant in medical mission work. Since the organization was established, PHH volunteers have treated more than 50,000 patients and provided preventive health education and training for thousands of local health care providers, enabling them to deliver comprehensive, community-based care in even the poorest areas. Volunteers have collected and distributed more than $2.2 billion in medical and pharmaceutical supplies. Last year alone, Project Helping Hands sponsored 164 volunteers that treated more than 18,000 patients. This year, the organization anticipates sending 220 volunteers to treat 22,000 patients in eight countries.
Each trip is unique, but volunteers typically conduct educational sessions for local health care providers on a variety of topics that include dental care, safe sexual practices, nutrition, water hygiene, and emergency triage among others. Volunteers may be medical or nonmedical personnel. Each devotes two weeks to the trip. The organization’s funding comes from these volunteers who pay for the cost of their trip and from donations. Medicines, supplies, and equipment are donated by team members, private individuals, and organizations.
“It is encouraging to see when we return year after year that people have implemented the preventive health measures that we taught them,” Jeff says. “When we teach a community how to build a latrine to decrease the spread of disease and we return the next year to find a latrine, we know we have succeeded.”
Learning From Each Other
Jeff believes that learning from each other has been a key to the organization’s success. “We begin by understanding that we all have a great deal to learn from each other,” he explains. For PHH, it’s not just about the latest diagnostic techniques or training protocols but about valuing a genuine partnership, shared commitment, and coordination with the leadership in each country so volunteers can learn about each community’s resources and specific needs.
In addition to fulfilling the volunteers’ desire to provide humanitarian medical care, PHH also caters to their sense of adventure. Team members may travel by land or boat to remote locations and experience rugged conditions that include hiking, sleeping on floors, and living without electricity or running water. In addition, they have the opportunity to explore parts of the world that very few people see and to experience the culture in a way that is not possible as a tourist. Trips are rated from “mild” to “extreme,” depending on the level of adventurousness required and lack of amenities likely in each location.
PHH Volunteers in Bolivia
One of the organization’s most recent trips was to Bolivia in March. For Cindy Tryniszewski, RN, MSN, this was her second trip to Bolivia with PHH. Cindy is the Executive Director of Clinical eLearning for Elsevier/MC Strategies and a member of the Project Helping Hands Board of Directors.
Cindy first learned about PHH from Jeff. The two became acquainted when he authored some online products for Elsevier. In 2011, Jeff asked Cindy to serve on the PHH board. Since then, she has learned more about the organization and the extraordinary efforts made by its volunteers, which has only strengthened her commitment to PHH and its work.
About the same time that she joined the board, Jeff asked Cindy if she would be part of an educational trip to Bolivia, which led to Cindy’s first trip to Bolivia where she worked with other volunteers to conduct a needs assessment in La Paz and Cochabamba. Their findings laid the groundwork for a five-year plan to bring nursing and physician continuing education to the country. Her return to Bolivia this past March represented the first step in implementing the plan. “Participating in both of these trips was appealing because I was able to be part of the assessment, planning, and implementation and to witness immediate small measures of success,” she says. During the trip in March, PHH volunteers provided education on adult trauma assessment, bedside ultrasound use in the emergency department, diabetic emergency care, difficult airway management, disaster plan setup, disaster triage, search and rescue techniques, extremity and pelvic trauma, pediatric cardiac arrest, pediatric assessment of the critical and trauma patient, tactical care, and toxicologic emergencies—all topics that had been identified in the assessment. A total of 373 participants were educated. The next trip to Bolivia is scheduled to depart in July.
The trips are meaningful and memorable for those who participate. Cindy describes her experience as educational, highly rewarding, and culturally enriching. “I learned that no matter how big or small the effort, one person can make a difference,” she says. In the end, she felt that she received more than she gave. “I hadn’t expected that the Bolivian people would be so gracious and hospitable and so appreciative of our efforts,” she says. “It also bestows a deeper appreciation for the opportunities and resources that we have available in the U.S.”
More information about Project Helping Hands, along with opportunities to volunteer, is available by visiting the Project Helping Hands website.