Alumni Spotlight: Paola Casillas

Paola Casillas volunteered in Costa Rica from July 16-July 28 2011. She lives in Tucson, Arizona and is from Gilbert, Arizona. Paola, 20, is a full-time, pre-medical student at the University of Arizona.

Why did you decide to volunteer with VIDA in Costa Rica?

Paola: I decided to volunteer abroad with VIDA in Costa Rica because a friend told me she was going on the trip. It sounded like a blast and a really good learning experience. I had been looking for ways to volunteer in the medical field abroad, and this trip was perfect. I researched VIDA and loved it.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Paola: The first day we got there, we got picked by VIDA staff and went to a shopping mall all together to exchange cash and have lunch. That night was just a meet and greet at the Best Western in San Jose. We talked about what we expected from the trip and what we wanted to get from it. We also had a survival Spanish lesson from a very nice Spanish teacher. The next day was a full day of orientation.

The following day, we traveled by private charter bus to a small town on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. All the drives we took were amazing because we drove through tiny towns in the middle of the rainforest. The views were spectacular. In Quepos, we went to a nice dinner and went dancing and explored the town. The following day was ziplining!! We then traveled to Puerto Jimenez where we had clinics the following 3 days. The clinics would be from about 8am to 4pm. We would unload the truck, set up, treat patients, have a home-cooked traditional lunch, and clean up. One night we got salsa lessons from one of the interpreters who was a fantastic dancer.

After the clinics, the entire team of staff and volunteers would have dinner at cool restaurants. One restaurant was on a beach. Another had a soccer field we played a game of soccer in. Others had dance floors we would practice our salsa on. Some of my favorite memories are from these restaurants we would go to. We had one day without a clinic where we traveled to Panama to have the last 3 clinics. After 6 full clinic days, us volunteers and our team leaders traveled to Bocas del Toro, Panama, little scattered islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama. We spent 2 and a half days here just for recreation. Our hotel was right on the water. We took a boat ride to a beautiful pristine beach filled with starfish. We snorkeled and saw tons of dolphins. On the last day, we traveled back to San Jose, celebrated one last night, and flew back home the next day.

Medical volunteers in Costa Rica

What made this experience unique and special?

Paola: What made this experience unique and special is that I made a lot of amazing connections with the people I met. I haven't forgotten the names and faces of some of the patients I treated. There was a little girl, Monica, who was so sweet and gave me her earrings off her own ears as a gift of thanks. When she left she hugged me and gave me huge kisses on my cheek. Another patient, María, was an indigenous woman in Panama. She was so sweet and grateful and had such a difficult life. She never once stopped smiling and was just such a happy woman.

I became really close with some of the staff and volunteers. I still keep in touch with them and I am actually visiting one of them this summer. I also became really close with one of the volunteers who lives across the country. We talk often and will be visiting each other soon. I have never had so much fun working and traveling. I met the most amazing people, experienced things I had never experienced, and had the time of my life. I was very sad to leave.

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

Paola: Professionally, this trip has given me very valuable experience. Volunteering directly with doctors and having so much hands on experience made me realized I am on the right career path. This trip is a great thing to talk about in my interviews and applications for medical school.

Personally, this trip opened up my eyes to the rest of the world. I had been out of the country before, but not in this way. I was completely immersed in the culture. It made me realize there is so much to see in the world and so much ahead of me. I returned home from this trip feeling so happy, motivated, and excited for life.