Inspiring Women: Felisa Hilbert

Inspiring Women: Felisa Hilbert

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“I was introduced to the community of Tetzilquila, a little village in the mountains of Mixtla de Altamirano near Orizaba, Veracruz.  To get there we drove several hours until there was no road, and then we hiked a couple more to get there.  When we got to the top after all that walking, there was nothing there!  I asked where the community was… it was down, another 800 meters, with no clear path marked through giant rocks, vegetation and slippery soil.  Finally, it was there in the bottom that we encountered a community of 40 families who did not speak Spanish – they still spoke the pure language of the Aztecs, called Nahuatl.  Only a few adults spoke Spanish.  Once there I could see the hard conditions they lived in and the poor status of nutrition in both the children and the adults.  Their leader told me through an interpreter that they had to walk many miles to go to the closest little town to buy their needs, but then they had to walk even farther to get basic medical care.   I had the interpreter (who came with us) ask the mothers about their priorities and current problems.   Little by little their shyness disappeared and they started talking one by one.  It was an incredible experience to hear them talk about children getting sick, some diseases the suffered and their needs.  As they spoke more I found that I could understand a lot of what they were saying.  The interpreter was surprised and I was surprised; but I learned from the experience that motherhood is universal and did not need a language to communicate.  I fell in love with this community and knew I found a place to start a clinic.” – Felisa Hilbert

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In honor of World Immunization Week I interviewed my friend Felisa Hilbert whom I met through our work with the United Nations Foundation Shot@Life campaign advocating for global vaccines. Through Shot@Life I have met some of the most incredible people, doing the most amazing things. Her name says it all.  Felisa lights up a room with her enthusiasm and treats everyone she meets with warmth. She has also taken it upon herself to build health clinics in the most far-flung, hard to reach rural villages in Mexico. Through her work she has not only saved lives, but transformed communities. Felisa is another great example of how much one woman can achieve when she puts her mind to it! Among other things, these clinics provide the children of these villages access to life saving vaccines that they otherwise would not have had. Nearly 1/3rd of childhood deaths under the age of five around the world are due to vaccine preventable diseases.  Vaccines save lives. 

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Elizabeth: What was your background before becoming a Shot@Life Champion and builder of rural health clinics?

Felisa: From the moment I moved to US I always volunteered in different organizations wherever we lived.  When my husband (Dan) was transferred with the Army to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and my children started elementary school I volunteered in the local schools for 4 years and later became an ELL bilingual Assistant.  As such, I taught, interpreted and translated for students from many countries in ELL Classes (ELL =English Language Learners) in the Broken Arrow Public Schools for a total of 19 years.

 

E:  What inspired you to become a Shot@Life Champion?

F: I was an RN working on a post-grad psychiatry specialty before I married my husband In Mexico.  During my 4 years of nursing and after I graduated as an RN I volunteered all my free time and participated in Preventive Medicine campaigns.  In these campaigns I worked with teams of doctors and nurses in many vaccines campaigns in impoverish communities.  We also provided and taught basic medical care needed in these remote communities located far away from established medical clinics and basic community health services.  It was there that my love for global health causes was born.  I attended and saw many cases where pain and suffering could be alleviated with basic medical care and immunizations. There were also many sad stories where I felt powerless to save the lives of many precious children.  In early 2011 I was selected by Parenting Magazine for the Mom Congress in Washington DC as a delegate representative from the State of Oklahoma.  This gave me a wonderful opportunity to share my passion for the children’s issues, allowing me to advocate for them in my state at a different level with a bigger audience.  It was there in DC that Mom Congress selected 5 of us to attend the first Shot@life Summit on January 30, 2012 to introduce the new United Nations Foundation Shot@Life campaign.  From the beginning of that summit I knew that this was exactly what I had been looking for, for many years.  Simply put: I believe in the cause!  I saw firsthand what happens to children in poor countries; I already knew that vaccines save lives…  and my nursing background was perfect!

   

E: What made you decide to initiate these clinics in rural Mexico?

F: My experiences as a nurse and 20 months of being a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints in many rural areas in different states of Mexico made me promise myself and want to do more than just humanitarian missions with needed items during summer or spring breaks.  It was not enough to save lives, especially in the many remote and far-away villages.  Children and families were still getting sick and didn’t have access to basic medical care.  I am a woman of faith, so I pray for guidance and a way to do more – and with my nursing background, building a little health clinic was the answer.  While in Washington DC for a conference in the summer 2014, I offered to interpret for some government officials in the delegation from Mexico when I saw their difficulties with the English language.  Later they saw me speak about global health, education and poverty then afterward; we exchanged cards and contact information.  Several months later I received an invitation to go to Mexico and train some of their professionals about global issues, poverty and how to empower the new generation.  I accepted and conducted training seminars in 3 states, one of them in my home state of Veracruz.  As part of the training I asked that we go to the field together where they could show me their nearby communities in need of help.  It was there that I was introduced to the community of Tetzilquila, a little village in the mountains of Mixtla de Altamirano near Orizaba, Veracruz.  To get there we drove several hours until there was no road, and then we hiked a couple more to get there.  When we got to the top after all that walking, there was nothing there!  I asked where the community was… it was down, another 800 meters, with no clear path marked through giant rocks, vegetation and slippery soil.  Finally, it was there in the bottom that we encountered a community of 40 families who did not speak Spanish – they still spoke the pure language of the Aztecs, called Nahuatl.  Only a few adults spoke Spanish.  Once there I could see the hard conditions they lived in and the poor status of nutrition in both the children and the adults.  Their leader told me through an interpreter that they had to walk many miles to go to the closest little town to buy their needs, but then they had to walk even farther to get basic medical care.   I had the interpreter (who came with us) ask the mothers about their priorities and current problems.   Little by little their shyness disappeared and they started talking one by one.  It was an incredible experience to hear them talk about children getting sick, some diseases the suffered and their needs.  As they spoke more I found that I could understand a lot of what they were saying.  The interpreter was surprised and I was surprised; but I learned from the experience that motherhood is universal and did not need a language to communicate.  I fell in love with this community and knew I found a place to start a clinic. 

 

E:  Did you ever think it was not possible?

F: Not ever!  I am an eternal optimist!  I knew that it would require a lot of sacrifices, but if I worked very hard – and with and through these people – it would happen.  In the past I had done other projects, so I was prepared to work very hard to make it happen.  To fund the construction of the clinic I went into an intense fund-raising mode for the following year.  During this time I sold my own jewelry, unneeded possessions of value around the house, did a yard sale and a restaurant night fundraiser, sold 500 Mexican tamales.  Also 3 years ago I started to make Jewelry for sale and put my Facebook page Jewelry with a Purpose with all the profits going to the clinic and Shot@life or African school children.

 

E: Were you ever in fear of your safety?

F: No, I have traveled and served in many communities all of my adult life and I have only found kindness, gratefulness and love from the people I have served and loved.  The Tetzilquila community adopted me in their community and I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve them.

 

E: How have the communities responded to the clinics?

F: The response was incredible from the beginning.  My personal goal is always to empower communities I serve and to involve them as part of the planning and solutions by making them partners in the effort.  Their response has been very enthusiastic through the meetings and planning, especially as they realize their integral role in the decision-making process.  They signed a commitment to provide the actual labor once I raised the funds necessary to purchase the construction materials.  In so doing the have been 100% partners in the effort – and their pride shows!  For example, it was like a community holiday when the material arrived and everyone showed up to hand-carry everything in to the construction site.  Remember my description of the trip there… yes, they enthusiastically and almost joyfully hand-carried everything in! It was even a more joyful community celebration when we finally inaugurated the clinic.  Now other communities had heard about it and are eager to do the same thing for themselves.  Right now I have 2 others in the initial planning stages for their own clinics.  This is so exciting!

 

E:  What changes have you seen as a result?

F: Besides the enthusiasm we’ve witnessed in seeing the community come together, there has been the obvious benefit to their healthcare.  On September the 1st, 2016 we attended 120 patients the first day of operation.  The medical team and I gave vaccines shots for measles & polio, fluids & parasite purges and give consult to adults.  Since that day a doctor and nurse (or student nurses) come to the clinic to attend patients on a weekly basis.  It has been interesting to watch the community become self-actuating and empowered in other areas of need.  They are learning to advocate for themselves with area governments and now we are working to open a road through the mountains; with the help of World Vision Mexico they have constructed 20 tanks to collect rain water; and with the help of the local National Action Party (PAN) has constructed several new tiny one room concrete homes. 

 

E:  How do you see them becoming sustainable?

F: In watching them in the other projects I just described, one can see how they are taking ownership of their situation & its solutions – and are learning that they have rights and can use them.  We are teaching them everything that they need to know to be a healthy community.  They knew from the beginning that this was their clinic and that they will have to take care of it.

 

E: Where do your supplies come from?

F: From all the fundraisers I mentioned above: my “Jewelry with a Purpose” sales, and from individual donations from friends and family.  Donations and ideas are always welcome!

 

E:  Have you partnered with any other organizations?

F: I have partnered with the Veracruz regional leaders of World Vision Mexico.  This project started because of the training seminars I taught for them.  Since then they have been a key part of supervising the work when I have been absent, providing interpreters and a driver to accompany me during my visits.  In my end I have trained all their personnel about how to help communities survive, social promotion, the language of communication with people of different cultures, social empowerment, etc.

 

E:  What’s next for you?

F: I’m still putting the finishing touches on the Tetzilquila clinic.  I still need some items like a scale, 20 chairs and an exam room.  This February (2017), the community of Xometla opened their own clinic based on what we did in Tetzilquila.  They also need all the furniture and basic furnishings.  These communities are amazing!  I will be busy working and finding resources to keep helping and empowering them and other communities – and make sure that their children their will go to school and grow healthy and free of childhood diseases.

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Felisa you are such an inspiration to me! 

Follow Felisa on Twitter  and Instagram to keep up with her projects.

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