The Medtronic Foundation partners with organizations that support communities to rebuild and thrive even after our volunteers return home.
The journey was long, including multiple flights and a 2.5-hour drive across mountains and along a winding road to reach the town of Salinas del Marqués, Mexico. As they stepped out into the 90-plus degree heat and immediately began to sweat, the six Medtronic employees who came from across North America knew they weren’t there for a vacation or a normal work trip.
They came to volunteer in one of the most underserved regions of Mexico that had been devastated by an 8.2 magnitude earthquake just two years earlier. The group would join a global, volunteer-powered disaster relief organization helping the local community rebuild. The team was assigned to help build a new elementary school for the town.
He could see the ground moving in waves under the light of the full moon. As the earth shook, it sounded like it was talking.
“I was sleeping in my hammock when I heard the rumble,” said Felipe Reyes Olivera, a fisherman, as he remembered the 8.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Salinas del Marques, Mexico in September 2017. At nearly midnight, the ground began to shake and lights went out as the city lost electricity. Earthquakes are a regular occurrence here, but he knew this one was different.
“I ran to wake up my wife and daughter, and I told them to stand up because everything was moving,” said Felipe. Closets and cabinets opened and their belongings began tumbling out. They grabbed what few items they could and rolled them in a sheet to make a suitcase. As they went out into the streets, they saw fallen electric lines sparking on the ground.
“I heard people yelling, ‘Run, it’s a tsunami. Run for your lives.’ We didn’t have time to think, we just headed for the hills,” he said. People in pickups drove by, scooping up as many people as they could take with them.
“People were running. They were so desperate. I’ve only seen scenes like this in the movies,” Felipe said.
The chaos lasted not just hours, but days as people came down from the hills to find homes and businesses destroyed. Basic services like electricity and phone were out, and multiple aftershocks followed. As immediate needs for medical help, food and shelter were met, rescue crews were able to assess buildings still standing. Some faced structural problems, including the city’s elementary school.
The city’s long recovery was only just beginning. Felipe and his wife Hilda began to wonder when their daughter would be able to return to school – or whether she would return at all.
“People and organizations around the world respond to the immediate disaster, but what we’ve found is the real need kicks in much later,” said Sarah Boulle, program director for All Hands and Hearts, an international disaster-relief organization supported by the Medtronic Foundation that coordinates volunteer opportunities in places impacted by earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. “When there’s no media attention and people have forgotten about the disaster, that’s when we can often have the greatest impact.”
In Mexico, and at other disaster recovery efforts around the globe, the Medtronic Foundation provides financial support and helps coordinate volunteer opportunities for Medtronic employees who are interested in hands-on volunteering experiences.
This year alone, the Medtronic Foundation has organized five hands-on disaster relief volunteer trips for Medtronic employees, with other Medtronic individuals also joining trips independently. In each community, the Medtronic Foundation partners with a local non-profit organization that can help tailor the disaster response and ensure the volunteers make the most impact.
Medtronic offers its employees five additonal days of paid time off to volunteer in disaster relief efforts. Additionally, because disaster relief usually involves a longer time commitment, many Medtronic volunteers are eligible to earn a $500 volunteer grant from the Medtronic Foundation for the non-profit partner they work with on disaster relief. Volunteer grants are awarded from the Medtronic Foundation to non-profits when an employee volunteers 25 or more hours to that specific non-profit within a calendar year and are just one of the many ways the Medtronic Foundation is empowering volunteerism.
On a typical day rebuilding the school in Mexico, volunteers wake up for breakfast at 6 a.m. They head to the work site, where they are assigned tasks like painting, mixing cement or removing debris from the future playground site. No prior construction experience is required. Volunteers are trained on site and work alongside skilled local tradesmen. They stop for breaks and lunch, and then they wrap up their day at 5 p.m. before heading to dinner prepared by local community members.
Though the days are challenging, Medtronic employees say it’s a life-changing experience.
“It’s not easy, but it’s worth it,” said Sherri Watson, a Spine employee from Tennessee. “I’ve lived a very blessed life and I wanted to give back. There’s definitely a need in this community and I’m glad I came.”
“A lot of people come from a desk job, like I do,” said Tom Bischoff, a mechical design engineer who was participating in his second disaster recovery volunteer trip. “You don’t necessarily have to have skills, they’ll teach you what you need to know. You just have to be motivated to do this kind of work.”
Tom was so motivated, in fact, that after his first disaster recovery trip with the Medtronic Foundation to Puerto Rico, he coordinated his own trip the following year to volunteer with the same nonprofit on similar disaster relief work in Mexico.
Matea Thomas, project coordinator at the Medtronic Knowledge Center in Minnesota, was a first-time volunteer when she arrived in Mexico.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “Even though it’s hot, people are smiling and singing. I’m amazed at how committed everyone is. The hard work really shows.”
She was encouraged by her colleague Nik Ludgate to attend. Nik was initially drawn to this particular opportunity because his grandfather lived in that region of Mexico and it would be an opportunity to give back to a region important to his family. Once he arrived, the experience was even more rewarding than he expected.
“I want other employees to know that a project like this is going to be one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have,” said Nik. “It can be overwhelming to think about doing a project like this. You break down the details on how long you’ll stay, the flights you’ll need to take, how you’ll interact with a different culture. But if everyone here can do it, I think anyone can do it.”
While there, it’s easy for employees to see the impact of the work they’re doing.
“I got to meet with some of the kids that we are helping and building the schools for,” said Kevin Goehl, a sales representative with MITG in North and South Carolina. “It’s life-changing for them, but it’s also life-changing for me. At home, we’re all so busy all the time. It means a lot when you take time out of your busy schedule to help others.”
Medtronic volunteers work alongside volunteers from around the world. While on the trip, they also experience the local culture.
“We’ve been invited to other people’s homes in the region. Families will make us dinner,” Kevin said. “Every family says hi to us on the street. They’re so thankful for what we’re doing.”
Meas Danok an EHS specialist from Brampton, Canada, agreed.
“The community is very thoughtful and very thankful we’re here,” she said. “When we walk by, they’ll say, ‘Hola, gracias.’ It’s rewarding to know we’re making a difference.”
Meas, who heard about the opportunity from a colleague who attended a previous disaster-recovery trip, said the experience took her outside her comfort zone and tested her physically and mentally. Yet it was one of the most rewarding volunteer experiences she’s had.
For Michael Swartz, a technical services specialist, hands-on volunteering allows him to see that his efforts are making a difference.
“When you donate money, you don’t always know what happens with it in the end,” he said. “But when you give your time to a project like this, you get to see the people you’re helping and know you’re making a difference. You know what you’re doing matters.”
The disaster recovery volunteer opportunities align with the Medtronic Foundation’s mission to improve health in underserved areas globally.
“Natural disasters are on the rise, and today they are among the greatest threats to global health. By helping communities not only recover from a disaster long after the media has left, but also take steps to prepare for and better respond to future disasters, Medtronic employees can make a sustainable, long-term impact on communities in need,” said Paurvi Bhatt, President, Medtronic Foundation.
The work in Mexico is one of the more remote volunteer opportunities the Medtronic Foundation provides for Medtronic employees interested in supporting disaster relief. In 2019, it also coordinated volunteer trips to places such as North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico that have been impacted by natural disasters.
The Medtronic Foundation has supported recovery efforts in Puerto Rico since Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit the country in 2017. We’ve given financial grants, packages of supplies and organized volunteer support. Most recently, teams of volunteers were there to work on some of the longer-term needs, such as addressing mold and water damage to homes caused by the storm.
“We put on full HAZMAT suits, goggles, gloves and respirators, and we went into individual homes to help them address damage that would have cost $10,000 or $15,000 if they had to hire someone to do the work – a cost that most families can’t cover,” said Victor Ohno, a digital and social media director at Medtronic who recently participated in a week-long volunteer trip to Puerto Rico. Six other Medtronic employees from across North America also joined on this particular trip.
“It was amazing to see the immediate impact. The families were so grateful that we had given them back a healthy home. It was hot, hard work and long days, but it is so rewarding to know that we had such an impact on a community that has been through so much,” Victor said.
The Medtronic Foundation partners with organizations that support communities to rebuild and thrive even after our volunteers return home. Projects like the work in Puerto Rico and school in Salinas del Marqués, Mexico strengthen communities that have lost so much.
“One focus is building resilience,” said All Hands and Hearts’ Sarah Boulle. “We want to empower the community. Disasters will happen again, and we can’t stop that. But we provide the resources and training so they know how to respond.”
Beyond changing the community, the work also changes lives. According to Boulle, volunteers have inspired local residents. Some residents are learning new languages or seeking a college degree. The impact on the community has been lasting.
Hilda, Felipe’s wife, believes the city of Salinas del Marqués will never forget the importance of volunteers in rebuilding the community.
“When these children are adults, they will remember this,” she said. “This will go in our history books. They will tell their children about the people who came from other countries to help us.”