Volunteer Work Provides Education and Opportunities

A group of VIDAS volunteers (shown l to r): Sherry Stevens Spina; Karen Jenkins; Lisa McCarthy, DVM; Valerie Mitchell; Erika Hartle-Schutte; Maya Key, CVT; Catherine Klein, DVM; Cristina Gutierrez; Robyn Gajdosik. Photo provided by VIDAS.

There’s nothing glamorous about the work that North American veterinary students and veterinarians do in Mexico for Veterinarios Internacionales Dedicados a Animales Sanos (VIDAS), yet interest in the program continues to grow. In May five students and veterinarians will pay their own way to three Mexican towns to offer spays, neuters and basic health care to homeless animals. VIDAS was started by four Colorado State University (CSU) students in 2002 with guidance from Lesli Hick, DVM, veterinary manager for the Boulder Humane Society, Boulder, Colo.

“It’s burnout control,” said Hicks, who has worked with veterinary relief groups in Mexico since 1997. “You get out of your comfort zone and do something completely different.”

Students do not get credit for volunteering, but they say it puts class lessons into perspective. “It [provides] great animal-handling experience,” said Cristina Gutierrez, president and founding member of VIDAS, who has provided mange treatments, administered parvo and heartworm tests, and euthanized sick animals with VIDAS. Last year the group treated about 200 animals in five days.

Gutierrez, who is fluent in Spanish, works with local government officials and veterinarians to plan and promote the clinics in Mexico. Response to the program has been positive, she said. “Our clients have no money to spend on their animals. Some [of these] towns don’t even have a doctor, let alone a veterinarian.”

While in Mexico, VIDAS volunteers work in makeshift conditions using basic tools and injectable drugs. “We don’t have any of the luxuries, like high-quality monitoring equipment, that we do at CSU, so we’re learning to practice medicine under incredibly rudimentary conditions,” said VIDAS Vice President Ruth Parkin, who will graduate in 2005.

Hick concurred. “I always return with a greater appreciation for what we have here. It’s rejuvenating.”

Parkin has gained business skills as well as medical experience through her work with VIDAS. “I have learned an incredible amount about what it takes to start up an organization, from recruiting to training personnel and communicating with large corporations. It’s been an amazing learning experience,” she said.

VIDAS also has opened doors to alternate career opportunities for volunteers. The group just received confirmation of its 501(c)(3) status, and some members plan to continue their involvement with VIDAS after graduation to complement their careers in small animal clinics. 

VIDAS veterinarians performed about 30 spays and neuters each day last year, and the goal is 40 per day in May. The program is similar to Rural Area Veterinary Services and, in the beginning, VIDAS worked with Veterinary Relief International before receiving its 501(c)(3) status for donations. In the future, VIDAS members would like to expand the group’s clinics to Peru and Argentina.

Gutierrez and Hick said that while the work is grueling, it is also gratifying, which has helped VIDAS attract veterinarians, students and donors. “Everybody we’ve ever brought down wants to go again,” Gutierrez said. “It’s rewarding to see what basic medical care can do, the difference you can make.”