Safety when traveling abroad encompasses many different areas for volunteers, including water, food, homestay families, staff members, transportation, emergency medical situations, natural disasters, and theft, to mention a few. Central America is a beautiful place and the people are gentle and kind. Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala are wonderful places to travel in and around, due to their political stability and level of police supervision. Tourism is a strong part of the economy in each of these countries.
Safety is the number one priority for our groups of volunteers who have come to donate their time and skills to those in need. We provide an orientation in which staff members review Vida policies regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs. Evening activities, dinners, etc are supervised and accompanied by Vida staff. A curfew will be enforced in some locations. During orientation students are also instructed on “common sense safety practices” such as locking belongings in your luggage or hotel safe, not carrying around large amounts of money, passport, or camera.
Illegal drug use or possession will not be tolerated at any time during the trip. Any volunteer who is in possession of illegal drugs or who uses illegal drug substances will be expelled from the program and return home at his or her own expense. Smoking is allowed in public areas, but there is no smoking at homestay family residence, on the bus, or inside the clinics. Alcohol use in moderation is accepted. There is no alcohol use during home stays or before clinic days. Volunteers will have a curfew of 12 midnight on the evenings prior to clinic (all volunteers need to be back to the hotel). Volunteers will be accompanied by Vida staff in the evenings. Volunteers need to engage in responsible behavior and if their behavior is deemed a risk to themselves or others then the volunteer will be issued a warning prior to expulsion from the program. If a volunteer is expelled from the program, then he/she needs to return home at his/her own expense.
Staff members review policies during orientation regarding eating raw fruits and vegetables and drinking only boiled/bottled water during the trip. Volunteers are asked to eat only cooked vegetables. Volunteers should also avoid consuming the skin of fresh fruits as well as natural fruit drinks made with tap water. Vida provides bottled water during the entire trip.
All Vida groups travel with an emergency first aid kit, local emergency numbers, as well as the telephone numbers for the host country U.S. and Canadian embassies. All groups travel with an experienced bilingual guide and most groups travel with licensed bilingual physicians during their entire experience. Other groups travel with licensed bilingual veterinarians who are familiar with basic first aid for humans as well. All Vida guides who have not already been certified in basic first aid are in the process of becoming certified. Vida staff physicians will intervene in emergency medical situations as needed to assess and stabilize patient, and assist with the transfer to a local private hospital if necessary. A Vida staff physician or bilingual guide will remain with the injured or sick volunteer and communicate with the volunteer’s emergency contact to relay information about the volunteer’s status.
Vida contracts only reputable and well known transportation providers in Central America. All transportation is modern, safe and reliable, and the buses are typically air conditioned “coasters” or mini-buses that seat 25 passengers. All drivers or guides have cell phones with them at all times.
Homestay families are contracted through reputable non-profit partner organizations that have a history of working with families, or through local churches. All families have been screened and in-home visits and assessments have been performed to ensure a high quality homestay experience.
Homestay families have been educated regarding food and water precautions. All volunteers will have their own bed and room. In the case of housing 2 volunteers at the same home, the volunteers may share a room, but have 2 separate beds. All volunteers are given emergency numbers to call should a concern or problem arise during a homestay. Most homestay families are usually within a very short walking distance from one another, therefore the bilingual guides and bilingual physicians are nearby.
Male and females will not share rooms, unless they are a married couple. This is enforced during homestays, as well as hotel or other community lodging accommodations.
All Vida staff have been screened and approved by Vida Directors. All physicians, dentists, and veterinarians have current licenses to practice health care in his/her country of origin. All staff have signed an agreement regarding his/her professional behavior and understand the consequences of becoming romantically involved with a volunteer. Vida Staff and staff contracted by Vida (including bus drivers, clinic coordinators, community volunteers, etc) are prohibited from any romantic relationships with volunteers. Vida Staff members and staff contracted by Vida are subject to immediate dismissal in these situations.
Vida receives regular updates from the US State department regarding any travel warnings. Vida Directors and Board of Directors live in Central America as well as all Vida staff. Therefore we are aware of any change in the political, social, or environment which may pose a threat to our volunteers. Vida will suspend travel to countries in which the US State Department has removed official presence. Vida will assess and evaluate all travel advisories and warnings issued by the US State Department regarding countries to be visited by Vida groups.
Vida staff members always collaborate with local non-profits and community leaders regarding the best time of the year to visit more rural and isolated communities. All itineraries are reviewed by Vida directors and geographical areas that may be affected by heavy rainfall are avoided in the rainy season. Vida staff members are always aware of the status of the active volcanoes in the region as well as any tropical storm, hurricane, or tornado warnings via local host country coordinators and Vida Directors.
Most everyone who simply ‘ducks and covers’ when buildings collapse are crushed to death. People who get under objects, like desks or cars, are crushed. However, cats, dogs and babies often naturally curl up in the fetal position. You should too in an earthquake. It is a natural safety/survival instinct. You can survive in a smaller void. The best thing to do is get next to an object, next to a sofa, next to a large bulky object that will compress slightly but leave a void next to it. If you are in bed during the night and an earthquake occurs, simply roll off the bed. A safe void will exist around the bed. Hotels can achieve a much greater survival rate in earthquakes, simply by posting a sign on the back of the door of every room telling occupants to lie down on the floor, next to the bottom of the bed during an earthquake. If an earthquake happens and you cannot easily escape by getting out the door or window, then lie down and curl up in the fetal position next to a sofa, or large chair. Most everyone who gets under a doorway when buildings collapse is killed. Never go to the stairs. The stairs have a different ‘moment of frequency’ (they swing separately from the main part of the building). The stairs and remainder of the building continuously bump into each other until structural failure of the stairs takes place. Get near the outer walls of buildings or outside of them if possible. It is much better to be near the outside of the building rather than the interior. The farther inside you are from the outside perimeter of the building the greater the probability that your escape route will be blocked. If you are inside a vehicle during an earthquake, you should get out and sit or lie next to the vehicle. Paper does not compact. Large voids are found surrounding stacks of paper.
In Central America, the prevalence of pick-pocketing is high in the capital cities, while that of any type of physical assault is low. Vida encourages all volunteers to use common sense and not to carry around large sums of money, carry only a copy of your passport, and be street smart. Vida requires that students go out in small groups of 3 or more and never alone or in pairs during free time. Most of the work sites where Vida provides services to the communities are small rural areas where these safety concerns will not be issues. However, in any major city, just like in the USA and Canada, caution needs to be taken when volunteers are out. Vida attempts to house students in only reputable hotels where we have a relationship with the owners, however, a loss can occur at any time. Any loss of personal belongings will be investigated and documented. A report will be made to the hotel or restaurant where the incident incurs, as well as a report with the local police will be made as necessary. Students are encouraged to always use luggage locks or to use the hotel safe (if one is provided).
Vida educates volunteers regarding using standard precautions, as do most health care facilities in the USA and Canada. Volunteers will be encouraged to maintain a distance of 3 feet from patient in clinic (standard precautions at hospitals, nursing homes, etc). Health professionals are always supervising the volunteers to ensure that they comply with standard precautions. Vida recommends that students have all necessary vaccinations required for travel to Central America, an updated tetanus shot, etc. Vida encourages volunteers to get the Hepatitis A & B series as a precaution. There is no Yellow Fever, Typhoid, River Blindness, Cholera, etc in the areas that we work in currently. Dengue fever is always a safety concern in a tropical environment, but use of repellent and appropriate clothing is encouraged. Malaria pills are optional. When working with blood products, such as in Dentistry or Veterinary medicine, volunteers need to wear gloves. Dentistry volunteers will also wear face masks. Medical volunteers will need to wear gloves when assisting with urine samples or blood sugar testing. Medical volunteers will also need to wear gloves while handling any type of infectious skin issue, examining the mouth/throat etc. (all of this is done under the direct supervision of the physician in charge of the clinic). Volunteers must engage in frequent hand washing, sanitizing of instruments (including BP cuffs, stethoscopes, blood sugar monitors, otoscopes, etc.) Dental instruments and veterinary surgical instruments will be sterilized in a special disinfectant. Veterinary and dental instruments will be sterilized in an autoclave as well.
Safety precautions include the following:
Security measures: an interpreter and the physician in charge, as well as the community coordinator will always accompany the students. They will never be left alone. If there is a security threat inside the house the students will be taken outside and that house will be reported and not be visited anymore. If necessary the clinic coordinator or physician will call the local police. The coordinator will select the houses to be visited prior to the trip, by doing this we will avoid visiting houses that are not safe. Students should not accept any type of food or beverage from the families because we do not know if it was manipulated correctly and the student might get sick. There is also a natural disaster protocol that tells us what to do in case of a flood or earthquake for example. Volunteers should bring comfortable shoes or tennis shoes for the home visits days, scrubs, a hat or cap and sunglasses. To prevent sunburns or dehydration they should also include sunscreen lotion, bug spray and, a water bottle and a small bag to carry stuff.
All volunteers are instructed to provide a copy of their trip itinerary to loved ones and emergency contacts. Should a family emergency occur, relatives may communicate with Vida staff, call directly to the hotel, or call the cell phone of the guide for the trip.