At 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Cal State Fullerton’s campus is usually close to empty. But once a month, 20 to 30 students meet in the Nutwood Parking Structure with their passports ready.
They divvy themselves up into various cars and arrive at El Cajon, California by 8 a.m., where they meet both physicians and other students from the University of California, Riverside. In El Cajon, the group of physicians and students split into numbered cars, each equipped with handheld radios and maps.
Their next stop: a small medical clinic in El Hongo, Mexico.
The Flying Samaritans is a CSUF club that gives students hands-on experience in medical care by allowing them to provide it to those without easy access to any. Once a month, the club selects no more than 30 of its members to drive to El Hongo and provide care to those seeking medical attention.
The clinic is a community center hosted by the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF), which the club president, Ken Rios, describes as “the Social Services of Baja”.
DIF helps the club maintain the clinic by patching the ceiling, replacing floors and installing new sinks.
However, the Flying Samaritans are responsible for supplying both medication and physicians, so the club relies heavily on donations to continue its work.
Mary Lehn-Mooney, the club’s advisor, said that one dentist donated an old dental chair with a drill attached.
“Things that (are) here would become a piece of furniture, a curiosity in the house, could be what actually gives someone else care that couldn’t have gotten it,” Lehn-Mooney said.
Joseph Michaud, a CSUF alumnus and the previous president of the Flying Samaritans, led students to this clinic for 15 consecutive trips from June 2016 to July 2017.
But it was on his first trip that Michaud gained more than hands-on experience.
“It kind of blows your mind just because it’s really not that far away,” Michaud said. “You see the stray dogs, and the roads are kind of in a worn condition. You look at the houses and you’re wondering, ‘How do they get by with what they have?’”
Going on roughly 25 trips left Michaud with a sense of purpose.
“When you arrive, you can tell they’re really happy to see us,” Michaud said. “They’re just
glad that we’re there and that we’re providing all these different supplies.”
Many people in El Hongo don’t have access to cars, making the trip to the clinic more daunting, but that doesn’t stop them.
“A few of them walk almost three hours to go to our clinic,” Michaud said.
When the Flying Samaritans aren’t in the area trying to provide patients with medication for the entire month, Rios said that there are government-run pharmacies in the town that people can go to. The club also has contacts at the clinic that inform members of what needs to be done during the time they are away.
Rachel Wood, a CSUF senior and health science major, has been a member of the Flying Samaritans for about two years.
During one trip, Wood was helping a partially blind woman and her children. As Wood was taking pictures for the clinic, she also took a picture of them. The woman, who spoke some English, told Wood that she had never had a picture taken of her family before.
“When I came home, I ended up getting the pictures developed, and I put them in a frame and I gave them back to her at the next clinic,” Wood said. “She was very grateful for it. It was sweet.”
The Flying Samaritans also regularly visit the El Hongo orphanage.
The orphanage walls are painted a vibrant blue with bright-yellow arches, but it sits on a lot with no grass.
The children in the orphanage aren’t necessarily orphans, Rios said. Many of them are taken from their families because of a lack of provisions. Whatever the reason they’re there, however, the children are often left feeling unwanted.
The Flying Samaritans and physicians make an extra effort to make sure they don’t feel that way. Along with medical care, the group brings school supplies, toys and sports gear to give to the children.
Michaud said the December trips are particularly fun. During December, another group brings donations and Santa.
Wood and Rios laughed as they remembered Santa passing out presents as he sang.
“He just had a lot of character,” Wood said between laughs.
They donated hundreds of toys to the children for Christmas, and it was the reaction of the children that solidified Rios’ sense of purpose.
“The pure joy that it elicited from the children – it was just, really moving,” Rios said.
Around 6 p.m., the students and physicians shuffle back into caravans to begin their trip home, sharing jokes through walkie-talkies and stopping for the occasional churro.
Before heading home, they stop for dinner to reconvene and share their experiences from the day.
By midnight, the Flying Samaritans flock back to CSUF and prepare for the next trip.
“I’m curious to see what our newest president, is excited about, what his vision is or what he might contribute,” Lehn-Mooney said. “I’d like it to go on long beyond me.”