When a first-time mother went into labor in rural Guatemala in 2012, she and her family tried to deliver the baby at home.
After 18 hours, they knew they needed help. The nearest hospital was six hours away – too expensive of a trip, and workers there did not speak the family’s language.
So they went to a casa materna, a maternity clinic run by Mayan women trained by Curamericas Global, an international nonprofit based in Raleigh that works to improve health care for women and children.
Staff at the clinic recommended going to the hospital for a C-section, but the family refused. After a traumatic labor, the woman gave birth to a baby who wasn’t breathing.
Workers immediately began resuscitation, and the infant let out a wail after seven minutes. Everyone in the delivery room burst into tears, said Andrew Herrera, who was present for the birth and serves as executive director of Curamericas Global.
“It was amazing to see the lives of a mother and child saved,” said Herrera, adding that the mother and child are still doing well. “Our message is, ‘You don’t have to die and your baby doesn’t have to die.’ ”
Founded in 1983, Curamericas Global partners with communities in countries with high maternal and infant mortality rates in an effort to save the lives of women and children. The group works in several countries, including Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, Bolivia and Haiti.
In Guatemala, the infant mortality rate is 22 deaths per every 1,000 live births, according to the organization.
“It’s unacceptable and preventable,” Herrera said. “Women and children are the most vulnerable. Children are voiceless, and women are often marginalized.”
Curamericas will celebrate #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that has gained traction through social media, on Nov. 29. Hops for Hope, an annual fundraiser for the group, will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. that day at Trophy Brewing Co. in Raleigh.
The nonprofit takes a three-pronged approach to sustainable enterprise: health education, which involves teaching mothers the basics and training workers and volunteers; providing services, which include immunizations and prenatal check-ups; and community involvement, which brings local volunteers on board to work alongside health care providers.
After assessing the leading causes of disease and death in the countries they work in, Curamericas staff and volunteers work to implement practical solutions. Mothers and families learn about the importance of hand-washing and breast-feeding.
The group builds wells and provides dish racks to keep materials away from vermin and other potential sources of contamination.
In areas where people may not have access to proper nutrition, Curamericas teaches which fruits, vegetables and other foods are suitable for the climate and how to plant them and then hosts cooking and nutritional workshops where women teach each other.
“When community members are owning their own health, it creates a sustainable project,” Herrera said. “We don’t want to bring anything in or start anything that they can’t continue themselves.”
The group’s funding comes from a variety of sources, including Rotary clubs, churches, universities and individual donors. Volunteers, who pay their own way, travel with Curamericas on brief trips to the countries they work in and assist with health services, construction and special projects.
Curamericas was founded by Henry Perry III and Alice Weldon, who traveled to Bolivia in 1969 as undergraduate students at Duke University. The needs of indigenous Aymara villagers living on the Northern Antiplano, a plateau in Bolivia, inspired them to start a community health project.
In 1981, they partnered with the Bolivian Methodist Church, Duke University and the Bolivian Ministry of Health to launch a project in Bolivia.
Two years later, Perry founded a nonprofit called Andean Rural Health Care, which later became Curamericas Global after expanding programs to more countries.
Herrera joined Curamericas in 2009 and became executive director in 2013 after working for the City of Raleigh’s parks and recreation department for four years. He has a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Studies and Religious Studies from East Carolina University and is pursuing a Master’s in Public Health from UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.
“There’s so much need (for better public health),” Herrera said. “We go to forgotten places where no one else is working to try to prevent death through low-cost solutions.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler