The Movement Grows

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

Today I joined a meeting of the Fairfax County’s Committee on Children and Youth, to discuss such local issues as human trafficking and domestic violence.

“Hi Ron!” said the various county representatives in their cubicles as I walked through the hall of the government building to the meeting room, who hugged me in my suit and tie. We are always the same faces at many of the community’s spaces of conversation to talk about change, so that overtime we greet each other as old friends.

I gave a short presentation about the Health as Right Program during the meeting. “So far we have youth teams in 6 high schools and have started having conversations with 17 others,” I said.

“Let us connect you to a coalition of school administrators in the county. They should hear about this program,” said one of the committee chairs. They will also put us on a directory of the community’s resources.

And so the Health as Right movement grows.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vastness of the sea.”


#healthasright #youthteams

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-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

One of the human rights books I had to read for my job talked about Sisyphus, the Greek hero condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll to the bottom before he ever reached the top for all eternity. It was for a trick he played that involved chaining up death, so that suffering ceased in the world for a period of time.

“Today I’d like you to write a case study about the gang MS13,” I said this morning to Yosaph​, our intern who has been helping me write a human rights and public health curriculum for the student leaders of the high school teams we are starting. You might have seen Yosaph recently on a CHHR video where he gave a passionate, impromptu speech about the imperative to serve marginalized populations. He will be leaving us at the end of this week to graduate from Mt. Vernon High School, where he launched one of our Health as Right Clubs, then start at Harvard Medical School. His dream is to become a neurosurgeon.

“The vice-principle at one of the high schools where we are starting a club said that a large problem amongst the students is that many want to join MS13,” I explained. “I want you to write a discussion for our curriculum that talks about the human rights they have violated, to appeal to the youths’ sense of justice to change their values about joining,” I described.

“The other thing I’d like is for you to think of things we could do to promote our budget for the youth teams in these last 3 days of the fundraiser,” I said last. “We probably won’t reach the goal because we’re so behind. But might as well try, right?” I asked. He nodded, then spent the day busy at these things. As we packed up to leave, he looked up from his computer with a smile and said: “I believe [everything we’ve done] is going to change the world.” I agreed by smiling back.

You won’t win everything, but I am here for the ride. We are happy to try and fail, and try and fail like Sisyphus, taking joy in the knowledge that we strive to alter something about this world. If our boulders should roll down the mountain, we will be there at the foot to push even harder. We are happy, because the dream of a better world is worth it.

“Sisyphus’s silent joy is contained therein… [He] teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”


(Image: leaders from the GMU Health as Right Club, whose projects include improving resources for homeless students, and organizing collaboration between the school’s service groups.)

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The Right to Personality

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights often says that an individual has the right to a culture that supports the “free and full development of their personality.” What does the right to the growth of personality mean to a refugee high schooler in Maryland, versus a student in the well-resourced schools of North Virginia?

This morning I planned the implementation of the Health as Right Program with administrators at the International High School at Langley Park, MD. Every student here has one thing in common; they had to leave their country because of poverty, conflict, or other disastrous social condition. IHSLP was founded two years ago specifically for immigrant and refugee students.

“All of our students are either in an ESL program or have recently left ESL,” said the vice-principle and co-founder Daniel Sass as we sat in his office, which was also the sports locker.
“Our students represent 25 countries and speak 15 languages,” he described. Every student here has their own story of trauma and experience of witnessing the violation of human rights.

They were equally excited about the program’s concept; to empower youth to imagine solutions for the public health problems of their community, while at the same time fostering conditions in their lives that reduce risk behaviors such as sex, drug and alcohol use, and gang participation, such as a strong sense of integrity and involvement in service.

We spoke for a few hours about implementation. One version of the program will be offered during a 45 minute block reserved for clubs during the school day, for the students who cannot stay after school due to the need to work to support their family or for lack of transportation. A more robust version will be offered after school for 2 hours, on the days when Langley has access to busses that can take the students back to their houses. “If you want, you can take a break during that time by walking with your students to the 7/11 to get a snack,” commented Daniel. We laughed. The sense of solidarity at this school, between classmates, teachers, and programs like ours offering spaces for the “free and full development of one’s personality” is ennobling.

I next drove back to VA and planned the program with George Mason High School, which was my high school. “The realities of the different schools I am visiting for this program are so diverse,” I commented to an old teacher who hugged me in the hallway. But everywhere I go, the passion to work for a better world in all the youth I meet is the same.

Before meeting with the service coordinators, I strolled nostalgically through the halls. Mason is well-painted, clean, and expansive. The International School at Langley is composed completely of trailer classrooms. I walked past an alcove where my friends and I used to sit at lunch block. Who would have known then I would be connecting my own school one day with a school like Langley, I thought to myself. “I love how this program empowers students to do so much more than just throw money at problems. They have to create meaningful solutions,” said Seniora Planas during our meeting, the service coordinator and Spanish teacher. The realities of youth are diverse, but the desire to serve, to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, is what unites us.

Before leaving Langley, Daniel and I talked about planning an event before next year for the students to get physical exams at our clinic for sports. “So you have experience working with patients without insurance?” Daniel asked. “Every sports practice is like walking on eggshells, because getting injured is so much more complicated when you don’t have insurance. Things I took fore granted when I was a kid. You just hope everyone gets back on the bus without incident,” he said. We laughed. And yet sports is something they emphasize for their students, because they refuse to let added obstacles deprive them of their right to explore such interests. The right to the free and full development of one’s personality. The drive of people to practice such rights, whatever the circumstance or setting, is uplifting and unmistakable.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Image: an encouragement board at Langley)

#healthasright #CHHR #youthteams

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The Greatest Wrong

-Ron Lapitan, Community Outreach Coordinator

One way we are offering the Health as Right after school program to high schools is through partners such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, who resettle hundreds of refugee families in our area each year. The youth they work with, they are observing, experience great emotional turbulence as they are thrown into a new culture, as they carry trauma from atrocities they have escaped, at an age in life that is turbulent as it is. So our partners are connecting us with the schools where their resettled youth are enrolled. Perhaps our program could create a support group for them to cope with the pressures of a new culture, in addition to empowering them to take ownership of this community.

The other day Catholic Charities and I visited Annandale High School, which has a large ESL program for CC’s clients.
“Our clinic provides free medical services to anyone without insurance. We also do free physicals for students to get enrolled in sports,” I said to the meeting of teachers and counselors. At schools where the refugees will be our student leaders, these services are equally relevant as our empowerment program.
“Do you do dental care?” asked one teacher.
“Do you do eye care?” asked another. “We have one student who is always squinting because he needs glasses, but he can’t afford a pair. Then he tells me that he has a headache, and it’s no surprise,” she described.
“I will bring these questions back to our physicians,” I took notes.

“Yes, we can provide all of those,” said our director Alhan once I got back to the office. Either we have a specialist in our network willing to provide their services to our patients, or we will cover the costs for our patient to see a specialist. I sat down there in the clinic kitchen and happily relayed the response in an email to our teachers and counselors at Annandale. “We would also be happy to cover the cost of your student’s glasses if need be,” I included. I should have known the answer, because the greatest wrong at our office is to utter “no.”

Tomorrow I visit the International High School at Langley Park in Maryland, where 100% of the student body is immigrants and refugees.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home… they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends, the factory, farm or office where he works… Unless rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

-Eleanor Roosevelt

#healthasright #cultureofhealth #youthteams

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