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Alumna Profile: Veronica Sunderland-Perez, improving health of Mayan women and children

By Susan White

Each day, Veronica Sunderland-Perez (MSW/MPH ’08) serves as a subtle reminder for why public health social workers are often vital links for ensuring that women and children globally have access to needed health care.

Sunderland-Perez manages the Maternal and Child Health Program for “Pueblo a Pueblo,” a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working in Guatemala to improve the health of Mayan women and children. A 2008 graduate of UNC’s dual degree program in social work and public health, Sunderland-Perez spends much of her time helping to provide reproductive education and family planning support to the rural indigenous women in Guatemala’s Santiago region.

“We focus on providing pregnant women with free prenatal and postnatal medical care as well as medical checkups for their babies through age 5,” she said. “So we’re covering the most crucial time of a child’s early life.”

Donations help the organization support at least 67 women and their children each year. All of the medical care and education provided can be covered for about $25 a month—less than a co-payment to a doctor in the United States. Such services are significantly needed in a country with challenging health and human development statistics, Sunderland-Perez said.

“The total fertility rate is the highest in Latin America at 4.1 births per woman,” she explained. “But in the areas where we work, women often have eight or more children, and less than 13 percent use family planning methods.”

Although women in rural areas often lack access to reproductive health care, even when there are services, many avoid or ignore the assistance because the health care providers offering it don’t speak the same language, Sunderland-Perez said.

“There are a lot of cultural factors there,” she said. “Guatemala has 21 different dialects and in the community where we work where 98 percent of the population is indigenous, the first language isn’t Spanish, it’s Tz’utujil, which is very difficult for an outsider to learn.”

Pueblo a Pueblo has been successful in reaching many of these women because the organization has an outreach worker on staff who speaks the community’s language, said Sunderland-Perez, who supervises the worker. As a result, the nonprofit is better able to spread education on topics such as cervical and breast cancer, nutrition, and hygiene.

“More and more, I’ve seen how much difference even a very little amount of resources can make,” she said. “For example, we recently held an education session covering cervical cancer and of the 12 women there, only six had ever had a pap smear. Unfortunately, a lot of women here receive misinformation about medical care. Some have even heard that if they get an exam, they will get sick. So much of our time is spent dispelling myths. Just talking to women about the procedures helps to break down the barriers to get them into the clinic.”

Sunderland-Perez credits UNC’s dual degree social work and public health program for preparing her to work in the field and for teaching her how to stretch resources. She continues to hone the skills she learned in the classroom. Currently, she’s reviewing the curriculum the nonprofit uses for its educational sessions.

“I’m hoping all the research and evidence-based practices existing in the field of public health can really help us to strengthen the education we’re currently providing women,” she said.

“So, I’m trying to use resources we already have, rather than reinvent the wheel.”

Though she’s scheduled to remain in Guatemala for a year, Sunderland-Perez hopes to extend her stay there and with Pueblo a Pueblo. There’s too much work to be done, she said.

“We’re always trying to do more with less, and we’re always challenged to expand our reach and have a greater impact on the community,” she said. “But that’s our mission every day—to work harder to help women and children of the community.”

Learn more, or to give to Pueblo a Pueblo.