Inspired Student’s M.P.H. Project Takes Her to Colombia to Address Infant

Spurred on by a desire to create lasting change in her native South America, Daniella Orihuela recently spent a month as the first Miller School Master of Public Health student to team with a growing foundation in Cartagena, Colombia, that works to reduce infant mortality and teen pregnancy and break the cycle of poverty. For Orihuela, the chance to complete the field portion of her M.P.H. Capstone Project working with the Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar Foundation (Juanfe) was a special experience.

“I had always wanted to work with maternal/child health, so just seeing the type of amazing work being done by the foundation really inspired me,” Orihuela said. “I got to be a witness to all of it.”

At Juanfe, which works in some of Colombia’s most impoverished areas to help teenage mothers escape poverty, Orihuela traveled into local communities with social workers to get a first-hand look at the difficult conditions facing the families. Despite the sometimes overwhelming hardships, Orihuela said she was struck by the ambitions of many of the young mothers.

“These girls are in one of the poorest areas of the world, have the most tragic situations happen to them, yet have aspirations for a better future for them and their infants; they want to move forward,” Orihuela said. “That is really something that strikes you.”

JuanFe began in 2001 after the death of the 17-month-old son of founder Catalina Escobar, Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar. The little boy died after tumbling over a railing, and Escobar devoted herself to not only honoring his name, but helping to save the lives of other children in Cartagena, a city that faces serious social problems and pockets of devastating poverty.

The nonprofit organization reaches out through a variety of programs, including health and child care, counseling, education and job training for teenage moms. Girls who accept the help learn skills they can use to support their families and improve their lives. In its 12 years, Juanfe has helped to lower the infant mortality rate in the northern coastal city and empowered many young women to take a responsible and productive path. The foundation’s work is gaining international notice: Catalina Escobar was named a CNN Top Ten Hero for 2012.

Orihuela, who was born in Peru and whose mother is Colombian, explored doing her Capstone field experience at Juanfe shortly after hearing Catalina Escobar present a guest lecture in a Global Public Health class for M.P.H. students.

“It was an opportunity for Daniella to contribute to a public health issue about which she is passionate, while fulfilling her field experience requirement in a country that is tied to her heritage and family,” said Felicia Casanova, Capstone Programs Manager for the Department of Public Health Sciences.

Orihuela immersed herself in the day-to-day operations of the Foundation’s Medical Center, interviewing the girls and learning their stories. She helped develop interactive talks on nutrition and assisted with programs that promote self-esteem, self-empowerment and women taking control of their health and reporting domestic abuse.

“With Daniella at the Juanfe facilities, she began the road to work on solutions to address the problems that accompany devastating poverty,” said María Velasco, the Miami Director of Juanfe. “Because she is bilingual and bicultural, she has an advantage in learning about the local culture. This allowed her to get involved with all areas of the Foundation, learn about the work with young mothers, and why it is so important for UM to be involved with this extraordinary project.”

Orihuela continues to work on culturally specific health education materials that will add to awareness and future educational strategies at the Foundation. She is filling a need to create curriculum that can be used by the Foundation in a systematic manner.

“Training our students to address global health issues and solve complex public health issues is an important component of our M.P.H. training programs here at UM,” said Julie Kornfeld, Ph.D., M.P.H., Assistant Dean for Public Health and assistant professor of public health sciences. “Daniella’s experience is exactly the type of field-based work that we want our students to have — applying the skills gained in the classroom and their passion to attenuate health inequities by tackling real world problems such as teen pregnancy. Partnering with an established and trusted organization like Juanfe was the perfect fit for Daniella and her interests — we are incredibly proud of her contribution to this effort and look forward to her future successes.”

The department plans to make Juanfe a site for ongoing field experiences, and to continue to strengthen similar key global health partnerships in Latin America.

“Our students are committed to building a better world, particularly for the most needy populations,” said José Szapocznik, Ph.D., professor and Chair of Public Health Sciences and Director of the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “Daniella’s work is exemplary of our department’s commitment to Latin America and the Caribbean.”

For more information on the foundation, visit the Juanfe website.

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