Training Institute: Recap and Looking Forward to 2016

The Training Institute is a time for PIH Engage leaders and members from all over the country to come together and learn how to make an impact in their local communities. In 2016, the Training Institute will be Friday, August 12 to Sunday, August 14. Sign up information will go out to existing Team Coordinators and applicants for new teams in early 2016. 

See below a recap of the 2015 Training Institute, prepared by Alex Bradbury, Writer/Editor for Partners In Health. 

The ballroom at the center of the University of Massachusetts Boston campus overlooked the city’s skyline. Behind floor-to-ceiling windows, people collected coffee and breakfast bags and gathered at tables, while Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” blasted from speakers. It was 9 a.m. on Friday, August 14, and most of them had taken red-eye flights to come to Partners In Health’s annual three-day Training Institute.

They were volunteers dedicated to fundraising and advocating for global health. They came to be inspired and to plan and prepare for the next year. Many had been to the three previous Training Institutes PIH hosted, but this year’s was different. The room—the biggest PIH could find—was full. Two hundred volunteers, each with teams of about ten back home, filled every seat.

PIH’s mission is to provide high-quality health care to those who can’t afford it. Since our founding in 1987, much of PIH’s work has relied on volunteers, including clinical, administrative, and fundraising staff. But for a long time, no formal volunteer group existed. Particularly after the 2003 publication of Tracy Kidder’s bestselling Mountains Beyond Mountains, about PIH’s early days, more people asked how they could help. “We didn’t always have a good answer,” said Sheena Wood, a PIH community organizing team leader at the Training Institute. She and a core group at PIH set about investigating how many people might want to join PIH’s cause. The first Training Institute was held in 2012 in Boston and was attended by 25 people, mostly local, who came to connect and discuss what they could do to advance the mission.


Jon Shaffer, Senior Strategist for Grassroots Organizing, PIH, gives opening remarks.

This year, the change was remarkable. “There are more students, young people, and people across this country who see the right to health as their social justice issue than ever before,” Jon Shaffer, senior strategist for grassroots organizing at PIH, told the packed audience. Indeed, volunteers were between 15 and 60 years old, and hailed from as far away as Hawaii.


Conor Linehan, Junior at Bellarmine College Prep, gives perspectives from his experiences with PIH Engage.

Conor Linehan, a high school junior, has been involved with PIH for a couple of years, building a community dedicated to global health at his high school in San Jose, California. “Working with PIH has shown me that for every doctor there are 50 others doing everything from political advocacy to fundraising,” he said. This year’s Training Institute energized him and his team: “This isn’t just us, we are part of a movement.”

Easton, Connecticut resident Pat Camuto, a pathologist for 30 years, said her recent discovery of Paul Farmer’s writings was “earth-changing.” “When I went to medical school, global health wasn’t a thing,” she said. To get involved, she worked in a small clinic in Peru and saw patients with cancer discharged because no treatment was available. “I can’t not fight for this,” she said.

A similar urgency resonated all weekend. “We’re in a crisis,” said Shaffer. “Despite the Ebola outbreak, despite slowing progress on getting new people on HIV therapy, despite expanding epidemics of drug-resistant tuberculosis, we actually see the world contributing less for health care for poor people than we've seen in decades.”

Rallying to that call, the group set ambitious goals for the coming year. Together, they aim to raise $500,000 toward ending deaths from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru. The volunteers also plan to advocate for legislation that supports funding for HIV treatment and other global health priorities. The schedule was packed with workshops such as “Planning a Kickoff Retreat” and “Grassroots Advocacy Strategies and Tactics” to give them the tools they’d need for the year ahead.


Michael Novack, a medical student from Charlottesville, VA offers perspectives on fundraising.

At the end of the weekend, volunteers exchanged emails and phone numbers before boarding buses and trains to the airport. It would be another year before they see each other again, but there’ll be many conversations while they campaign.

Brittni Howard, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has volunteered for PIH since 2013. Her young daughter, Kareena, has been to more than 50 events that her mother held. While hugging friends good-bye, she said, “When Kareena is 30 and coming to this training, I hope it’s a discussion about maintaining the progress we’ve made in global health—that social justice will be a norm, not a struggle,” she said.

If you’re interested in learning more about volunteering for PIH, find a team near you.


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