Like many new college graduates, Teri Saydak was searching for work experience and a chance to make a positive impact on the world after earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco.
She found both with Concern America.
The Orange County native signed on for a position with the Santa Ana-based nonprofit organization, which focuses on humanitarian aid and international development.
Saydak traveled to rural Guatemala. She worked to support medical professionals educating residents on how to provide basic health care, and helped run a fair-trade cooperative for local artists to sell their work. She worked with residents battling poverty, conflict and disease.
“It’s incredible to see how a group like Concern America can make a difference,” said the Mater Dei alum. “It’s inspiring to look at the number of people participating and see first-hand how we can positively affect the lives of others.”
Today Saydak continues her work as development coordinator with Concern America. The organization works with the Catholic Church in rural and materially impoverished areas to educate and empower residents, many of whom don’t have access to quality health care, dependable electricity and clean water. Concern America sponsors 380 health care professionals abroad, including doctors, nurses and engineers, who live in the communities, train residents and provide low-cost medicine.
“Concern America gives people the skills they need to be successful long after we leave,” said Father Christopher Smith, rector of Christ Cathedral, who is among many Catholics from across the Diocese of Orange drawn to the organization’s mission. “I’ve seen first-hand that it works.”
Fr. Smith has been involved with Concern America since 1990, when he was a pastor at St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana. Like Saydak, he visited a Concern America project in Guatemala, where volunteers taught residents to provide basic health care. The experience had a profound impact on him.
“After that trip, I was sold,” he said. “I saw first-hand that Concern America is a small nonprofit with a big impact.”
There was limited health care access, with the nearest hospital or clinic hours away. Electricity came on in short spurts. There was no hot water.
“I had never experienced severe poverty first hand like that,” Fr. Smith said.
He saw how Concern America was working to empower residents living in poverty with the tools for long-term success, including conflict resolution, communication and social skills, along with medical training.
Fr. Smith recalled a story of a woman living in a remote village who went into labor in the middle of the night. Concern America had been providing midwife training to residents of the village, including a young man, who had been ridiculed by others for training to help mothers give birth. But when the woman began experiencing labor difficulties, he was the first to arrive to help – even though he had only taken one class. He put his training into action and helped deliver the baby, which was born healthy.
“He saved a life – possibly two, that night,” Fr. Smith said. “That’s the example of trust being built within the community. If we work together we can save each other’s lives.”
Although much of Concern America’s work is empowering populations abroad with skills needed to long-term success, another critical element of the organization’s mission is educating those at home about the daily challenges faced by the materially impoverished.
A large piece of that effort is Concern America’s Walk Out of Poverty. Now in its 21st year, the walk will be held Saturday, March 24 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. Funds raised from the 5-mile walk will support Concern America’s current programs focused on health education and building clean water systems for impoverished areas in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Mozambique. Last year’s walk drew more than 750 participants, raising about $80,000.
Sr. Brid O’Shea, chaplain at St. Columban School in Garden Grove, has been attending the Walk Out of Poverty each year since 1985. The walk is an opportunity for residents to come together and learn how their actions can have a positive impact on the less fortunate, she said.
“Concern America is one of my favorite charities because I know directly where donations are going and how they are helping those in need,” said O’Shea, who’ll spend her birthday alongside hundreds of others at this year’s walk. “It’s helping to improve lives by training people to be future nurses and doctors. I’m very proud to be part of it.”
The Walk Out of Poverty and other outreach efforts by Concern America are aimed at engaging children and young adults across Orange County by showing them that small acts of generosity can have a far-reaching impact, Saydak said.
“The first step is learning about these situations and understanding the importance of talking to people who have a different life experience,” she said. “We encourage students to travel, learn a new language and find out how other people live.”
Want to go?
Concern America’s Walk Out of Poverty
Saturday, March 24; 6:45 to 9:45 a.m.
Holy Spirit Catholic Church
17270 Ward St.
Fountain Valley 92708