Summer Intern Highlight: Riley Sutton

August 30, 2023

Riley is a second-year Master’s of International Affairs student at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, with a regional focus in Latin America. This internship is her first foray into nonprofit work. In her free time, Riley likes to read, eat at restaurants, and hang out with her cat.

As an intern for International Relief Teams, I didn’t know what to expect from this summer. I hoped to visit Mexico and practice my Spanish skills, and I loved the idea of tackling real-world problems using myclassroom knowledge. But I never could have predicted how eye-opening these past weeks have been; I have been encouraged to look beyond my own perspective and see problems realistically.

Take,for example, the problem of food access. The community of San Quintin, MX,where International Relief Teams does much of our work, has the same beautiful& temperate climate as San Diego. That means that gardening should be easy there, right?

I was shocked to learn the truth.Due to decades of unsustainable farming practices, the ground in San Quintinhas turned to dirt. Its dusty, sandy texture makes it very difficult to grow anything, let alone edible plants. The ground is no longer soil; it has been deprived of the life, microbes, and nutrients that allow plants to grow to their fullest extent. For now, residents lack a place to grow food.

International Relief Teams was able to secure soil for community residents, using that soil to create vertical Garden Towers that can be placed in backyards. Our ProgramManager, Gabriel, even built a greenhouse to grow seeds into healthy seedlings.Surely, with the right soil and plants, these gardens would thrive, no?

After speaking with community members, this logic felt foolish. We still hadn’t accounted for a major concern: water. Water is delivered to the community via water trucks, called pipas, which have a monopoly on fresh water. It’s also incredibly expensive. This encourages families to use greywater – leftover water that has already been used – for their plants, which is not a perfect solution. The water, the soil, the access to agricultural resources, and knowledge… they are all part of the problem.

Everything is connected, and everything matters. When assisting vulnerable communities, you can’t just throw things at the wall and see what sticks – that could cost you valuable time and resources,and you might cause real harm. Initially, this element of nonprofit work scared me. I wasn’t sure that my solutions would be helpful, and I worried about the impact of my research. But visiting San Quintin allowed me to see beyond those worries. Community members were enthusiastic about their gardens, and many spoke about the blessing of this tiny vertical plot. Some had even harvested their lettuce crops already and were eagerly awaiting their tomatoes. It may be difficult to find a good solution, especially when you are dealing with the basic human needs of food, water, and shelter. But when that solution finally clicks? All of that wondering, adjusting, and worrying becomes worthwhile.

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