By: Emily Nonko Special to the Boca Newspaper
Jessica Schuster can clearly recall a process she came to love, as a child, of filling paper boxes with as much medical supplies as they could fit. The boxes were for her father, a doctor who often traveled to provide care to vulnerable people around the world. Throughout elementary school, she took on a month’s worth of schoolwork at once to travel with him to the free clinics he held every year.
The entire Schuster family, in fact, has been on board with the mission of their patriarch, Dr. Mitchell Schuster. He’s one of the last doctors in Boca Raton who makes house calls, but has always felt a calling outside Florida. From his early years in the profession, he worked emergency room shifts to fund medical relief trips to places like Somalia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Niger.
Today the Schusters run the Bicol Clinic Foundation from Dr. Schuster’s family practice just north of the Boca Raton Regional Hospital. After establishing clinics in the Philippines and Nepal, Bicol is now working to open their third in Le Pretre, Haiti, by repurposing a modest medical building that’s sat vacant for over a decade.
Dr. Schuster characterized Bicol as “a small charity with little connections,” yet the organization’s accomplishments are a testament to the commitment of the family, who often serve as a grounding force as the doctor plans medical missions. Each member–Dr. Schuster’s wife Tess, his son Josh, and his daughters Jessica, Jennifer and Jerrica–have played roles from as small as packing boxes to surgical assistance to planning the annual budget.
“My dad’s plans are lofty,” said Josh Schuster, now a real estate developer in New York. “Once we’re starting a new concept he’s onto the next idea.” While in college, Josh laid the blueprint for Bicol as a sustainable 501(c)(3), while Jennifer assisted in gathering and maintaining the proper documentation. Josh now hosts an annual golf outing from New York and spearheads a gala in Boca Raton to continue raising money for the organization.
Tess accompanies the doctor on most medical relief trips as an assistant and caregiver; she’s fondly referred to as “Momma Tess” in Haiti, Nepal and the Philippines, where she speaks the language and serves as translator. Jessica now serves as executive director. One of her most memorable tasks, she said, was working with the Department of Homeland Security to expedite a Humanitarian Visa process of 15-year-old Haitian boy suffering from a rare brain cancer. During treatment the boy stayed at the Schuster home, where Tess cooked for him, took him to the mall, and enrolled him in school.
Jessica and her father are currently spearheading the plan to open the clinic in Le Pretre, Haiti. The Schusters first came to Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake to provide disaster relief, then returned in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew. The hurricane brought Dr. Schuster, his wife and a small team to Le Pretre, devastated with no outside medical care. To access the village, they forded a river and traveled on small motor scooters across unpaved roads before opening a temporary clinic inside the village’s abandoned hospital site.
Le Pretre, Dr. Schuster decided, “was a place we could affect positive change in a defined area, with a defined population that hadn’t had access to a doctor or nurse in more than 10 years.” He’s since teamed up with Dr. Michel Brutus, a local Haitian physician, to transform the building into a 24/7 health center with an adjacent dormitory for physicians and medical students, designed to accommodate the thousands of residents living nearby.
In Haiti, Dr. Schuster works with local physicians and community members to “learn from the people who know… it’s the only way to become an enlightened human being,” he said. And from Boca, his family figures out logistics behind opening permanent medical clinics in places around the world.
Jessica is now registering Bicol as an officially recognized NGO in Haiti, working with the local village councils and Ministries of Planning, Public Health, and Finance. She’s also in talks with an architect, based in Haiti, to complete the planning and research for a sustainable clinic site.
Bicol Clinic has treated over 55,000 people since 2005, Jessica noted. “I think that my sister, Jerrica, summed our lives up succinctly when she said that our lives have been every little kids’ dream to make the world a better place—only it’s not a dream. It’s our reality,” she said. “As a family, we believe in my father’s dreams, and in a sense of duty, to help as many as possible.”