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Behind the Documentary: A Q&A with Program Officer Estefania Palomino

In May 2020, Living Without Limits, featuring Helmsley grantee Life for a Child, won best NCD short film at the 2020 World Health Organization Health for All Film Festival. Helmsley contracted with the film’s producer, BBC StoryWorks, to make this film possible, with the goal of shining a light on lifesaving work supporting children in Mexico living with type 1 diabetes. Helmsley’s Type 1 Diabetes Program Officer, Estefania Palomino, offers a behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to be a part of this film.

How did the idea for this film come about?

Palomino: Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Global Access portfolio focuses on access to healthcare and essential T1D supplies for vulnerable people living in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). We support organizations working on a variety myriad of strategies to make a difference on people’s lives from grassroots advocacy to healthcare service delivery.

Our grantee, the NCD Alliance partnered with BBC StoryWorks to produce a series on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Providing support for this film was a fantastic opportunity for Helmsley to highlight the experiences of vulnerable children living with T1D in LMICs.

BBC StoryWorks suggested Mexico as a possible location for the video and we immediately reached out to two grantees there, Life for a Child and the Mexican Diabetes Association, to start working on the logistics. I grew up in a small city in Colombia, my native language is Spanish, and I’ve spent a lot of time working on projects in the Latin American region. It was important for the program to showcase the experiences of low-income children and families thriving with T1D outside Mexico’s capital and to make sure their stories were heard. Our team truly cares about understanding the lived experiences of the people we serve and given my background and experience I knew this video would reflect the values of inclusion and representation that both Helmsley and Life for a Child stand for.

What did you learn during the process of creating this film? How will that learning impact your work moving forward?

Palomino: For me, this process drove home the fact that there are no limits to what you can achieve living with T1D. I learned these lessons from the children in the video – America and Alexis, their wonderful families, and the committed people working on access to T1D care in Guadalajara.

The film is told through the lens of America, Alexis, and their families. The most moving scenes in this documentary were driven by them. Helmsley and Life for a Child were a part of the story, but we wanted the children and their families to be the protagonists. They are truly extraordinary individuals whose bravery and strength I will remember for the rest of my life. This entire experience has increased my determination to prevent similarly amazing people from ever having to go without the resources they need and deserve.

What do you want people to know about children – especially children in underserved communities – living with Type 1 diabetes? What do you hope people take away from this film?

Palomino: You can live a full and wonderful life with T1D. You need access to insulin, essential tools such as glucometers and test strips, and a lot of support from your family and community to be educated and empowered to decide how to manage your disease. We can all make a difference in children’s lives by raising awareness about this disease and other chronic NCDs.

The stories of children and their families in Guadalajara demonstrate how invaluable LFAC’s supplies and support are – children and their families are given glucometers, syringes, lancets, and 4 daily test strips per child. They also receive diabetes education so that they acquire the monitoring skills that allow them to live a healthy and “different kind of normal” life. In addition, children receive medical, nutrition, and psychology consultations.

We should also encourage our governments to adopt healthcare policies that incorporate diagnosis and treatment of T1D as essential medicines and services.

The families featured in this film are strong, resilient. Is that a common thread among the families Helmsley grants are helping?

Palomino: Anyone who thrives with a life-altering disease such as T1D is strong and resilient. This disease creates a huge burden on individuals and their families. Children need to constantly check their glucose levels, make dosing decisions, and inject insulin multiple times a day. The families that our grantees support around the world are very strong and resourceful. They often have to fight this disease with limited access to medicines, essential supplies, and even food. Our partners offer life-changing support for these families but it is not enough. We need public health systems that can provide essential services and empower their patients and we also need a strong civil society represented by people living with chronic NCDs advocating for necessary improvements and holding governments accountable.

What does it mean to you for this film to win best noncommunicable diseases short film at the 2020 World Health Organization Health for All Film Festival?

Palomino: Receiving this prize from the WHO was an honor for the BBC StoryWorks team, Helmsley, Life for a Child, Mexican Diabetes Association in Jalisco, Alexis, America, and their families. This prize is also a big advocacy win for the T1D community. The WHO and other multilateral organizations are now raising awareness about chronic NCDs such as T1D and encouraging Ministries of Health around the world to do more for people affected by these conditions.

For a long time, NCD discussions have revolved around preventable conditions and behavior modification. We need to recognize that there are millions of low-income people already living with chronic NCDs, many of which are not preventable. Blaming them or stigmatizing them is not going to reduce the burden of NCDs. Instead, we should focus on providing everyone access to the lifesaving care they need, regardless of where they live or their ability to pay. Many children in Guadalajara and other low-resource settings develop T1D and die before they get the care they need. Fighting stigma, providing medically-accurate information, care, and supplies is essential to save children’s lives and allowing them to reach their potential.

We need more stories told by people living with NCDs to show that individuals, communities, and governments can really make a difference in fighting these diseases.