The sun was still high in the sky as party-goers gathered at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland for a cocktail party celebrating the 20th anniversary of Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic, a nonprofit organization that provides personal care and health education.

“We are really here to recognize our sponsors,” explained Michelle Stirling, family nurse practitioner and fundraising chair for a program that sees physicians, nurses, interpreters, students and faculty embarking on twice-yearly sojourns to the Caribbean nation to provide health care.

“This program is a service learning trip and a collaboration between Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic and University of Southern Maine. We host this event every year to say thank you.”

“It is a service learning health mission,” adds Anne Keith, board treasurer, trip founder and pediatric nurse practitioner. “What’s different about our program is we’ve worked with the same group of villages for 20 years. We see between 1,500 and 1,700 people each time we go, offering wellness and primary care.”

On one of the warmest days of the year thus far, more than 50 guests mingled in the sunny restaurant and spilled over onto the sidewalk outside, enjoying Winter Point oysters on the half shell and an assortment of local beer and wine.

Board member Elizabeth Baldacci was joined by her husband Robert. Trip volunteer Cheryl Dubois, a nurse at Central Maine Medical Center, was joined by her friend and fellow volunteer Danielle Marshall, a nurse at Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta.

“This particular program is why I chose to go to USM,” said Dubois, who praised the program’s board members and volunteers. “They are amazing mentors and wonderful people, and they have made such a huge commitment to the program.”

“Students are taking this program for credit,” explains Whitney Lutz, board president, lead faculty member for the USM community partnership and a pediatric nurse practitioner. “They spend the first semester preparing for their trip, and then they take the trip.”

University of Southern Maine nursing students Mary Crowley, Erin Wadlinger and Sonya McDonald were joined by their friend Bridget Dotterweich, who studies geo-anthropology at USM. All four women will be joining the organization for its trip in July.

“I am nervous and excited,” said Wadlinger. “I’m expecting to want to go back and make it a part of my practice.”

Patty Hennessey, board member, interpreter and safety coordinator for the trips, offered a special thank you to trip sponsor Mary Ann Rodrigue.

“I started going on trips as a student seven years ago,” explained Hennessey, “…and it has changed my life in so many ways.”

Dave Olivares, a recent nursing graduate from USM, joined the celebration with his girlfriend Elizabeth Finn of Boston.

“Patty (Hennessey) convinced me to be an interpreter on a trip in 2011,” said Olivares of his experience, “and I decided to go to nursing school because of that trip.”

Janice Jaffe, director for interpreting and translation and secretary of the board, was joined by fellow interpreter and board member Anne Grimes.

“This has given me a real appreciation and understanding for people of another culture who don’t have access to medical care like we do in this country,” Jaffe said. “What you see is the providers … they are deeply committed to learning, they are deeply committed to understanding and they are deeply committed to helping. It all adds up to excellent care.”

For more information about Partners for Rural Health in the Dominican Republic, please visit www.prhdr.org.

Margaret Logan is a freelance writer who lives in Scarborough.