Chortling children peered through the barred windows of their one-room schoolhouse and into the makeshift clinic. They stood captivated by a group of WSU volunteers supplying free medical and dental services to villagers in remote regions of Zacapa, Guatemala.
Amid the organized chaos inside, I led 9-year-old Lucía, dental patient No. 34 that day, through the sweltering 90-degree room and to an empty wooden desk. I had just finished asking the bubbly child her name, age and where her mouth hurt when another volunteer dentist summoned me to translate for him.
I had quickly realized that the scarcity of Spanish-speakers on this spring break medical mission made my language skills an indispensible commodity.
Making my way past the “washing station,” where dental instruments were sanitized and readied for immediate reuse, I saw the WSU alum and dentist from Spokane gently tilt Lucía’s head back against the cool cement wall and inject her tiny gums with a donated supply of lidocaine.
Later, Dr. Stephen Woodard would estimate that he pulled about 1,000 teeth in five days. He was one of six dentists on the trip.
“She is a champion,” Lucía’s grandmother assured me with a smile. “She’ll be all right.”
I smiled back.
Hearts in Motion (H.I.M.), the nonprofit based out of Indiana, has been sending groups of volunteers to Guatemala, Ecuador and Honduras for almost 30 years. In March, two WSU alumni and return volunteers helped H.I.M. lead a group of 43 WSU students and faculty on the trip.
Each day for a week, roughly 100 Guatemalans walked several miles and waited for up to five hours in hopes of receiving medical attention. We did not have the proper diagnostic equipment or medicine to help all of them. The people we could help showered us in gratitude, hugs and ever-present smiles – even those who knew the fix was temporary.
“We don’t have all the answers,” Karen Scheeringa-Parra, founder and executive director of H.I.M., told the volunteers on the first day. “We don’t know how to fix all their problems. All we can really do is offer these people hope and show them that we care about them.”
According to the CIA World Factbook, almost 60 percent of the population in Guatemala is below the national poverty line and 15 percent lives in extreme poverty on less than US $1 per day. Poverty among the 38 percent of the population comprised of indigenous groups, some of which we worked with, averages 76 percent, and extreme poverty rises to 28 pecent.
As metal clinched and bone cracked, those statistics became real to me.
Forty-three percent of children there under 5 years old are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.
I saw young girls simultaneously carry baby siblings on their hips, balance jars of water on their heads and lead tussling cousins in tow. We drove down desolate streets spotted with small bands of children who trekked for miles at dusk to get home from school, work or play.
As some children with large, round bellies picked through garbage at a dump and others cried while waiting in line for free food, that statistic became real to me.
Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. In 2010, approximately 55 murders a week were reported in Guatemala City, according to the Factbook.
I met a 51-year-old woman who told me how her grandson, 6-year-old Andrés who was curled up on her lap, lost his family to a vengeful gang member who gunned down her daughter and granddaughter in a street outside Guatemala City. She said despite the fact that the shooting happened mid-day at an outdoor market, no one would endanger themselves or their families to testify against such a powerful man, so he walks free today.
“Are you Christian?” she asked me, wiping tears from her eyes. I told her I wasn’t. “I used to be. But I don’t believe in God anymore,” she said.
After a long pause, fresh tears wet both our cheeks.
“She had beautiful light skin, just like you,” she said, smiling. “My daughter was beautiful, just like you.”
I smiled back. And suddenly, that statistic became painfully real to me.
I had read about many aspects of Latin American culture, economies and social issues from textbooks and Spanish classes at WSU. In Guatemala, I saw those lessons come to life.
Over the course of a week, students and medical professionals contributed to clothing donations, construction at the nutrition center, surgery at the Zacapa hospital, dental and medical clinics in rural villages and speech rehabilitation.
Although the students often could not supply a long-term solution, they returned to Pullman with countless stories about the resilience of the human spirit and the power of hope, demonstrating the long-term impact the H.I.M. spring break mission made on their lives – and for many, their careers.
Dr. Mark Paxton, a WSU zoology alumnus and oral surgeon from Spokane, has spent his spring vacation performing free cleft palate surgeries in Zacapa Regional Hospital for the last 20 years. About four years ago, he recruited his college roommate Howard S. Wright III, a Latin American studies alumnus of WSU and CEO of Seattle Hospitality, to translate and help organize the trip for a growing number of WSU student volunteers every year.
The program will be offered again next year for WSU students through the education abroad office.