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In less than 12 hours, 35 people from AdventHealth woke up, hopped on two planes and took the hour-long bus-ride through the highlands of Guatemala to their hotel in Antigua, a 495-year-old city.
It was Saturday, October 12, the 11th year of AdventHealth’s one-week mission trip alongside the nonprofit, One More Child. The Lakeland, Florida-nonprofit funnels volunteers to locations all over the world, but this group was to attend to more than 50 children at a malnutrition center an hour outside Antigua.
Surprisingly, the lactation station has one of the largest impacts on the community. Why? The country is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, but 1 million children under five suffer from malnutrition in Guatemala, according to the World Health Bank.
The lack of nutrients can stunt their growth, freezing their bodies in time, causing a 17-year-old young man to look closer to the age of seven or 10. But at the malnutrition center, mothers nurse children who aren’t their own and nurses educate the teams about its importance, distribute formula and administer care.
As DeAnna Berkes, the director of global operations at One More Child, said during the first day’s devotion:
“Father, I just pray we would be fruitful and productive.”
Veterans of the mission trip to Antigua call the drive to the malnutrition center the five “Fs.”
Forest, farm, fumes, furniture and flowers.
Each are on grand display on the way to the “Asociación de la Esperanza de la Niños,” or the Association of the Hope of the Children.
When AdventHealth and One More Child first arrived Monday, there was a brief prayer inside the two vans as per tradition. Then, everyone dispersed for a flurry of activity until a late lunch, at 2:30 p.m. and a brief wind-down until about 4:30 p.m.
During the day, our volunteer team played with the children, brushed their teeth and helped them eat. One group repaired water damage to the building, another put on a short play about the book of Samuel. Others divided up bags of food for the kids’ families to take home, and another sorted and took inventory of all the goods donated by AdventHealth team members.
“There’s more than 2,000 diapers, over 100 shoes and about 100 containers of formula,” said Abel Biri, CEO of AdventHealth Waterman, who helped take inventory the first day. “And we still got a bunch more to go.”
During all this, a small dental team cleaned 14 mouths, filled out cavities and extracted rotten teeth.
Amid all the adult work, the children played. They ran in circles and made jokes, they latched onto legs and showed off their newly-cleaned teeth. They squealed in delight as volunteer Thomas Karastamatis chased them around the hallway yelling, “Soy el monstruo!” or, “I am the monster!”
But then, it was time to go.
“Adios, niños!” he said. “Hasta mañana!”
On the second day, a plume of volcanic ash spilled out of the Volcan de Fuego like smoke from a chimney, just three miles from the hotel. But the mopeds and motorbikes, buses and “tuctucs,” drove along during this everyday occurrence.
The other volcano, Volcan de Agua, was silent as it had been for more than 10,000 years.
The team arrived to the center in the rain, where several families, dressed in the traditional Mayan clothing of earthy-rainbow colors, are waiting outside to be registered.
In the center, some of the kids’ teeth are black from rot, or they’re very quiet. Some have lice in their hair or were dropped off by parents who couldn’t care for them. Almost all of them have runny noses, and there isn’t enough paper or tissues to spare to wipe them.
The mud from their feet that’s brought into the center is mopped twice a day with a rag that’s cut and fitted over a broom, because real mops are both in short supply and difficult to clean. But AdventHealth volunteers, in addition to their duties on the first day, swept and mopped the floors to support the Guatemalan teachers.
“The people in this country risk their lives to get to our country and sweep our floors,” said Lester, a volunteer. “We pay money to get to their country and sweep their floors, and it’s a joy.”
The third day is sponsorship day.
Sixty-eight families would be coming into the center to pick up nearly 20 pounds of donated food for the month. Other kids would be coming to meet their sponsor.
With $35, anyone can sponsor a Guatemalan child to pay for their school supplies and regular medical care, as well as fund the cost of the 20 pounds of food for them and their family every month. Some parents have taken several buses over several hours to get to the center to pick up their food and join in the activities.
Family pictures were taken. Classes on women’s rights and child care were given. Children visiting for the day jumped on donated tricycles and rode around the hallways.
AdventHealth DeLand CEO Lorenzo Brown, who’s been coming to the center for about 10 years, had been wearing scrubs and handing dentists their instruments for the last three days. The dental clinic has only been around for a couple years, he said, and the center had evolved over those years, too.
“A mental shift between ‘taking care of kids’ and ‘how can we integrate the parent into the care’ has been taking place,” he said of the food being distributed to families.
Since arriving, a team of AdventHealth volunteers had broken down more than 5,500 pounds of beans, rice and sugar into 5-pound sized bags. Many were used that sponsorship day.
One More Child has arranged for teams from numerous organizations to be at the center for about 30 weeks of the year. But DeAnna Berkes, the director of global operations for the nonprofit, said this has been the most productive. “They’re [AdventHealth] always the one that bring the most donations,” she said. “When you hand them a mop, they mop.”
By the fourth and final day, more than 55 dental patients had received extensive oral care. Another 63 suit cases brought over by our team, filled with school supplies, toys and clothes, had been broken down and allotted, in addition to the 2.5 tons of food the team unpacked. But many team members didn’t feel pride, exactly.
They felt humility.
The week had been exhausting and it was only Thursday, the day before the team flew back home, but both Guatemalan children and adults marched on. Every day, they walked up and down hills, through fumes and loud traffic, past stray dogs and the public laundry house, crammed into buses or hopped on the back of a pickup, and went home, which was often a one-bedroom, concrete floor.
When children left the dentists with a few less teeth and a swollen mouth, they choked back tears with red eyes. Even when “el monstruo” chased them down the halls, the children’s excitement never boiled over into fraught emotions. They just squealed in delight. “If I did that in the states,” Thomas said. “There would be tears.”
Abel Biri agreed. He said he always walked away from his time in Guatemala indebted to them.
“You always get back more than what you put in,” he said.