Guatemala: Reflecting on 10 years of service

By: Erica Lampert ~Staff Writer~

Photo courtesy of Emmalee Phelps | Sophomore Maria Hill poses with a first-grader in San Andres.

Wrapping up their 10th year providing healthcare to people in Guatemala, Xavier students and staff can reflect on what they’ve done and what still needs to be accomplished.

A decade ago, Executive Director of the Center for Interfaith Community Engagement Rabbi Abie Ingber entered a 10-year moral compact with a small community in Guatemala. The goal was to provide every single home with filtered water, as well as a clinic providing health care.

The annual trip will now shift its focus to a different community, but Ingber and his students want their work in the original village to endure after their departure.

“What we said was that we were ready to come for 10 years. We are ready to be as involved as we can, given the finite dimension of what we can do. But if we do that for 10 years, we would have raised up 120 amazing Xavier students with experiences that will last them for decades, and we would have spent half a million bucks. But, in the 11th year, when that child is sick, that child is going to die. So really, what are we doing?” Ingber said.

The small village the team visited in Guatemala had no doctor to care for the 278 families living there. However, there is a third-year medical student attending Guatemala’s medical school that will take over what the doctors and Xavier students are leaving behind. There are also a few young women who are nursing assistants to provide care to the community and help with the clinic.

“The sustainability aspect of this trip is something I am very passionate about,” student Sean Lewis said. “Not only does this trip inspire us as aspiring medical doctors and nurses by immersing ourselves in the culture and giving us amazing experiences, but we wanted to make sure this helped out the people over there.”

The team also successfully put an end to the chronic diarrhea that affected almost all of the infants born in the small village, as well as improved the dental hygiene of all of the village’s population through health education.

“We did dental education down there and saw when we traveled there this year that the kids were always one step ahead of us, and they were fantastic — all of them had great teeth and this will always stay with the people,” Lewis said.

“The community did not understand the importance of brushing their teeth before we arrived there,” assisting pediatrician Dr. Lauri Pramuk said. “Every single one of the children’s teeth had major cavities and (the children) had no idea how important good dental hygiene was to their heart and nutrition. I made every student involved in the trip research a health care topic and create a short 5-10 minute video in Spanish to play in the waiting room to help develop this education.”

While the trip’s aim was to impact the villages of Guatemala, the Xavier students who attended the trip left feeling deeply impacted themselves, Lewis said.

“What I saw from the doctors on our trip, and what we did over there, we absolutely paid attention to the whole person. We helped every single child and adult that we could down there. That has helped me grow as a future medical doctor — about how to pay attention to those you are serving,” he added.

“Not being able to communicate with others and trying to be patient through this whole process and trying your best to understand what their situation is, is something that was one of the most challenging things. However, I learned how to put myself in other people’s shoes when trying to take care of others,” student Tamara Mahmoud said.

The students also had holistic experiences that were not a part of the patient care as they connected with each other. Several students traveled around the village and studied Mayan culture after the hours they were required to volunteer.

“We went where we wanted to go to embrace Mayan spirituality. We went to the ruins, to see what the greatness of the Mayan civilization might have been like, and the cause and its factors…. It was really incredible,” Ingber said.

“This trip was such an enlightening experience and so fulfilling. We went with an amazing group of people, and I even had philosophical conversations with people on this trip. It gave me a really holistic experience that wasn’t just another thing I could add to my resume,” senior Ali Ahmed said.

Moving forward, program participants said they hope to continue the work and relationships that began in Guatemala.

“We all grew so close to one another, with the lack of social media and technology, we were able to have engaging conversations every single night and throughout the day. I’m sure we will have each other’s back forever,” Lauren Francis said.