Spring Garden Church in rural Cannon Falls sent 13 participants on a health-promotion mission trip to Guatemala in mid-August. "There have been youth who have gone on mission trips but this was the first one for adults," explained participant Val Haggstrom. "We have four people in our congregation who are from Guatemala so it was a good fit for us."
Arrangements were made with ILAG (Iglesia Luterana Augustina Guatemala), the Augustinian Lutheran Church of Guatemala, to present a health retreat to health promotors from villages throughout Guatemala.
Classes included first aid and public health - the commute to the closest doctor in some areas of the Central American country can be as long as six hours. Returning after their weeklong mission, they reflected on their journey.
When they arrived at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City (population 7 million), Guatemala's capital and largest of the nation's cities, they proceeded to their accommodations at ILAG, the home of the local bishop. Walls embedded with glass chards surrounded them for their own safety and two armed guards maintained a 24-hour watch.
Explained Val, "A civil war from 1960 to 1996 in which people were being slaughtered in their villages, had resulted in people moving from their unprotected villages to the relative safety of Guatemala City. Guatemala City has wealth near the top of the mountain and as you go down, it gets poorer and poorer with shacks filling the mountainside."
Among the 13 were five group members trained to facilitate medical issues. They were Christy Collins and Bekki Bakken, both RNs in Rochester; Casey Haggstrom, a paramedic with Allina; Katie Sjoblom, a nursing student in Rochester; and Jeff Sjoblom, a Goodhue County Sheriff's Deputy and first responder.
Sixteen health promoters from villages in the mountainous country, including four women (one with a six month old baby) traveled by boat, bus and on foot for 12 to 14 hours to attend, each having volunteered or having been asked to take classes to benefit the people of their villages.
They traveled on the roads amid political protests by indigenous Guatemalans for equal rights, causing them wide detours. All were eager and willing to learn and most had never attended health education classes. This was the first time women had attended a retreat.
Topics covered during classes included public health nursing practices, the importance of hand washing, boiling water, dental hygiene, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and reproductive health. First aid training included wound care, burns, infections, suturing, injections, packing macheté wounds, and many other health issues.
Most Guatemalans don't have schooling beyond elementary education. Even those who attend middle and high school don't receive any information about puberty or health education. Villagers have very limited access to reliable health information, with most coming from old wives' tales, folklore and very skewed information from their own government.
All information given during class was translated into Spanish, and questions were translated into English. Pastor Karen Castillo of ILAG and two mission members, Pastor Cindy Fisher-Broin, pastor at Spring Garden, and Guatemalan born Megan Nerison translated for the many hours of classes.
Megan, recalling her memories of a mission trip taken last January, which provided mobile clinics to remote villages said, "This trip has given me better insight on how to incorporate both medical treatment and preventative care in one mission."
The two teenage members of the group, Abby Collins and Emma Fisher, also born in Guatemala, were busy helping where needed. Babysitting the six month old Guatemalan baby who traveled with her mother to the retreat was a favorite pastime, but they also helped in the kitchen and anywhere else they were needed.
A former Cannon Falls science teacher, Todd Thompson, is a volunteer at ILAG. The group was very surprised and excited to find a familiar face in Guatemala City. Todd is the music director at ILAG, and also taxied the kitchen crew to get groceries, etc.
Meals were prepared for over 40 people, which also included the Bishop, his family and the staff of ILAG, by fellow mission members Becky Pagel, Wilbur Pagel, Pauline Nerison and Val Haggstrom.
Prepared in Guatemalan tradition, meals included a lot of corn tortillas, beans, rice, eggs, vegetables, etc. Recalled Val, "The tortillas were made by a local neighborhood street vendor and were delivered still warm." She continued, "Water from the tap was unsafe to drink or to use in coffee and food preparation. Bleach was used to sanitize dishwashing water. They promote water conservation, so we were careful not to be wasteful."
Kitchen scraps were composted in the back yard where chickens congregated, and Killer, the pit bull, roamed freely at night, providing another layer of safety.
Within the city of some seven million people, Val remembered that "chickens, goats and dogs could be heard 24/7."
The mission team also visited the school operated by ILAG, where they read Bible stories (in Spanish) and did crafts with 65 kids. Pillowcase dresses, made by Urland Church and Spring Garden member Eleanor Hultman, were given to each little girl and toy cars and trucks donated by Noah Sjoblom were given to each student at the school.
Said Christy Collins, "This trip has made me fall in love with the country and people of Guatemala. It opened my eyes to the hardships that the people endure, and I felt honored to be able to offer my help and prayers where they were needed."
Echoing that sentiment, Bekki Bakken added "This trip certainly put things in perspective. Things that mattered before, seemed small when I got home. We are extremely blessed in America and not of our own doing. We were just fortunate to be born here; and it is our duty, being so privileged, to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
Reflecting, Katie Sjoblom posited, "I feel like I am now more strict with my kids regarding finishing their meals. Often they want something other than what I prepared. The people there are just happy to have food. I do not want my kids to think everyone lives like they do. My kids need to be happy they have food and thankful for full tummies.
Casey Haggstrom stated, "After coming home, I continue to be humbled by the experience." She postulated, "We are so lucky to live in this country where we have easy access to basic and advanced health care. Our pharmacies have ample supplies of medication. Our doctors are only a few miles from us. We have instant access to any information we could ever need. This trip was a good reminder that I truly have nothing to complain about."
Added Christy, "It made me realize how lucky we truly are to have the opportunities and resources and healthcare and education that we have here in the USA."
The teens in the group had a similar takeaway: Said Abby Collins, "It made me realize that I am very lucky for what I have. I won't complain as much and I will always tell myself that I am very lucky." And for Emma Fisher, "A new door has now opened into a world I've never known."
There were also moments of surprise during the groups eight-day mission as recalled by Val: "The group slept through two earthquakes and a scorpion interrupted a worship service. A boy attending the service screamed very loudly and yelled, "SCORPION" between the Spanish and English chorus of a song. Several people jumped out of the way, including the Bishop. Once the spider was stomped on, the service continued."
And a convenience factor was noted, "No warm or hot water - cold showers!" exclaimed Pauline Nerison, adding "Thirteen of us formed the "Polar Bear Club."
Following the 10 a.m. Worship Service on Sunday, October 6, at Spring Garden Church, the mission group will talk about their trip, and serve a Guatemalan lunch of chicken fajitas with all the fixings.