Southern Virginia Students Provide Service in Guatemala

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“I can’t believe it,” Michael Gibbons exclaimed. “A home used to be here.”

Gibbons and Nelson McNaughton were looking at a muddy hill. A week previously, a mudslide in the Guatemalan countryside had buried a home and its occupants, including a grandfather, a mother and her six children. The only one left alive was a ten year-old boy, Elian.

Gibbons, the student support director at Southern Virginia University, and McNaughton, a junior from Sewell, N.J., met Elian when they hiked to his new ten-foot by ten-foot home where he now lives with his father, great-uncle and other family members. Elian’s severely sprained ankle and other injuries kept him from walking to the medical clinic where Gibbons and McNaughton were volunteering.

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They found Elian lying on the bed almost motionless. They removed stitches from his head injury and cleaned his wounds. Locals later showed Gibbons and McNaughton the muddy hill where Elian’s house once stood. The only evidence that it was once a dwelling place were the pots, pans and children’s shoes poking out of the mud.

Gibbons and McNaughton were among ten members of a Southern Virginia University medical service trip to Guatemala from June 8 to July 1. They provided humanitarian aid at medical and dental clinics, built wood stoves, worked in orphanages and trained local EMTs.

This was the university’s third international medical service trip. In 2008, a group provided medical and dental service in Ghana and then in 2009, another group traveled to Ecuador. This year instead of returning to Ecuador, the Travel Study office decided to pilot a new program in Guatemala. Just one week before their departure, the Pacaya volcano erupted followed days later by Tropical Storm Agatha.

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“The timing of our trip was quite remarkable,” Gibbons said. “The purpose of our trip was already humanitarian service, but the eruption of Pacaya followed by Tropical Storm Agatha just weeks before our arrival made for even more poignant opportunities to help.”

In some locations, villages had lost homes, roads and crops because of Tropical Storm Agatha. One area did not have running water or electricity, and people received water from large trucks transporting hundreds of gallons at a time. They then drew water from large plastic containers and carried the water home by hand. The Southern Virginia volunteers helped carry water to local homes, some of which were made of cinderblock walls and wooden posts that held up the tin roofs.

“I hear third-world country, and I could just never possibly imagine the things that I saw there, the experiences that I had or the people that I met,” said Skyler Marchant, a senior from Atlanta, Ga. “It was just a really humbling experience for me. To see that they don’t have anything, and yet they are still noticing the hand of Heavenly Father in their lives.”

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More than 56 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty. Many people live in rural villages with no hospitals, safe drinking water or proper waste disposal. As a result, they suffer from malnutrition and diseases. With the recent natural disasters, even more were displaced from their homes and villages.

The group brought more than 600 pounds of supplies with them in their luggage including gloves, medical kits, gauzes, stethoscopes and 1,000 pairs of eyeglasses. The group also brought shoes, baby formula, sheets, school supplies and clothing for orphanages. Many items were donated from the local rescue squad, Lions Club, local businesses and churches.

Supplies were distributed as the group went out in rural villages to meet with locals and provide medical assistance. Each day, the group traveled in small groups out of Tecpan to remote villages where there were no doctors available. They offered medical assistance to individuals who were suffering from a variety of ailments.

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The group also spent time building energy efficient stoves at an elementary school in the hills just outside of Salama. The old stoves had no chimneys attached and smoke billowed out from the small gap between the room’s tin roof and walls. The new stoves now require half as much wood as the old ones.

At Anini, a special-needs orphanage, some had the opportunity from five in the morning until dinnertime to play, bathe, feed and change the children. At the same time, others had the opportunity to assist volunteer dentists at a clinic in Guatemala City. Dentists at the clinic treat orphans in addition to young men and women preparing to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but who could not afford dental examinations.

In another town, they trained volunteer emergency medical squads in basic emergency care such as CPR, how to stabilize someone’s neck after an accident and how to correctly strap a patient on a backboard. The students and Barbara van Kuiken, an associate professor of chemistry at Southern Virginia, had previously taken an EMT course and had either been certified as basic EMTs or were waiting to take the exam.

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They also gave presentations at schools and traveled door-to-door teaching individuals and families about hygiene and the importance of drinking purified water.

While in Guatemala, they met with Elder Don R. Clarke who was a volunteer at Southern Virginia before his call as general authority. He now serves as the Central America area president.

Van Kuiken was impressed with the willingness of students to help whenever and however they could. One small village was forced to move after mudslides had destroyed many of their homes. With the likelihood of another mudslide, villagers now lived in a field with few supplies and little shelter.

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For more photos, see this Facebook page.

While in the village, students spent time distributing clothing, shoes, supplies and a variety of goods. When the group was running out of items for teenagers, one student asked if he could give his own shirt. Van Kuiken told him he could do what he felt comfortable doing and with no hesitation, he literally gave the teenager the shirt off of his own back.

In van Kuiken’s opinion, the preceding natural disasters in Guatemala created an environment in which the Southern Virginia students had the chance to give so much more of themselves because there was great need.

“Service changes both the people you are serving and those who serve,” van Kuiken said. “The people who are being served have a better life than they had before. Those who serve have their hearts opened and their love for others increases. The students were able to give so much more of themselves because there was so much more need.”