Rotarians from throughout Wisconsin, along with other Midwestern medical professionals, came together in January to bring much-needed health care to residents of rural Guatemala. Their eight-day mission trip to the community of Oliveros marked the 10th year that the Guatemala Medical Resources Partnership had set up its clinic there, providing basic dental, vision and medical care to hundreds of people who otherwise would not receive it. And this year, the Rotary Club of Downtown Racine was a part of that effort.
The Racine Downtown club had been looking for ways to grow its impact in Guatemala since helping build a school computer lab in Antigua about five years ago, said Laura Sumner Coon, president of the Rotary Club of Downtown Racine. When they learned of the GMRP — which was founded by a member of the Thiensville-Mequon Rotary Club — it seemed like a good fit for many reasons, including the “incredible relationships” members of the GMRP have built with Guatemalans, which have allowed the project to continue and expand, Sumner Coon said.
She got to experience those relationships first hand, as one of 15 generalists with this year’s GMRP team of 40-plus, which also included doctors, dentists, physicians’s assistants, a dietician, a pharmacist and interpreters. As they all worked together to provide medical care to more than 800 Guatemalans of all ages, their jobs were made easier by people such as Enrique Gandara, aka Kico, who serves as the team’s ambassador and host in Oliveros.
Born in Guatemala and educated in the U.S., Gandara lives in Madison and still owns his family’s ranch in Oliveros, where they team stays. Gandara, who is also a Rotarian, is well-respected in his native country, and his knowledge and considerable clout provide the team with things such as easier passage through customs and an insider’s view of the needs of the residents, both now and in the future, Sumner Coon said.
The team also made a new on-the-ground connection this year with Floridalma Quintanilla, who now serves as the GMRP’s continued care coordinator. Floryi, as she is known to the team, helps patients who need surgery make the necessary connections and negotiations to receive such care, which they have to travel more than two hours to receive. Surgical care in Guatemala is a very complicated process, Sumner Coon explained, and the GMRP will provide Floryi with a small monthly stipend for her works as coordinator.
Such on-the-ground relationships are essential in making the GMRP’s mission sustainable, and carrying its work beyond the annual clinics, Sumner Coon said.
The entire GMRP experience is something Sumner Coon said she will never forget — from the “happy persistence” of people waiting to be seen by clinic staff, to the dynamics of the GMRP team, who come together as strangers and develop such a strong sense of solidarity and camaraderie as they work for one cause. She recalled how a group of about 20 people, who arrived at the clinic late one day and were told there was already a long waiting list, decided to wait anyway - just for a chance to be seen. They had walked for 2½ hours to reach the clinic and, after waiting for a couple hours in 90-degree temperatures, told her they would have to return home, as it would get dark soon, and there is no light at night.
The group — which included many children — happily took off down the dirt road, Sumner Coon said. And the next morning, at 7 a.m., all of them were back at the clinic, waiting for their turn. “And, they were still smiling,” she said.
Such life lessons are something Brian Jensen said he, too, has experienced both with residents of Guatemala and fellow GMRP team members. And each new clinic brings new experiences, said Jensen, a Racine native who has served as the team’s pharmacist for four years.
“Every year there are new stories and new things I learn about myself,” said Jensen, 57, who now lives in Two Rivers. In January, for instance, he had the opportunity to spend time with a Guatemalan family and what he learned from their live-for-the-moment approach to life stays with him. While Americans tend to plan life far in advance, people in Oliveros live one day at a time, he said. “Each day opens at dawn and closes at dusk, and they live for that time in between.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that their lives are easy, said Jensen, who is a Park High School graduate. “Being poor is very hard. People there worry about whether or not they will have enough to eat.”
His experiences in Guatemala have taught Jensen much about selfless love and servitude, he said.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” he said. “What began as something I should do now is a part of who I am.”
The Rotary Club of Downtown Racine is one of several Wisconsin Rotary clubs that support the GMRP financially, as well as with volunteers. Other financial supporters include two Mequon/Thiensville clubs, one in Two Rivers and one in West Allis. Individuals from other Wisconsin Rotary clubs also support the project as part of the mission team.
Sumner Coon said she hopes more organizations — both within and beyond the Rotary — will join the effort.
“There is endless work to be done in Guatemala.”
The Guatemala Medical Resources Partnership
For more about the Guatemala Medical Resources Partnership, go to www.gmrp.org or the GMRP’s Facebook page.