It’s hard to imagine never having the opportunity to see a doctor. I often think about that when I start to become impatient after sitting for several hours in an emergency waiting room. I don’t know what I would do if I had to wait my whole life for a doctor to see me. For many people around the world, the doctor never comes.
After spending a few short weeks in the Developing World, it’s difficult to return home without a broadened sense of appreciation for all that we have in North America. In 2008, I had the privilege of working alongside volunteers of the Guatemala Stove Project while we retrofitted a yellow school bus into a mobile medical clinic as part of the non-profit’s 10-year anniversary celebrations. The bus was supplied with health care necessities donated from hospitals across Ottawa & the Valley and was driven from Perth, Ontario to the highlands of Guatemala by some adventurous volunteers.
Every winter, the organization travels to the poorest regions of Guatemala to help build masonry cook stoves for Mayan families that traditionally cook and heat their homes with toxic garbage fires that are built in the main living and sleeping area of the home. The project helps alleviate the risk of individuals contracting respiratory illnesses (pneumonia, lung cancer etc.), blindness and burns by building vented stoves that are adapted to Mayan cooking methods. Project volunteers help hundreds of families each year with the support of generous donors and have expanded their aid to include microfinancing, building schools, supporting education programs, providing care packages to refugees and health care visits to extremely remote regions.
During my 10 days with the organization in Guatemala, I helped build masonry cook stoves for Mayan families and was honoured to hear the personal stories of the people we were working with. I learned that many of the Mayan people in Guatemala live on isolated reserves. The reserves have no running water or electricity and most families live in shacks and sleep on dirt floors. The Mayan communities are suffering from deforestation and lack agriculture, which results in most people living on a diet of corn and products derived from corn, like tortillas. Most of the of people I met were malnourished and many I’m told, die from respiratory illnesses by the age of 40.
One of the most heart-wrenching moments of my trip was meeting families who were living under tarps in a remote refugee camp. I was shocked to learn that they had lost their homes and communities during a mudslide caused by Hurricane Stan three years prior and still had no hope of rebuilding. The groups of citizens waited patiently to meet us and were excited to receive the little care packages we brought with us. They were very thankful for the gift of a new hair brush, tooth brush or toy. My heart broke having to leave them behind.
After a week into my trip, I had the chance to spend a day in the organization’s school bus medical clinic as it traveled into another rural community. It was evident from the moment we pulled up how dire the need for this clinic was. Teams of volunteer doctors and nurses worked hard to address each and every person who came in. Some patients had severe dental issues; others were covered in scabies from head to toe. I met a little girl who lost her ability to walk after she stepped on a piece of broken glass and her foot became severely swollen and infected. There was limited pain-alleviating medicine available to deal with these issues but the patients were so grateful to receive the help that they soldiered through. Health care is not something most people can afford in Guatemala. For those living beyond a major city, seeking treatment typically requires a lengthy journey to a hospital that the sick or injured cannot make.
When I think back on my trip to Guatemala, I am reminded that my community is much bigger than my own back yard. I know the importance of showing solidarity to my fellow global citizens and the magnitude that even the smallest act of kindness can mean to someone who is struggling, whether near or far. In these current times of divisiveness and discord, I think it’s important to remember that we are all a part of the human race and our needs are the very same. In the words of Martin Luther King, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” If we see a need in our local or global community, let’s do our best to meet it. Together, we can achieve greatness and make our world a better place.