Bringing Therapy to San Pedro

Last June we had the blessing of being chosen to be the mission project for VBX (Vacation Bible [E]Xperience) at Westside Church.  They blessed me with a trip up to be part of this special week and I got to enjoy being with the Children's Ministry in which I served more than a few years ago. It was a special time to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

Kitchen before

As part of the VBX project, the church wanted to help build a house of a needy family in Guatemala.  Reason to Hope partnered with Love Guatemala Canada to build a house for Angela and her five granddaughters.  Her daughter (the girls' mother) had recently died in childbirth and the father could not handle it and disappeared.  Grandma stepped in, but was clearly not prepared to take on this responsibility.  Partnering with Love Guatemala, we were able to rebuild on the site of their present house, but providing a more permanent, safe and sanitary home in which to raise the girls.  We will continue to check in on this family and help them as we can.

Kitchen after
The second part of the VBX project was to enable us to build on to the existing men's home to allow us to begin a community outreach project.  The main focus of this center will be to provide physical, occupational and educational therapy as well as family support to the residents of San Pedro where we are located.  We will work with local therapists who will do the evaluation and treatment planning, and our staff will help the patients carry out the in-home therapy prescribed for them. 

The soon to be Outreach Center
under construction
While it is true that there is physical therapy available in Antigua, about 5 miles away, for many with physical disabilities this is an impossible distance to travel if they don't have a car.  (Imagine trying to get a wheelchair on to a school bus--that's what our folks face.)  Often they don't have the money to pay the required therapy fee.  Sometimes, especially in the cases of older adults, there is no one to take them. 

Many times family members are not compliant with therapy recommendations because the process is uncomfortable for the patient and they don't like it.  Our hope is to have the parents and caregivers come to our center and we will coach and encourage them to do the needed exercises and movements to prevent further deterioration of their bodies.  Adults often have no one who will do their therapy exercises with them, and we will fill that gap. 

Roberto, one of our residents, working with Blanca
who comes to us for educational therapy
A number of younger children or those with more significant disabilities in our town do not receive any educational services.  There is a quality special needs school in the next town, but it is a formal school program and often these children have be isolated and are not socially, emotionally, or behaviorally ready to attend school.  We are working with them to develop the needed skills to go to school, or, in the case of more severely limited children, will work to develop whatever abilities they have.  

This is Lester, an eight year old with a severe heart
problem who is unable to walk.  Through our Outreach
we were able to provide his mom with a jogging stroller so
she no longer needs to carry him up the mountain on her back.

Because of the men living in the home, and especially Fidel's recycling business, our house is already known as a place people can come for help.  Through these programs we hope to become more open to the community, meet the people's human needs, and lead them to know Jesus who can meet their every need.  What an honor and a privilege.

Alvaro is a fourth grade student at New Life School in the Mayan village of Santa Maria de Jesus in Guatemala where our ministry works.  He is one of the kindest and most well behaved children I have met in 30+ years of working in special education.

In April, 2018  Alvaro began having difficulty walking and speaking.  Having had a brain tumor removed previously, his parents were duly concerned and took him to the national hospital for diagnosis.  It was discovered that the tumor had returned and was pressing on his brain stem.  His symptoms were worsening rapidly.

It was amazing to see the compassion of Alvaro's classmates and they
helped him while his condition worsened.
It was discovered that his tumor had regrown.  While it was a benign tumor, it had a vascular core (think a spaghetti-like ball made up of arteries and and veins) requiring lengthy and complicated surgery, with the risk of severe bleeding.  Untreated,  the tumor's continued growth would have put more and more pressure on his brain, and his condition will deteriorate.  Without this surgery, he would have, according to our surgeon, died a "slow and painful death."

The family discussing treatment options with our friend and
neurosurgeon, Dr. P.
Due to the gravity of this tumor, he needed  to receive the surgery by a private surgeon in a private hospital here in Guatemala.  While not costing much more than the copay would have  been for surgery in the US, the cost was astronomical to this Guatemalan family.

His family committed to do all they could to raise these funds, but they are farmers who sell their produce at a local market and have very limited resources.  They sold some of their land and possessions and asked for help from relatives and friends.  Their only other option was to borrow money. Here this comes with an exorbitant interest rate of up to 25%.  Borrowing the money the family would never be out of debt and risk losing what property they still have.

The family never asked for help, only emotional support, advice and prayer.  However, God convicted me that, while we do not usually take on projects of this magnitude, Alvaro was to be an exception.  I felt led to start a GoFundMe page (not our usual method of making a needed known), and withing 20 days we had the needed funds for him to have his surgery.  The majority of the donations came from people I did not even know.  (I guess God knew where the funds would come from.  I'm so glad I followed his prompting!)

The next hurdle was to get 9 people to donate his exact blood-type.  Nine blood donors is a challenge anywhere, but here in Guatemala it is especially difficult.  There is much misunderstanding and even superstition here associated with donating blood and folks are very reluctant to do so.  God, however, that this and within one week we had the needed blood banked at the hospital.

Two of our champion blood donors, Nizsa, a teacher at the school and Dani, a companion-caregiver at our home.

The end of August, Alvaro was successfully operated upon and 98% of the benign tumor was removed. What could not be removed due to its location on the brain stem is scheduled to be radiated to prevent it from returning. We are grateful to God, the medical professionals involved, and especially the donors who made this happen.

Alvaro has made a miraculous recovery, leaving the hospital only 8 days after the eleven and one-half hour surgery. He receives therapy three times a week to help with mobility and strength, but is a champion fighter.

We had not anticipated the need for radiation and will need to raise approximately $5000 to cover the cost of future treatment and therapy. If you can help with this we would be most grateful.

We're not a "flashy" ministry. . .

We are not a very exciting ministry.  We are not called to do dangerous things or go into remote places (at least not yet).  The stories we have to tell are often repetitive and at times mundane.  I can't even often show you pictures of cute kids to tug at your heart strings because we often work with adults, or with children whose privacy we guard for one reason or another.

Sometimes I wish we were more flashy, that we were doing things that would be more exciting and interesting to those of you not living here.  I miss the days when I was free to travel around Guatemala, often with Dick Rutgers, and tell fantastic stories of God's provision.  God still provides, even in miraculous ways, but the provision is pretty low key most of the time.

It's easy for me to get my nose out of joint (a fancy way of saying resent) that other ministries often have exciting things to relate on their Facebook posts and get a lot of positive feed back. Much of what causes my heart to sing in ministry is pretty tame.  Who really cares that both boys in school passed all their classes for the first time, that Fidel is friendly and communicative now and smiles more easily, or that Roberto has gained weight so those who knew him in his previous home would not recognize him now.  What do I have to share that anyone really wants to know?

Fidel just celebrated his 33rd birthday and will
complete five years of living in Casa de Esperanza
on Aug. 28
And this is when I commit the sin of comparison which poisons my ministry and my soul.  I knew I was struggling with "something" feeling like we weren't doing enough, but not knowing what to do.  Then I read this blog post by the wife of one of the men I call "Pastor" and it became clear to me.  I compare us to other ministries and find us lacking in our activities.  I even compare myself to other ministry leaders and feel I fall short.

I see what they do to minister, the risks they take, the places they go, even the way they raise their funds (even those that claim they are not fund-raising are doing so by the stories they tell--and there's nothing wrong with that.  We need to make needs known so God can meet them).  And I feel that I am not enough, don't do enough, am not what I "should" be.  And, as Val says in her blog and my friend Judy has warned me before, Facebook can be the biggest instigator of this sin of comparison.

So, my friends, I am writing this to publicly repent and refocus and ask you to hold me accountable to be who God has called me to be, not who He has called someone else to be.  I am asking you to challenge me to hold faithful to the mission He has imparted to our ministry:  "To improve the lives of the poor and disabled, now and for eternity."  

I promise, even if I think things are uninteresting to you, to write more about what God is doing here to bring this about.  Not to bring glory to us (especially not me--please, I am no hero) but to His Name.  I promise to write and share more not to gain the approval of man but to show the faithfulness of the God who called us here.

This year, as I prayed for a word to guide my walk in 2018, I received the word persistence.  I thought, okay, that's like perseverance, right?  But I felt God in my heart telling me no.  So I began to study the meaning of the two words.

Perseverance implies not giving up, to keep on doing even in the face of opposition. Persistence can and often does have a negative connotation, implying stubbornness and unwillingness to change.  It is an inner attitude as well as a outward stance to maintain what already exists.  To keep on even when it seems that nothing is happening.  To stay the course.

I am to persist in following the first mission statement which God gave to me personally in 2010:  "To glorify God by serving the poor and disabled in Guatemala."  I promise to fight the boredom and routine that can be the enemy of this persistence and tempt me to seek out something more novel and exciting.  My goal is to live here each day in peace and joy, in obedience to who God has called me to be.  Can I urge you to do the same?

Why Bibles?

I know some are wondering why, with all the needs arising from the destruction of the villages of El Rodeo following the eruption of the Fuego volcano, we have decided to focus on providing Bibles to those who have lost everything.

The answer is easy.  After much prayer and consultation, I believe this is what God would have us do.

Many organizations and mission groups are providing for the material needs of those affected by the volcano.  Missionaries are encouraging and praying with survivors as they bring aid to them.  There are many ministries better equipped to provide humanitarian relief than we are. So I asked God what our niche would be in relief efforts.

A few days after the eruption, I received this video from our house manager Brenda. (Sorry it's sideways.  That's how I received it.) She and her family were among those in a shelter in Esquintla, having lost everything to the ash and lava covering her village of La Reina.

Her mother, my friend Rosa, worked with the local civil defense agency, and was helping to manage this shelter.

Her father, Roberto, pastored a church in La Reina and continues to try to pastor those in the shelter.

My heart broke watching this video.  Having worshiped with some of these folks in the past at there church in La Reina, I knew most of them would have had Bibles in their hands if they had them.  I thought about what it would be like to lose my favorite Bible.  My heart hurt.

As I continued to pray for my friends and acquaintances in this area (this church sponsored a concert to benefit our ministry less than a year ago), God placed in my heart a desire to replace a bit of what they had lost.  The answer I got was, "Give them Bibles."

So that is what we are doing.  Working with Pastor Roberto and the missionaries who are taking humanitarian relief to the area, we will supply them with Bibles.  We will focus primarily on the shelter in Esquintla which Rosa is helping to oversee, because we have access to the people living there, more than 600 men, women and children.  As these Bibles are given, we hope to discover other, perhaps more tangible needs, which we will try to meet on an individual basis as funds are available.

We have begun conversations with various ministries about beginning small group Bible studies developed by the American Bible Society focused on Trauma Healing. (It was no coincidence that I was in Omaha begin trained to facilitate these groups the week following the eruption.)  We will help more with the process of rebuilding than with the immediate relief efforts.

I believe this fits our ministry's and my unique gifting, focusing on restoration and healing:  Our mission:  To improve the lives of the poor and disabled, now and for eternity.

It allows us to utilize our strengths to meet a unique need--reminding these survivors that God has not abandoned him, and using this window of suffering to draw people to Jesus who may not have known him in the past. These Bibles are our first step.

Nothing's easy. . .

I'm often asked what I find different about living in Guatemala.  After my most recent visit to the US I think I have some answers.

To sum it up, nothing is easy in Guatemala.

 I begin to experience this, after only two short weeks away, when I go to the restroom in the Guatemala airport, and almost trip over the garbage can.  Nope, can't flush toilet paper here, even in the modern airport. A small inconvenience, but an annoyance nonetheless.

As I leave the airport in the back of a taxi, I am startled by the motorcycles that so recklessly weave in and out of traffic.  I am grateful I'm not driving, though this was my "normal" only two weeks ago. And, though it's 11 pm, it is hot and stuffy in the taxi (it's unsafe to travel in the city at night with the windows open) since there's no air conditioning.  I want to grumble but don't let myself.  I want to be content in all circumstances, but sometimes it's not easy.

On the hour and fifteen minute drive home we pass no less than 11 vehicles (including one semi) driving without tail lights.  As we come up on them on the highway, my heart starts pounding more than once.   I often say the most dangerous part of living here is getting in a car, and to a great extent it's true.  I sigh inwardly, as I remind myself this is normal here.

And the list can go on:

  • the only hot water comes from the heater/shower head in the bathroom.
  • to cook I have to light each gas burner manually, which still scares me.  Don't ask me about the oven.
  • wash your dishes by hand in cold water with harsh soap that turns my hands into sand paper after one application.
  • don't forget to defrost the freeze which after only 2 weeks has turned into a solid block of ice.
And the noises.  The "bombas" (think M-80's) which go off almost every morning to announce someone's birthday.  Usually between 4:30 and 5 am.  The church bells which ring for 5 minutes at 5:30, followed by the loud speaker announcement from the Catholic Church of all the people who have died on this day.  And, of course, the ever present radio blaring from the shop of the neighbor, situated about 10 feet from my bedroom wall, as he begins his early morning chores.

Oh, and while I've been away, my phone bill came due and my service lapsed.  After unsuccessfully trying to pay it on line, this requires a trip to Antigua on a crowded chicken bus. (My car has a dead battery after sitting for two weeks.)  Might as well schlep home some groceries as long as I'm here.  This manages to consume 3+ hours of my day.  

So, life here is inconvenient, loud, slow and often annoying.

But as I pray about this, I come to identify the greatest challenge of living in Guatemala:

All of these (except maybe the cars without tail lights) are really only parts of daily life here which annoy me not because of their greatness, but because of my expectations.  After two weeks of living in comfort and ease in the US, my attitude has changed from one of gratefulness, to one of entitlement.  I have come to believe the lie that my life should be easy.  When life here collides with this unreasonable expectation, I struggle not to become down-right grouchy.

Now I must repent.  No where in the Bible can I find that God promises me a life that is convenient, comfortable or pleasing.  On the contrary, one of Jesus' last words to the disciples, and us, was:

"In this world you will have many troubles."
~~John 16: 33b

Somehow I missed  that when I signed up to follow the Christ to Guatemala.  Or I've forgotten it.  That's the bad news.

But, as always, Jesus has good news for me:

 "Take heart.  I have overcome the world."
~~ John 16: 33c


"I have told you these things that you might have peace in me."
~~ John 16: 33 b

So I must repent of my selfishness and self-centeredness.  Repent of my sense of entitlement.  Repent of my false belief that I deserve a life better than the thousands of Guatemalans who frankly struggle to survive each day.  In as sense I need to repent of being an "American" who believes God should bless me more than my brothers and sisters outside the US.

It's so easy to fall.  It's humbling to get up and acknowledge my attitude which is not pleasing to my Father.  Finally, it is with hope that I begin again, knowing that He is with me and will support, strengthen and sustain me no matter what I might face.

This is how I can begin to meet Paul's challenge to be content in all circumstances, relying on the fact that I can face even minor annoyances without complaint, if I trust Him to give me strength.