Four Years: Looking back and counting forward

June 22, I completed four years of living here in Guatemala.  I realized that I have now lived here longer than the amount of time it took for God to call me and get me here.  Seems incredible.  When I was preparing to come it seemed as if I would never get here.  Now I can't picture being anywhere else.

It's not always easy.  But my life in Omaha was not always easy, either.  The longer I am here, some things become easier; others, more difficult.  The strangeness of living in a majority world (Third World in the old vernacular) country seems less strange.  Every time I visit the US, it seems more foreign to me.   I really live between two cultures, really belonging to neither.  This has served to teach me that this world, in the US or Guatemala, can never really be "home."  My heart will only truly be home, when I am in the home my Lord has prepared for me.  But, for now, I am here. . .

This is an old picture of the kids, but the last time I was together with all of them.
Left to right: Mikayla holding Nate, Jeremy, Joel, Jonathan holding Zach
I no longer miss things which once were important to me (such as a dishwasher or clothes dryer) and miss more intensely other things, or I should say people.  At first, in the glow of moving here, I didn't miss my kids or grandkids too much.  Now, I often ache to see them or hear their voices.  Their lives have gone on without me being an intimate part of them.  I miss so much especially with the Zach, age 8, and Nate, age 4 and a half, who have changed so much each time I see them again.  But they are good.  And I am good, standing on the promise of Jesus in Matthew 19:
29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. (Matt. 19:29)

And I am receiving the hundredfold promised, it's just not what I had expected my life to look like at age 60+.  But God knew it was exactly what I needed.

How is my life different?  So many ways:

  • I live in the most elegant house I have ever lived in during my entire life.  But, running around the roof, is a circle of razor wire.  A constant reminder that there is real risk in living here.  In America, we use razor wire at prisons to keep bad people in.  Here we use it too keep bad people out.

  • Grocery shopping is an all day affair.  Never in my life have I bought 60 eggs at a time, which sit on my counter, not in my refrigerator, and are used up within a week.  We drink powdered milk (an acquired taste) since fresh milk is just too expensive.  Meat is used as a condiment, not a main dish, and all vegetables are prepared fresh.  Cooking takes more time, but the food tastes so much better.
  • "Sanitary" has taken on a new urgency.  Fruits and vegetables are soaked in clorox washes, dishes need to be absolutely dry, all water for drinking and cooking must first be filtered.  Even with this, the beasties sometimes sneak through, requiring bi-yearly doses of parasite medication.

  • Traffic laws are seen as optional recommendations, and many drive without insurance or even a drivers' license.  Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way--even when they are in wheelchairs.

  • It is normal to have guards with shotguns in front not only of banks, but at many small businesses.  

  • I look out my front door each day to see if the volcano is puffing smoke (it's a beautiful view).  And more times than I can recall I've been awakened in the middle of the night by tremors shaking my house and my bed.

  • I teach in a language foreign to me, in which I many maybe grammatical mistakes, and is actually a second language to most of my students.  (Many speak Cachiquel at home.) I work with mostly home-made materials and supplies and my methods are seen as strange if not downright ridiculous by many.

  • I live with four young men who grew up very differently from what I know.  While they love and accept me, I realize many times a day, that I will never really "get" what their lives have been like.  I can only love them as they are now, ask them to love me as I am, and look for those areas in which we have common ground.
  • I have three employees (a housekeeper and two companion-caregivers) in a country where employees are often mistreated and underpaid. I struggle between being their employer and their friend; setting expectations and being flexible.  And I make many mistakes. . .

  • I daily walk by beggars, or awake to drunken men sleeping outside my house.  My heart longs to help them all, but in reality I don't know how.  What I do know is if I try to help everyone, I end up helping no one because I am spread to thin.  So how should I respond to those who might be angels in disguise?

More than anything, though, I have changed in my relationship with God, or I should say He has changed me.
  • I struggle with busy-ness more than ever and find it so easy to "cheat" myself and Him by not spending enough time alone with Him. And when I do, it shows in my work and in my heart.
  • I am learning more and more that I cannot do anything on my own.  I have learned to change the emphasis in Phil. 4:13 from "I can do all things," and learned to focus more on "him who gives me strength."  
  • I realize more each day how totally dependent we are on God for our very survival.  I'm a bit ashamed to admit that just the other day, after four years of living on "faith support," as I was praying before we ate, I was hit between the eyes by the fact that what is on our table really does come directly from His hand, though the generosity of His people.  It is hard, living from month to month, never really knowing how much money there will be to live on.  He is faithful, however, and we have never gone to bed hungry, as do so many in this country.
  • I am learning humbling truth that "You have not because you do not ask."  For prayer, for funds, for help with things I cannot do on my own.  The independence I was once so proud of is rapidly vanishing.  And it's scary.  And it's hard.  And I don't want to offend.  But I do need to ask. . .
  • At a time in my life, when I thought I would have "arrived" in a good place with God, I am constantly being molded and prodded and poked to become more of who He created me to be--more Christlike.  And, even at my age, my flesh screams at the process.


I hesitate to even say, because, four years ago when I came here, I thought I'd be living alone, spending time loving on the kids at Hermano Pedro and giving out communications systems.  I though I would be responsible only to and for myself.

HA!  God had other plans.  I am responsible for two men who are dependent on me for everything, and to provide salaries for three more people who depend on me for their livelihood.  I am responsible for teaching 3 days a week, and helping more than 30 children learn not only to read and write, but know who they are in Christ.  I am responsible for good stewardship, bookkeeping, record keeping, and making sound financial decisions.  Not the care-free life of a single missionary which I had envisioned--and actually enjoyed for my first years down here.

And it is good.  God knew if He had showed me the whole plan, I would have dragged my feet even more than I did.  He knew how much I could handle.  And He continues to know how much I can handle, by showing me one step at a time.  

At every turn, there is someone with a desperate need.  My heart longs to rescue them all, but that is not why I have been called here. He as given me a plan and a purpose to serve His children with disabilities, and I need to maintain that focus.  Even under this umbrella, though, there are so many needs for services which do not exist here.  Right now, I know the need for community living here in Guatemala is great, and we need to expand.  How or when we do this, He hasn't told me yet.  But I look forward to what He will do, every bit as much as I treasure what He has done these past four years.

Would you prayerfully consider becoming part of what He is doing here though a monthly donation or a one time gift.  Our needs are simple, but even in this country, the cost of doing this ministry continues to grow.  Please email me if God moves you to support us, and I'll help you with the details.

This wasn't what I really set out to write, but as I typed these words flowed.  I think they have been meant more for me to help me process these years, than for you to understand them.  I share them with you all, however, to help you know how you can best pray for me.  I humbly do ask for your prayers and your encouragement as I begin my next four years, or more, living here in Guatemala.

Would I change this life?  Not for a minute.  Though I often find myself saying with Peter"
“We left everything and followed you. What do we get out of it?” (Matt. 19:27) 

I can also say with all conviction with Paul:

Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness. (Phil. 3: 7-9, The Message)

Carrying on in the Casa

Life for us at Casa de Esperanza has settled into a somewhat predictable routine. I can't express how pleased I was with the way they carried on while I was in the US.  Many asked me who was taking care of the boys while I was gone, and I'd respond, "They're adults!  They should be able to take care of themselves."  And the did so wonderfully.

Fidel and Alberto continue to study two days a week with Profe. Ray.  They also sit in on theater classes at a local community center two days a week while Miguel and Tony take English class.  The English class is on the second floor of the building and inaccessible to the guys in chairs.  The director of the program, though, has told them she will try to get a ramp built for them before classes start again next year.  This would be a boom to many in Antigua who cannot attend these adult ed. classes.

I teach three days a week at Nueva Vida (New Life) in Santa Maria.  We go to market on Monday and Saturday.  Laundry and dishes are never ending tasks, and while we do have a washing machine, hanging out the clothes to dry can be a challenge in rainy season.  I have a load on the line that has gone up and down for three days, avoiding rainfalls.  As I write it, this all sounds kind of boring. . .but so is the rhythm of daily life, whether in the US or Guatemala.

There are things that liven up our lives, though.

Rainy season is here and we have had our first "tropical depression" which brought tons of rain to Antigua.

This gave our house, along with a number of our friends' homes, an "inside water feature" when our gutters could not handle the rainfall and overflowed into the house.

Miguel and I spent nearly a full Monday sweeping water out of the house and into the patio before the storm moved on to Mexico.  It would have been much worse if it hit landfall here.

It wasn't like we could really go anywhere anyway!   They are installing a new drainage system into the area south of town, but, as you can see, they aren't finished yet.  Even the streets in the main part of town were full of water, making it almost impossible to get through without a truck.  Our guys couldn't go out with their power chairs for a couple of days, and were beginning to get cabin fever.

As with many "open concept" homes here (open concept means the individual rooms open to the outdoors) we face continual struggles with insects, and I've gotten used to battling ants and even roaches.  However, the bat that decided to try to take up residence with us kind of freaked me out.  Tony managed to dispatch with it quickly, however.

I'm happy to say that we have been able to support the local economy and make Antigua  repairmen quite happy.  First, the car wouldn't start, and we discovered that about 60% of the teeth on the flywheel were broken off.  Dick tells me this almost never happens but it happened to us.  So the car has been in the shop almost a month while waiting for parts and repairs.  Hopefully, I'll get it back tomorrow.

We also have had some of our appliances try to switch personalities. . .our dryer blows cold air and our refrigerator was heating up.  Both of these were bought used less than six months ago from the same appliance repairman recommended by a friend. . .needless to say we have a new appliance repairman!  I've grown in respect for how difficult it is for so many families who live without refrigerators after spending a few days without one myself.  Daily market trips become a way of life very quickly.

The boys have been challenged as well.  Alberto's wheelchair wouldn't charge, but thanks to Dick's speedy service, he was up and running after just a few days.  Fidel learned anew that getting around town in a power chair can be a bit difficult, especially when the guys decide to go up to Cerro de la Cruz (a high hilltop overlooking Antigua)  in the late afternoon, after he has used his chair to get around all day.  Not to be denied the trip to the top, however, the guys pushed him the rest of the way to the top when his batteries ran out of juice.

I don't think that thought about how difficult the return trip would be.  They had quite the time keeping the heavy chair from speeding down the hill without benefit of the motor to brake it.  They did manage to get pictures, though, so it must not have been too overwhelming.

 Spring cleaning was a group chore.  I didn't realize how much dust accumulates here until Miguel climbed up on top of the closet to sweep it down.

It was such a strenuous task that he had to take a rest break afterwards.  (Cleaning house with young men is always a hoot!).

We are down one resident since Calin moved back to Chimaltenango after the first semester of school.  It was difficult for him to adapt to the differences in the expectations of the private school he attended here after spending 9 years in Guatemalan public schools.  Then, too, he was quite homesick.  His mother had surgery and was not able to do many things around the house and he was worried about her.  His grandmother who also lived with the family had been quite ill.  He feels great responsibility towards his family, and had become Grandma's caregiver until she died last Sunday.  Please pray for this family as they mourn the loss of their matriarch.  She was grandma as well to Fernando and a number of Dick's young men.  

 Finally, no report on our house would be complete without a mention of the World Cup games going on.  Our meal schedule has been rearranged to accommodate some popular teams' games, and I'm sure the electric bill will go up with the added TV watching.  Each guy has their favorite, and all of Guatemala is stopping whenever Spain, Argentina or Costa Rica play.  Some of the guys from Chimaltenango have joined us to watch.  I have to admit, I usually go to my room when the games are on. . .I don't need to be watching to know who is winning. . .the sounds from the living room give my continual updates on the score, as well as the announcers loud, "Gooooool!" whenever one is scored.

El Dia de los Maestros--Celebrating teachers in Guatemala

Once a year teachers are not just recognized here in Guatemala, but celebrated.  Last Thursday was El Dia de los Maestros, 2014.

Teachers here in Guatemala have it tough. . .up to 60 students in a class, limited access if any to photocopies, constant shortages of books and materials, and, some years, working without receiving a paycheck for months at a time.  They deserve a celebration.

While our teachers have it better than most (they are always paid, and have access to supplies) they still have to create much of their instructional materials by hand.  Many of them travel over an hour and a half just to get to school.  And they teach some of the most challenging, but also the most rewarding, children in Guatemala.

They, too, deserve to be celebrated.  And they (we) were. along with all the staff at New Life

Students from one of the secondary schools came an put on a traditional Mayan dance for us to enjoy.  Byron Alexander, a young man who has Marfan's Syndrome and is very low vision and graduated sixth grade at New Life, brought some classmates from the school he now attends to honor our teachers.

The ladies from our moms support group also honored us with a dance, as well as a delicious lunch they helped prepare and serve us.

It was such fun to see these delightful ladies all dressed in the traditional "traje" of Santa Maria and giving of their time to be with us.

They surprised us at the end of their performance by throwing not only rose petals, but candy, into the audience.  What fun to watch the teachers scramble for it, like children when a piñata breaks.

Judy Kerschner, the founder and administrator of New Life, got quite choked up when she spoke of her gratitude to the teachers and staff who had helped grow the school from the one class it was when it started fifteen years ago.  Today we serve over 110 children and have nine classroom teachers as well as a number of specialists supporting classroom instruction.

Seño Marisol, the director (principal) presenting Profe Manuel with a small gift.

Each of us also received a gift from the school.  In keeping with the practicality of Guatemala, we were each given a large, fluffy bath towel to commemorate the day.  

Thanks for making me feel so special!  It's an honor to serve with you.

We're Reading Now!. . .and other exciting news from New Life

One of my desires when I started working at New Life was to get the children reading. . .not just words or syllables, but actual books.  Since Spanish is so phonetic, reading is taught very differently than in the US.  Students learn the vowels and selected consonant sounds, learn to blend them into syllables, and then begin reading words.

The students with whom I work, however, often do not make the transition from syllables to words, because they have difficulty with blending sounds and syllables to words.  Others have auditory processing problems that make it difficult or impossible for them to learn through a phonetic (sound/symbol) approach to reading.

We began using multi-sensory approaches to reading, as well as sight words to try to remedy this.  I have to admit, I have actually spent the last year re-learning how to teach reading.  Or perhaps it is better stated, learning alternative methods to teach reading in Spanish.

Finally, it seems we have hit on the right combination of language experience, oral reading, sound drills, and sight words.  My students have begun to love reading and are so proud of their progress.

Some, like Joel, are at a readiness level, focusing on learning that words have meanings by learning to read their names.  They also are using picture symbols to help them "read" repetitive stories and answer questions about them.

Others, like Fernando, are working on a word recognition level.  They are learning to read the sight words which are used most frequently in written Spanish, and writing some of their own stories with help.

My most capable students, such as ten year old Vinicio,  are reading actual books, retelling the stories, and answering simple questions about what they have read.

The best part of all of this is the excitement of the students as they participate in these reading activities.  They are so proud of themselves, and we celebrate their success.

We're working on math skills, too, using concrete objects to help support the abstract meaning of numbers.  So many of the children just need this extra bridge to help them take off in their learning.

For some of our students, such as Yamelin, who is blind, reading and math are secondary goals.  Teaching them to work independently and develop self-care skills are the focus of our work with them.

Our ministry, Causa de Esperanza, provides the funding for this special class at New Life, and the supplies and materials needed by the children to use these special approaches to learning. We receive no funds from the Guatemalan government to educate these children.  If you'd like to help support this program, either financially or by coming and volunteering in our classroom, please email me for more information.

Another ministry from Guatemala City, Latin Deaf Services, continues to provide instruction to our deaf students two days a week, as well as giving a class in which the teachers can learn sign language.

Our speech therapist, Jennifer, is so much more than just a speech therapist.  She is serving as our early intervention connection with preschool children with disabilities in Santa Maria.  She works with Dick Rutgers to get them wheelchairs, walkers, and other adaptive equipment to help their development.  They love her as much as she loves them.

Josef is low vision as well as having cerebral palsy. Working with Jennifer, he has made great progress.  She recognized that he needed a wheelchair as well as some type of apparatus which would allow him to be in a standing position at least some of the time.  When I talked with mom about a wheelchair, however, she wasn't ready to accept that her son would need one.  She broke down and sobbed, saying she would rather carry him forever than put him in a chair.

Dick came in, and adapted a stander for Josef which he is able to use at home to help position him.

Then, in true Dick Rutgers' style, he went to work problem solving the issue of a wheelchair.  Mom was open to using a stroller with Josef, and Dick got the idea that maybe a Kid-cart wheelchair would work for him and be acceptable to mom.  It just so happened that he was able to find one at the Bethel Ministries shop.  It also just so happened that it fit Josef almost perfectly without him having to make any major adjustments.  I'm not sure if Mom realizes this is a wheelchair or not, but he is sitting pretty in a chair that will help support his growing body and prevent any further distortion of his muscles.  A win-win.

You can see New Life is so much more than just a school.  It is a beacon of hope for those with disabilities and their families in Santa Maria.  We pray it will also be a light that will draw them to Jesus as they come to us for help with their physical and educational needs.  What an exciting place to be!

Gringo Guests

In late May I received an email from Stephanie Lantz, a young lady from southwest Iowa who had been teaching for the last year in Quetzeltenango at the Inter-American School.  She had gotten my contact information from mutual friends, Scott and Lynda Hardee, and needed some help.

She had had her passport stolen, and though she had a new one, it did not have the entrance stamp indicating when she had come into Guatemala.  The school where she had been teaching had told her she could get this at the airport.  Was this correct?  She was due to return to the US the following Sunday and was justifiably concerned.

As with many things having to do with immigration here in Guatemala, there are varying opinions.  I'm pretty familiar with the ins and outs of visas here, having had my passport stolen and experienced the multiple steps to get everything in order.  When in doubt, go to the immigration office.  This was my advice.

She was nervous about this, having been told horror stories about immigration.  I agreed to meet her there, and, within twenty minutes we had everything she needed to leave Guatemala legally.  Since she would be leaving in just a few days, I invited her to stay with us at Casa de Esperanza.

What a treat it was to have her.  They guys loved having a pretty young blond woman around for a few days, especially when she would accompany them on their walks around town.  She graciously bought us pizza one night and we had a movie night at home.

The next night she introduced them to buffalo wings!  It was hard to tell if they enjoyed her or the food more. We loved having her with us, though.

Shortly after Stephanie left, Grant Kopplin joined us for two weeks.  Grant will be starting his senior year at Yale, and had been working at a clinic in Xela for a month, as well as studying Spanish.  I knew Grant years ago when I was responsible for the preschool ministry at our church, but had pretty much lost contact with him after his family moved to Tulsa.  When he decided he wanted to come to Guatemala, his mom was hesitant, but said she would feel more confident if he would contact us.

While he was here, he was able to come and help me at school in Santa Maria a few days.  He was so willing to do "whatever" and I took full advantage of his height as he redid my word wall for me.

He also spent some time working with the kids in the classroom.  He especially fell in love with Karen, and she thought he was pretty special, too.

Grant got to experience what happens when the batteries on Fidel's chair run out.
Unfortunately, it was on the way up to Cerro de la Cruz, a high hill overlooking Antigua.
He did make it up under Grant-power.
Grant had said he wanted to be useful while he was here, and he was.  I'm not sure if it was exactly what he had anticipated, but I believe his greatest contribution was just being friends and hanging out with the guys in the house.  They love company, love showing off Antigua, and benefit from having contact with people outside their everyday environment.

Thank you, Stephanie and Grant, for making our guys feel important and valued in a country that still often looks right past them.  You made a difference in their lives, and I hope we touched yours.