What I learned in 90 minutes at Las Obras

Or: My “failure” at serving severely disabled kids

Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala
Las Obras home in Antigua Guatemala

Following a week of service in a rural Mayan village, our team headed to Antigua, Guatemala, for sight-seeing.  It wasn’t all fun and games, shopping and eating, though.  Our leaders wanted us to experience Las Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro — a hospital/home for the most severely disabled and deformed.

I thought to myself, “I used to take care of people with major disabilities.  I can do this.”  And it wasn’t so hard anyway, seeing how well cared for the patients are: impeccably clean and tended to with such compassion.

Then we entered a children’s unit, and things became a little tougher.  There were kids who wanted to be playful and others who were disfigured beyond belief.  Each one who reached out, Pedro touched compassionately and talked to them gently.  We followed his cue and begin interacting with the children as best as we could.  Next came the infant ward, where we were greeted by a tiny girl who was crying and holding out her hands to be picked up.  We wandered through the room, stopping at every crib.  Two with cleft palates.  One with cleft palate and additional disfiguration of his face.  One little boy lying contentedly, swinging his legs around in the air while lying on his back; he had Down syndrome, and nothing else “wrong” was apparent.

“Why,” I asked the Father,” would a child with something as simple as Down syndrome be in a place like this?  Where is his family?”

“He was abandoned,” said Padre.  “Like most of them.”

As we left that unit, most of us in tears, we turned a corner and there was a large piece of art depicting a person with severe deformities clinging to the feet of Jesus.  I could barely breathe.  Yes, that is the way they must feel – please Jesus, don’t leave me!  These are absolutely “the least of these” of whom Jesus spoke.

On Sunday, after my team departed for LA, I returned to San Pedro Iglesia where the residents of Las Obras join together for Mass.  There were more people in wheelchairs than in pews: people without legs; others with hands and feet turned to unnatural positions; some drooling.  Clapping, rocking, some with flies gathering at their mouths.  Some of them didn’t understand the homily any better than I, but we were together, sharing communion.

Three times, I returned to Las Obras, hoping to talk with the British doctor who volunteers there and to offer some time myself.  With limited Spanish, I asked the receptionist for Leslie, and she replied, “En la manana,” and so, I returned in the morning and went through the same routine.  Finally, on my last day in Antigua, I skipped breakfast and headed straight for Las Obras so I couldn’t possibly miss my connection with the English-speaking doctor.  This time, I didn’t even have to ask the receptionist — she asked, “Leslie?” and immediately got on the phone.  Leslie wasn’t available, but a Volunteer coordinator spoke English, and that was just what I needed!

(a photo from Google) Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths
(a photo from Google)
Children in wheelchairs, under nets, to keep flies out of their mouths

Soon, I had a volunteer badge and was escorted to the children’s ward.  There were several other Americans present who felt about as awkward and inadequate as I did, not speaking Spanish but trying desperately to do something good.  The children were all in their wheelchairs, lined up in rows around three sides of the courtyard.  Some appeared to be completely unaware of all reality, others were distressed.  I sat next to a teenaged boy, reclined in his chair, who was nonverbal but very alert.  I began singing, and without thinking about it, I was singing “Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us all together, never apart…”  He recognized the “I love you” in Spanish and smiled widely, looking at me as if to beg for more.

Then I went to Jessica, a beautiful girl with braids.  I touched her hair and I said “muy bonita,” (Very pretty!) and she gleamed with delight.  Perhaps they don’t often hear people tell them they’re beautiful, because by all means, some of them are difficult for many of us to look at.  I read part of a Dr. Seuss book to one boy and tried clapping hands with another, then one of the workers asked if I would take a crying boy for a little stroll in his chair.  He was so upset and she said the only thing that calms him down is being pushed around in his chair.  So we wandered through the garden and I rocked him slowly back and forth like you would a baby in a stroller and he became restful.

Confrontation with comfort

(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention
(photo from Google) This is a girl I visited who was very aware and delighted by attention

Eventually, some of the men from the American group came into the courtyard, and I made some quick labels in my head about them being straight off a corn field in Iowa.  It was somewhat comforting, in a twisted kind of way, to see others who surely were more out of place than me.  I had secretly named one “Cowboy Nascar” (yes, he was wearing a cowboy hat and a Nascar shirt) and soon was ashamed of my labeling and judgment, because he was WONDERFUL and so natural with these kids.  He made them laugh and soon had a gathering around him.

As much as I tried to feel that comfortable and relaxed myself, it never happened.  I continued to sing to different kids and take them for strolls, but at just an hour and a half into it, I had to leave.  And I felt guilty for that.  A whopping 90 minutes.  What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this longer?  Am I just selfish, unable or unwilling to face such difficult situations?

I was hungry, so that was my ticket out the door.  I turned in my badge, got my purse and left Las Obras with a heavy heart.

What did I learn—about myself—in 90 minutes with “the least of these”? 

Many things, but here are a few vivid lessons.

  1. In case I haven’t heard the old cliché enough: you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Cowboy Nascar was gifted, and he was willing, and he made a difference.  Guaranteed.  And I should do away with hasty generalizations.
  2. In truth, I went to Las Obras to volunteer because I thought doing something “noble” would make me feel better about myself.  Really?  There are so many things I can say about that foolishness!  It was clear that I forced myself to go.  The day before, I so desperately wanted to avoid it that I walked as far as possible and went into a resort where I had myself a spa treatment!  As it turned out, letting someone care for me felt pretty good, and I need to learn to accept that without shame or guilt.
  3. Everybody knows:  we don’t all have the same gifts, and we don’t have to.  The cool thing about Dr. Leslie, the British woman I never got to meet?  I’d heard that she had stopped by Las Obras for a quick tour like my group had, she loved the opportunity she saw, and she never left.  When my friend Mark said “Thanks for your service here,” she replied to him with all sincerity, “Brother, it’s no burden.”

Obviously, serving these vulnerable children and adults is her gift, her calling.  But that doesn’t mean it’s mine.  I don’t have to beat myself up for having only lasted 90 minutes in a place where she’s remained more than a year.

Let’s chat.

I think we could have some good dialogue about this experience, so I’m inviting you to chime in.  What about my vulnerability in this story did you connect with?  Did it remind you of similar experiences where you faced some tough truths?  Let’s talk.

Receiving more than giving

Thursday was our last day in Sehaquiba and we were sad.  In a few short days, these amazing and wonderful people worked their way into our hearts.  They have changed us.

IMG_20140519_130655693Our instructions were to focus on doing one stove installation per team and to do it with great intention and presence … to pay more attention to the family and enjoy their company.  We were quite happy to oblige.  We rode up the hill in the bus a couple of miles and then hiked in to Jose’s little house, which, interestingly, was the first little home on the hill I had noticed when we first arrived in Sehaquiba.  It was there I had seen two little girls watching the bus round the corner into their world.  Those two little girls stood atop their hill once again, and this time welcomed us up to their home.

When the stove was complete and the Monitoring Mothers had done their teaching about its use, some girls immediately set about preparing tortillas.  They pat the meal like pancakes, then add some spiced black beans, add more meal and pat into a perfect tortilla to put on the stove.  Kendra jumped in to participate, and then me.  You would think patting some black bean mixture into a tortilla would be easy, but I managed to make a mess of it, and they laughed when I put mine on the stove!

The room was rearranged and a table set in the middle, with a bench alongside for us to sit and eat the bean tortillas and drink the Moosh.  Fortunately for a corn hater like me, this was 99% warm sweetened milk and 1% corn.  Per our tradition, we gathered for a blessing, praying for the family and their health, and them praying blessings on our families and our safe return home.

DSCN0668Back at the community center, music was already playing and groups were gathering for our closing ceremony.  Like the welcoming ceremony just days before, the facility was decorated and the spirit was jovial.  Women were cooking stew in huge pots in another room, and the marimba men were keeping things lively while the kids danced with us again.

Jose opened the ceremony with a spiritual reflection and scripture, then Enrique (the mayor) gave his speech:

“Thank you for the love you’ve shown us and for your help in community development.  We’re so happy having you here working together with the people – your organization, coordination, empowerment.  We thank God for these Americans thinking about this community.  We have understood the need for these stoves – no more smoke in the house – this is important for our good health.”

The community council representative said “We don’t have anything to pay you back, but we are so grateful for what you’ve done.”  They presented Mark with a thank you note written in three languages.

The last Qiche speaker said,“We love Americans … because they become our friends.” 

They love us not because we brought them a physical gift but because we developed relationships with them.  And while they said they had nothing to give us as thanks, that wasn’t true.  They gave each and every team member a gift – something made with their own hands, for us to take home and remember them by.

After many speeches, gifts and dances, we made our way to the bus, where the Monitoring Mothers and their kids joined us for prayer.  The Mother who prayed (Josephina?) was sobbing, and then were the rest of us.  I watched Ophelia wipe tears from Olga’s cheek.   Such amazing women trying to accomplish so much for their community, and feeling powerless without the support of the Americans and MTI to back them up.  Ironic, really, as THEY are the ones doing the work, providing education and helping their fellow community members to see what must happen for them to experience improved health and wellbeing.

Saying goodbye was SO hard.  I am already dreaming of the day I can return and embrace them with a warm and hearty, “Masalachole!”  (How is your soul?!)

Back in Coban, we had dinner and MTI staff presented us with certificates that have the photo of our team with the Sehaquiba community, and a bag of Coban coffee, too.  More moving speeches, more thanks, more appreciation.

I don’t need – or deserve – all that, because truly, I have received more than I have given.


(If you care to hear any more about the experience working in Guatemala, send me a note!  If you want to learn more about the amazing opportunities with Medical Teams International, visit www.medicalteams.org.)

Royal guests in a Mayan village

Day 3 – First day at Se ‘aquiba.

I started the day off with a whopping 16-minute work out at the neighborhood gym, followed by a chai at a local coffee shop/bakery where I tried ordering all by myself.  My chai was SO hot, I proudly tried out my limited Spanish, by saying, “Muy caliente.  Una mas cuppa por favor?”  So the barista quickly set about making me another chai!  I pointed to my cup and said, “una cuppa por favor” and he gave me a sleeve.  Ah – relief AND 2 cups of chai.

… 12 hours later, all I can say is WOW.  The drive was amazing – reminiscent of the highlands of the Philippines and the jungle of Mexico.  The road was muddy and riddled with potholes and ruts, and at one point, we discovered the road ahead had washed out completely, so took a different route. It was an adventure and I was totally in my element.

When we rounded the last curve into the region of Seaquiba, there were women and children along the road, all walking toward the community center.  It was a true Guatemalan “red carpet” rolled out for us, as if we were the most important dignitaries they could ever hope to meet.  When we disembarked the bus, there were throngs of children ready to meet us and they led the way up a muddy pathway to the location of the day’s big festivities.  The women, most likely the “monitoring mothers” who help provide education to the community about the health projects MTI does, greeted us with warm hugs and kisses on the cheek.  All I could say was the one Qechi word I could remember:  Bantiox, and I meant my “thank you” in the deepest way possible.

wpid-wp-1400676681183.jpegGroups of men were playing traditional music on handmade instruments, including the marimba.  They had scattered fresh pine needles all over the dirt ground as a carpet for us.  A little girl all dressed in traditional Mayan attire was carrying a great-smelling incense in a pot.  The whole experience–in just a moment’s time–was humbling.  Several of us choked back the tears.  About half of our team was led into the community center building where the ceremony would take place, and were seated on a bench near the front.  The little girl all dressed in traditional attire (I later learned she was the “princess” for the year and would tend to these special events) took her position, knealing on her knees on a mat.  She kept herself poised for more than an hour while she doled out a chocolate type of drink to us during the ceremony.  Another little girl would take the cups she filled and bring them to us.  When we were finished (although not all of us finished them…not knowing whether the water had been boiled), those cups were refilled and passed to other team members, then to the community leaders, then to the residents themselves.  I’d say each cup was used by about 12 people without washing in between, so I was glad that Dominique, Kendra, Stacy and I were the first inside!

Eventually, all the others came inside and the community members crammed into the building and more stood outside with their faces smashed together through the open window.  About half a dozen community leaders — mayor, pastor, school principal and others — each had their turn at the microphone to deliver speeches about their gratefulness for our being there.  They prayed, read scripture, offered multiple blessings and talked about how excited they are to see every home end up with a stove that will help improve their health.

All the while, the children were either perfectly quiet on the floor, or visiting which each of us in a quiet manner.  No mother ever needed to reprimand her child, no adult ever “shh”ed them.  Several little girls had picked bouquets of hydrangeas and were decorating us with flowers.  Even the men got flowers stuck through their wedding bands, as the women got flowers tucked behind their ears or in the necks of their shirts.

Daisy, a darling little one who remembered some of the team  members from last year’s trip, crawled up on Mark’s lap and the community cheered that “Kush” as they called him, had returned.  Two little girls – Brenda and Blanca – sat next to me stroking my arm or taking turns holding my hand.  Staci was given someone’s baby to hold.  (She later said she thought this must be what it’s like to play Santa!)  Phil and Jean were surrounded by little kids who lavished them with love and attention: Jean appeared to be totally in her element and filling a role of every kid’s favorite gramma; Phil’s eyes continually glistened with tears.  Kendra’s heart jumped when she bonded with a little girl who happened to be wearing the same pajamas her own little girl has.

We didn’t understand all the speeches, but Jorge, (dubbed our Super Mayan!) interpreted them all, until he tired of doing word-for-word translation of these long messages and finally started ending with just “Amen!”  What I remember of his sharing was the emphasis the leaders had on recognizing that all we have comes from God and that God makes all things possible, including the visit of this team of Americans.  They prayed for us to be blessed and to know that we are all serving the same God.

Following all the speeches, we went outside where the little princess girl took the floor for a solo dance, demonstrating what we have dubbed “the old woman shuffle” for its slow movement and tiny steps.  Then the elderly women joined her and began pulling our team’s women out with them.  We were glad the “dance” wasn’t difficult!  When the men on our team came out, they were quickly showed by the community men that they must keep their hands behind their backs while dancing!  (Ha — maybe we should encourage this in the USA!)

It was a ton of fun and amazing and touching and overwhelming all at once.  By the time this was over and sat to have lunch, we were tired.  So much stimulation, physically, emotionally and spiritually, to take in.

 Visiting the homes

At long last, we split into teams and began the work we’ve talked about for months, going to homes and installing the stoves that would burn less wood, keep the smoke contained and provide a better cooking surface than their existing open fires inside the home.  We all headed the same direction, walking up the gravel road, and then split to go to different homes, some of which were close to the road and others which required more hiking.

On my team were Will, Phil and Staci, led by Gladys, the other “Super Mayan” working with our team on behalf of MTI.  She is amazing to watch … the way she communicates in both Spanisih and Qechi (sometimes at the same time) and knows all the details of building the stoves, using the minimal tools available to level the ground, lay the concrete block foundation, pack the firebox and cut the hole in the roof for the ventilation pipe.  Really, we weren’t any help on this project, other than fetching the pieces needed in the next step.  At several times in the process, the tiny room was filled with more than a dozen people: Marcielle, her daughters, several neighbors and their children.  Some of them would stand on little step stools to peer over the wall that separated this room from the former kitchen.  The minute the last piece was going on the stove, Marcielle had her kindling and matches, ready to learn how to make this thing work.  Gladys explained the placement of the kindling, how to clean the stove top, how it could be used for boiling pots or cooking tortillas, and the safety feature of the wire around the pipe to prevent accidental burns.  They were so intrigued and excited.  We shouted and clapped when it was all finished, and took pictures.

Gladys asked if one of us would pray, and I offered, but Marcielle had things to say first.  A stoic looking woman with deep worry lines and signs of hard living, she was amazingly moved (and moving).  Gladys translated for her:

“I want so badly to tell you in your own language how much I thank you, but I do not know your language.  I will speak through Gladys instead, to tell you how wonderful it is that you have sacrificed to come here for us.  That you left your country, your home, your own families, to come and help us.  We need each other.  And I thank God for you and ask his blessings on you.”

Needless to say, we were in tears.  I hadn’t thought that my trip was any kind of sacrifice … but SHE saw it that way, and everything she said and probably felt was based on that notion of great sacrifice.

wpid-wp-1400676899352.jpegMarcielle’s neighbor was ready to move us to her home next, but because the first installation had taken longer than expected (poor Gladys working with amateaurs!), we had to postpone the second stove for the next day.  Olga was there, nursing her baby, tired from having helped organize the day’s activities, when I snapped a photo of her that captures just how hard their lives have been.

We ventured back to the bus and waited for the other teams to return, then enjoyed our bumpy, beautiful ride back to Coban.  Dinner was at a lovely restaurant that served us by candlelight, and as usual, Mark led us in discussion of the day’s events.  Some people said the most unforgettable moment was the welcoming party, others said it was the reaction of the families getting the stoves, Jean said it was seeing a young girl yell, “I love Gringos!”  But we all agreed it was a day that changed us.  Changed our understanding of serving versus helping, of communicating without words, of knowing that for all our differences, we are really much the same: we all want our children healthy, we all want a sense of community, we all know that none of us can accomplish anything on our own: in a nutshell, we need each other.

I’m reminded of some words that our Super Mayan friends Gladys and Jorge have tried to teach us.  Unfortunately, I can’t recall the words themselves, but I’ll never forget their meanings.

The Qechi greeting literally means, “How is your soul?”  And the response means, “It is well.”

Indeed, it is well with my soul.

By popular demand: Emisms from the past

2010 em cowgirlEmism (EHM-iz-um): A quip or quote from my daughter Emily, written for posterity.

Well before blogging was within my line of sight, I frequently emailed stories of conversations with Emily to my family and friends. Since starting the WordsnCoffee blog just six weeks ago, I’ve had several requests to bring back tales from her toddlerhood (and beyond). Here are four shorts I dug out of my email archive for your enjoyment. — Kate


Short-lived contentment (age 3)

After watching “Polar Express,” I talked with Emily about how some children don’t get much for Christmas, like the little boy in the movie who was so thrilled just to get ONE present. Emily looked at her gifts under the tree and said, “You don’t have to get me too much, Mama. I already have SOOO much. Thank you.”

The next day, I was bragging about this response to my sister, who replied with a healthy dose of sarcasm: “Well, if you get THAT to stick with her, you get the Mother of the Year award.”

Moments later, I went to check on Emily, who had her bedroom door closed. There she was, hiding her Christmas unopened presents, one under the covers and another hiding behind her teddy bears.

No Mother of the Year award after all.

One day a week, please (age 4)

One day while driving the 12-mile commute from school to our home, I asked Emily what she learned about that day.

“I don’t feel like talking right now,” she replied. But within a moment, she had all sorts of things to say, and she talked non-stop until we took our exit from the freeway. The topic eventually came to her wanting to have a crab for a pet: if it was a boy she’d name him Mr. Crab and if it was a girl, she would dress it in ballerina dresses.

She asked if I thought she could have a pet crab and I began to explain that a person has to really think about what kind of care a pet needs…

“Mom,” she interrupted, “you talk too much. I only want you to talk on Mondays. Okay, please?”

An unbelievable teacher’s report (almost 5)

Emily received her first progress report from her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dye. It said, “Emily is such a sweet little girl. She is doing very well academically. She has made lots of new friends and is adjusting well to kindergarten.”

I was proud. I put my arm around Emily and said, “Do you know what this says? It says ‘Emily is such a sweet little girl’…”

I paused to look at her and before I could go on, she said, “Mom! Tell me what it REALLY says!”

True confessions (almost 5)

When Emily was in kindergarten, I packed a lunch for her every day. One week, I began including one of those oatmeal cookies with the cream center, along with her fruit, ½ sandwich, carrots and juice. When I noticed she was coming home with the fruit or the veggie left, she would say, “I didn’t have TIME to eat my fruit.”

“Eat your fruit and veggies FIRST and if you have time, then eat the cookie,” I instructed.

The next morning as I zipped up her lunch bag, I said, “Okay, I put a hidden camera in your lunch box and I’m going to watch and see whether you eat your cookie first.” Her eyes widened with horror.

On the way home from school later, I said in a suspecting tone, “So, during lunch today…”

She gasped and exclaimed, “You saw me eat my cookie first?!”

The Cost of Conscious Parenting

I make a sincere effort to help my fourth-grade daughter understand the difference between needing things and wanting things. She has always been encouraged to earn her own spending money and save it for items or activities she wants that aren’t within my budget.

Recently, I’ve added a new process to the decision-making around her increasingly expensive desires. She must research the product on her own, not only for cost-comparison purposes, but to understand fully what the desired item may eventually require in supplies and upkeep. This is necessary because we aren’t talking about a trendy necklace or cool pair of shoes. We’re talking about pets.

The first experiment was related to the purchase of a fish. Emily underwent the expected research and took copious notes about the type of fish that could survive in a small tank without a lot of expensive gear or serious upkeep. She handed me a report that showed costs of the tank, the food, a few decorative items, water treatment, and the beta fish itself. She needed $26 after I approved the plan, and fortunately for her, the wait was short because she scored $20 from her Grampa for Valentine’s Day. Her room now sports a small tank with a bluish-green beta named Sylvester. New research, which she vetted with consultation at a local pet store, indicates potential for an African dwarf frog as a tank-mate in the future.

A natural animal lover, Emily continues to think about what kinds of creatures she can afford to add to her family of pets. On a recent trip to the Big R farm and ranch supply, we encountered a selection of spring chicks and she immediately began adding up the costs of having a chicken coop in our back yard. This plan was immediately thwarted by Gramma and Grampa who said they would move out of our shared homestead if we bought chickens. It was inconceivable to Emily that not even the promise of future income from selling fresh eggs could change their minds.

After a day of extreme pouting that we’d never have our own farm fresh eggs to eat and to sell, Emily began researching another breed of creatures. It had to be smaller than a dog (we don’t need another large animal), bigger than a mouse (I don’t like things escaping and hiding where I can’t get them) and more interesting than a fish (Emily can’t pet Sylvester).

As I read in the next room, Emily sat at the kitchen table with my laptop and asked how to spell “guinea” … as in guinea pigs. The next research project began, and a day later, I was presented with a pricing list. Fortunately for me, there’s going to be a serious waiting time on this acquisition. A guinea pig and all its requirements are going to cost about $125.

Ever determined, my entrepreneurial 9-year-old has ideas, and she dumped one of them on her unsuspecting mother tonight. I came home from a long day at the office to find our living room transformed into a spa-like environment. The incense was burning, there were pillows and yoga mats on the floor, bottles of lotion, nail polish … and chocolate. Emily instructed me to change into a robe, which I eagerly did, and then she set about pampering me. She put a hot rice bag around my neck; read to me; massaged my feet, hands and head; and gave me a fresh pedicure.

An hour later, she presented me with an itemized bill and asked for $16.

Now, being a savvy consumer, I complained about her gouging customers without explaining upfront what the cost of services would be. She agreed to a much reduced rate and gave me a $3-off coupon for my next visit.

Still, I have to be much more careful about falling for her spa treatments. Otherwise we’ll be welcoming a guinea pig to the family in no time.