Empty classrooms, dimmed eyes
It is so good to be back at Ciudad de la Esperanza. This is my third time here. I first visited this community in March of 2019 to see if it would be a good fit for a partnership with Regis. After a few minutes of being on the campus, meeting the core staff and talking to Padre Sergio about the work being done here, it was clear this was the perfect fit. And thus the agreement to bring teams of Regis students down to help further their healthcare efforts began. The second time was March of 2020 with our first Regis student team. Both of those trips the campus was teaming with life - hundreds of school children giggling at the gringos and running around during breaks from class filled the air with joy. But coronavirus closed the school just days after our last trip, and it is still closed. The staff has done an excellent job keeping the children learning, and Padre and his core staff have continued to carry out the mission of the project, helping to continue their work in human rights, and advocating for victims of abuse. They have done a remarkable job in just helping the community not starve by providing food assistance. They have even managed in the past year to add a second floor to the clinic and install a dental chair and equipment. So there is a now a trickle of people coming to the center throughout the day for health care and social services. But boy do I miss the school kids being here.
The sense of doom about the pandemic is written on people’s faces. The government here is not even close to providing an adequate response for testing, contact tracing and vaccinations. They seem instead to be blaming the people for spreading the virus. So far, I have not seen the blatant disregard for masking that we have in the United States. People everywhere are wearing them. I even saw a guy on a motorcycle last night with one on under his helmet - that sure isn’t happening in Los Estados. We have a full team here who could have easily vaccinated a mass of people this week, and we gave plenty of notice to the ministry of health we were coming and able. But there simply are no vaccines to administer. The wealthy nations all need to step up and donate more vaccines, but right now the Guatemalan government needs to step up and get what vaccine they have to the people. Supply chains and distribution protocols have to become priority number one.
Amidst the melancholy we are never far from glimpses of hope. The first day of clinic I saw a little toddler who had a cleft lip that had been recently repaired. He came in with lots of viral symptoms, so we tested him - even just being able to test him is a huge step forward. The rapid test was negative, so with about a 20% false negative rate I told the mom to presume he had it, we reported the negative to the health department - from there they will either confirm with a PCR, repeat a rapid in a couple of days or do nothing. Today she came back to clinic with her older 4 kids. Technically they should all be quarantining, but she said the other 4 had never seen a doctor in their lives and she wanted them to be checked out. The oldest, a beautiful 13 year old named Ilsa, came right up to me in the parking lot and said, “Hello” in perfect English. So I asked her a bit later what other English words she knew and she started spouting out the months. This family’s native language is Q’eqchi. We did the visit all in Spanish, and this little girl is also learning English. Three languages, but she has never seen a doctor in her whole life and has never even once taken a pain medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. The mom left clinic yesterday telling one of the nurses she is sending her sister and her family tomorrow to see us. So, we gain a little trust and move the needle a little bit each time.
Padre Sergio, the visionary Guatemalan priest who started this school for the cast away people living off the landfill 17 years ago, is one of those people who seems to always have a twinkle in his eye. He sees the kingdom of God and tries to embody it here in these beautiful people around him. I cannot wait for the school to be brimming with the chaos of the children again. You can see the devastation in Padre Sergio’s eyes as they are just a bit dimmed. Like all good leaders, Padre stands up where he sees injustice. He is leading the fight here in Coban to try to get the government to vaccinate the people. There is a long history in Central America of activist priests being silenced when the government feels they have pushed the boundaries too far. I hope my saintly priest friend is careful, but I do not blame him for raising his voice against the injustice. I cannot wait for the school to be brimming with the chaos of the children again. That will help Padre find the twinkle again. He has such a love for this community. The virus sucks, but the human response of those in charge is criminal.