On a mission: Venturing beyond borders to help those in need


By: Ashley Caudill
   Consistently running water, electricity, shoes, toothbrushes and nutritious meals may seem like necessities, but in some parts of the world they are great luxuries.
   "For a lot of these children — this is how they survive," Jeffrey McLaughlin, coordinator of the Guatemala mission for the Allentown Presbyterian Church, said of students of the Manantial de Esperanza mission school.
   Guatemala is the third most impoverished nation in Latin America and food staples include tortillas, coffee, beans and some fruits. Residents commonly suffer from malnourishment, scurvy, and rickets.
   The Allentown Presbyterian Church first sent members to Guatemala in 1991. They traveled to the town of K’iche, a town harshly punished by Gen. Ríos Montt, who was initially the chairman of the military and then became president of Guatemala.
   "There were massacres, it was a dangerous place," Mr. McLaughlin, a resident of Main Street in Allentown, said.
   The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Web site warns travelers bound for Guatemala about concerns of violence "due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence and a dysfunctional judicial system."
   Due to safety concerns, the group decided to change the location of the mission trips.
   "In 1995 we went to San Lucas Toliman, a coffee town on the shores of Lake Atitlan," Mr. McLaughlin said.
   San Lucas Toliman is a Mayan village located three hours west of Guatemala City. The village was chosen partially because of its large size and travel accessibility, according to Mr. McLaughlin. The population of San Lucas Toliman hovers around 20,000 to 25,000.
   "Presbyterians are big on education, so we wanted to set up the school," Mr. McLaughlin said.
   Twenty people went on the first mission trip and 22 ventured out on the last trip from June 20-28, 2003. The next mission trip is planned from Friday, June 25, to Saturday, July 3, and so far 22 people have signed up. A maximum of 25 people can go on the mission and participants have ranged in age from 9 to 73. The group’s area liaisons, the Santiago family, who run a ministry called Promise Land Ministries, suggested that San Lucas Toliman was a place that had a lot of needs.
   "We started with 15 kids under blue tarps on a small piece of land," Mr. McLaughlin said.
   From 1995 to 1997, the mission group cleared land and built a 40- by 40-foot brick school building.
   The school, which has been in operation for nine years, is called Manantial de Esperanza, which in English means "spring of hope." They teach 110 children in the school and 40 children in preschool.
   "It is wall-to-wall organized chaos," Mr. McLaughlin said of the school day, which is directed by six teachers and five assistants. "There will be music and chanting, math, and reading aloud all going on in different parts of the building at the same time."
   The Santiagos hire the teachers and make sure the budget is correctly administered. The liaisons work with a council of churches from the 12 Mayan villages situated around Lake Atitlan. The council suggests children they think would benefit from attending the mission school and the Santiagos interview the children.
   Children ages 2 to 6 attend the preschool and the school is for children ages 7 to 16.
   "An average Guatemalan kid goes (to school) to the fourth or fifth grade," Mr. McLaughlin said. "Normally the boys get yanked out to work in their fields with their dad."
   Attending public school in Guatemala is very expensive because the students must pay for their own uniforms, books, pencils and other school supplies.
   "Most families can’t afford to do that, so their children don’t attend," Mr. McLaughlin said.
   The mission school provides students with pens, pencils, books, and two nourishing meals a day.
   Mr. McLaughlin noted that many mission school children were made fun of by other village kids because they attended the mission school because their families could not afford to send them to public school. But after a while, with the help of the nourishing meals, the mission school students grew taller and bigger than the other children and were no longer mocked.
   "Most people in the village subsist on tortillas and coffee which is supplemented by beans and some fruits," Mr. McLaughlin explained. "You see extremely malnourished children. It’s hard to see the children and turn your back on them."
   The villagers have been appreciative of the help the group brings, according to Mr. McLaughlin. Medical treatment is given for injuries, burns, fungal infections, pre- and post-natal care and other female issues. Because sophisticated care is not available, most dental care is limited to extractions.
   Malnutrition, rickets and scurvy are common problems and medical professionals are part of the contingent that travels to San Lucas Toliman every year. Dr. Gerald Novik of St. Francis Hospital in Trenton and Dr. Gary Klein, a dentist from Hamilton, are two doctors who have made the trip.
   "We set up free clinics, medical and dental and provide fluoride treatments," Mr. McLaughlin said. "We’ve distributed 1,100 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste and given 900 to 1,000 fluoride treatments for children."
   Before making their yearly trip, the mission group collects shoes for the children. Both Allentown regional schools and the church have held shoe drives for the Guatemalan children.
   "We brought 20 bags — 80 pounds apiece — of shoes," Mr. McLaughlin said. "People are able to come in, receive medical treatments and get shoes."
   Though their primary goal is to help children, the mission group also participates in construction projects. The group built a house for the Cuc family.
   "They have 11 children, there are 13 in the family," Mr. McLaughlin said. "We built them a big three-room house."
   Large families are not uncommon and most mission school students come from large families.
   "Children always take care of other children," Mr. McLaughlin said. "Almost every little girl you see is carrying another, smaller (child)."
   In Guatemala, a mother’s main job is taking care of the children, while the fathers are typically campesinos — farmers. There is also some woodworking, fishing, and tourist work in nearby Panajachel.
   The indigenous people in the country speak 37 Mayan tongues. Children who attend the mission school are from three distinct language groups — K’icke, Tz’utujil and Kaqcikel. The mission group uses Spanish as a base language.
   "I speak a little of all three," said Mr. McLaughlin, who has been traveling to Guatemala since 1991.
   Though he is not fluent in all the Mayan dialects, Mr. McLaughlin is able to communicate with the locals in their native languages. A few men from the village inquired after his son, a fourth-grader at Upper Freehold Elementary School.
   "Does your son speak K’iche?" they asked about Sean, a Guatemalan boy Mr. McLaughlin and his wife, Vicki Rita Esposito McLaughlin, adopted in 1994.
   "No," Mr. McLaughlin responded.
   Mr. McLaughlin shook his head and admitted, "My son is a gringo."

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   According to Mr. McLaughlin, there are four kinds of mission trips:
   • A mission of presence is particularly Presbyterian. An individual or family lives in a remote village with the local Presbyterians there. Three is no agenda or job to accomplish. You are simply present there. Your "faith journey" intertwines with their "faith journey."
   • A mission of justice — work on something related to human or civil rights like violence against women.
   • A compassionate mission — when medical treatment is provided.
   • A transformative mission — when you transform the people you are working with. A mission of transformation is a mission to effect a transformation within a community. When meeting with a community of people you decide on a task or project that would be of benefit to them — building a hospital or a school, setting up a co-op. Transformative missions require the active participation of the people within the community.
   "A project we are discussing with our medical team is to find tiny villages who want to work with us to create a ‘health promoter’ within their village," Mr. McLaughlin said. "We will help support a person or persons within the village to promote health — basic hygiene training, postnatal care, good child-rearing practices, perhaps be a first aid person. This idea is still in discussion."
   There are two hours of water availability in the morning and in the evening (when the municipal pump is operating) in San Lucas Toliman. And while electricity exists, it doesn’t run all the time and doesn’t reach every part of the village. The village is becoming much more "modern" each year.
   The Guatemalan mission group aids the villagers in San Lucas Toliman through education, construction and medical projects. Through the medical/dental clinic, they have seen 600 medical cases, performed 300 teeth extractions and 900 to 1,000 fluoride treatments. Though they are bringing aid, Mr. McLaughlin says, it can be difficult for some of the volunteers.
   "You feel like you’ve got to stay one more minute — to help one more person," he said.

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   Funding for the Manantial de Esperanza school and the yearly Allentown Presbyterian mission trip is supplied in part by a grant from the Allentown Presbyterian Church and from a variety of fund-raisers held throughout the year. Approximately $2,000 will be raised through a set of four cooking classes (Italian, Spanish, French and fusion) beginning Saturday, Feb. 28. Funds have also been raised through letter writing, rummage sales and some corporate gifts. Donations also provide doctors with drugs, examination gloves, fluoride and other medical and dental supplies. Mr. McLaughlin says he has been approached by individuals who will just walk up and hand him a check. "It’s always the person you’d last expect," he noted.
   Other churches including Cranbury Presbyterian Church, Waynesboro Presbyterian Church in Virginia, First Presbyterian Church in Media, Pa., and Thompson Memorial Church in New Hope, Pa., have donated money to the project and sent teams modeled on the Allentown Presbyterian Church group to San Lucas Toliman.
   Anyone interested in contributing to the Guatemalan mission can contact the Allentown Presbyterian Church to donate shoes, toothbrushes or toothpaste. Items can be dropped off at the church or will be picked up. Any monetary gifts can be sent directly to Jeffrey McLaughlin, 76 N. Main St., Allentown, NJ 08501 or The Allentown Presbyterian Church, 20 High St., P.O. Box 122, Allentown, NJ 08501. Checks should be made out to The Allentown Presbyterian Church; specify Guatemalan mission on the memo line.