Captivated by the plight of the people in Guatemala

Allentown man helps bring food, medical care to the less fortunate


Staff Writer

Jeffrey McLaughlin, of Allentown, brushes a boy’s teeth in a fluoride clinic held in the village of Santa Caterina Polopo. Jeffrey McLaughlin, of Allentown, brushes a boy’s teeth in a fluoride clinic held in the village of Santa Caterina Polopo. ALLENTOWN — His compassion for children has helped bring new hope to an impoverished Guatemalan region.

For his efforts in feeding the hungry, tending to the sick and giving people hope, Jeffrey McLaughlin was selected as one of this year’s People Who Make A Difference.

For the past 16 years, McLaughlin, of Allentown, has organized annual mission trips to places in Central America, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, to help the indigenous people there who have no more than the bare necessities.

“In 1991, my wife, Vickie, and I decided that we wanted to do something,” McLaughlin said. “We were double income, no kids, middle-aged people.”

At that time, Mark Pollen, a missionary, arrived at the Allentown Presbyterian Church, where the couple belongs, to speak about Guatemala, which was in the middle of a civil war.

“He [Pollen] was working in Guatemala,” McLaughlin said, “and he gathered a group together, and we all went down and did logistics work.”

A Tz’utujil Maya girl from  the village of Pampoijila, for whom the missionaries provided a fluoride treatment, holds a new toothbrush and balloon. A Tz’utujil Maya girl from the village of Pampoijila, for whom the missionaries provided a fluoride treatment, holds a new toothbrush and balloon. McLaughlin said the initial group that went to Guatemala tried to determine what needed to be done in order to help the people in the region they were visiting.

“The place we were going to had a cholera epidemic so we decided to bring nurses with us to set up a clinic,” McLaughlin said.

While there, the group researched what other goods the people living in the region needed the most. Since many of the children did not even have shoes, McLaughlin decided to bring new shoes along with lightly used ones to Guatemala. Since then, McLaughlin’s group has taken about 1,600 pairs of shoes annually to Guatemala.

These days, the mission trips McLaughlin organizes always include a shoe team, a medical team and a construction team.

“We also bring people to do children’s ministry,” McLaughlin said.

For the past 11 years, McLaughlin has been organizing mission trips specifically to San Lucas Toliman in Guatemala. The area is surrounded by volcanoes and located near Lago de Atitlan, or Lake Atitlan, about 150 miles to the west of the capital of Guatemala, which is Guatemala City. San Lucas Toliman has a population of 22,000.

McLaughlin helped build the Spring of Hope, which services approximately 160 children five days a week. The building offers a feeding program for children where they are provided with breakfast, lunch and snacks such as bowls of oatmeal five days a week.

‘Manantial de esperanza’ literally means ‘spring of hope,’ ” McLaughlin said. “Manantial does not mean spring like a geyser, but rather describes an unexpectedly discovered pool of water when leaves are pushed away.”

Not only is it his mission to nourish children’s bodies, but it is also his intention to feed their minds as well. McLaughlin’s efforts have helped build a preschool, which now serves 62 children. The preschool’s main priority is teaching the children Spanish, as the indigenous people of Guatemala have diverse languages and dialects including Tz’utujil, K’iche’ and Kakiquel.

“Their primary language is not Spanish,” McLaughlin said. “We teach them Spanish.”

The Spring of Hope also started “Plan Padrino” to allow the children of the Lake Atitlan region to get an education. The program also provides counseling to kids and their families and teaches children specific trades so they can help take care of their families when they are older.

In addition, McLaughlin’s group has set up a full-time medical clinic there, and McLaughlin brings a fluoride clinic with him to provide dental care to those in need.

“We started with the kids and then went on to serve their families,” he said. “The clinic has doubled in size in 18 months and now occupies two storefronts.”

The clinic was an expensive undertaking, according to McLaughlin. Underfunded by the Media and Thompson churches, he said it costs $50,000 per year to run.

All the programs the missionaries operate in Guatemala run on contributions from the congregations of the churches involved and with the help of funding collected through various fundraisers held throughout the year.

McLaughlin couldn’t say enough about the support he gets from the people of Allentown and local organizations such as the Community Christian Choirs, the local band “Looking Up” and the vacation Bible school in Allentown.

The generosity of others in providing goods, time and labor also helped McLaughlin construct a three-room home for a couple with a dozen children.

“Twelve people plus mom and dad were living in a tar paper shack so we built them a three-room house,” he said.

McLaughlin was initially intrigued by the children of the area, which he says is what keeps him going back year after year.

“I spend a lot of my time there talking to

the kids,” he said. “I’ve seen many kids grow up because I’ve been there 16 years.”

Not only has McLaughlin increased his number of annual trips from one to two, but he also got other churches involved in running their own mission trips to the area as well.

Along with the congregation at Allentown Presbyterian Church, congregations from the First Presbyterian Church of Cranbury, the First Presbyterian Church of Waynesboro, Va., the Media Presbyterian Church of Pennsylvania and the Thomas Memorial Church in New Hope, Pa., all organize mission trips to the Spring of Hope.

As a result of the ongoing support, McLaughlin said a mission group is at the Spring of Hope almost every month of the year. The Spring of Hope also works with the Promised Land Ministries, which was organized by the Santizo family in Guatemala about 10 years ago. The family, with its mission, acts as a liaison for the Spring of Hope and has also branched missionary efforts out into different areas of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Last year, McLaughlin went to El Salvador to see if his group could do missionary work there.

“Unfortunately, we were not well received by the El Salvador government,” he said. “The government held back all of our medical supplies.”

Instead of running medical clinics during that trip, McLaughlin said the medical professionals who went with him to El Salvador worked construction instead.

Despite the lukewarm greeting from the government, McLaughlin said the people of El Salvador loved the missionaries.

“We’re going to go back in the future,” he said.

McLaughlin’s next trips to Guatemala are scheduled for June 21 and July 26.

Since he started organizing the trips to Guatemala, McLaughlin said he has seen changes in the area’s community.

“The kids have gotten healthier,” he said. “The kids in our programs are the poorest of the poor in the village.

“Kids who would have had scurvy, rickets, bad eyes,” he continued, “and who would not have been developed due to the lack of food.”

Food is essential to their progress, according to McLaughlin.

“These kids are now as big or bigger than their contemporaries,” he said. “They don’t have scurvy or rickets.”

McLaughlin has also taken doctors to give vision tests and distribute glasses whenever necessary.

“The glasses help the kids do better in school,” he said.

McLaughlin said he has seen youths whom he’s taken on the mission trips grow up to become doctors and nurses and people who work on other missions all over the globe.

“The project begets people who want to go on and continue to do service-oriented things,” he said.

When asked if he would have ever imagined himself as the conductor of missionary trips prior to doing so, McLaughlin said, “If you had asked me 16 years ago if I thought I would be running mission trips to Guatemala twice a year, I would have just laughed.

“But it’s what happened” he added. “I got captivated by the plight of the people down there.”

McLaughlin, who sells engineering and industrial products for a living, said he finds the time to help out in Guatemala because “I don’t have any hobbies. I work, and I do this.”

He continued, “I think I get a great feeling of satisfaction at the end of the year because I know we ‘eeked’ out another year in Guatemala.”

McLaughlin and his wife adopted their son, Sean, who is now a 13-year-old seventh-grader, from Guatemala. He said he also keeps in touch with many of the kids he watched grow up in Guatemala over the years.

“We have some kids going away to college and some staying and working down in Guatemala. Some have even immigrated as legal immigrants,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin said his mission is all about the children.

“Kids are very needy,” he said, “and it’s kids who made me keep wanting to go back to Guatemala because kids there were once starving to death.”