Back from Guatemala ... for now

March 5, 2019 MIke Butler

Muchas gracias to everyone who supported us and kept us in your prayers during our recent trip to Guatemala. A team of Providence St. Joseph Health volunteers and I are back - healthy and safe - from an amazing experience serving side by side with the community and our in-country partners.

PSJH is continuing to collaborate with Medical Teams International on a new four-year plan to bring maternal and child health programs to 12 indigenous communities in the Central Highlands of Guatemala. Our goal is to reduce the leading causes of death - respiratory illness, diarrhea and malnutrition - among children under the age five. On this trip, the team and I worked with the community of San Sebastian Beleju to install 30 latrines and 30 hand washing stations in homes to help reduce the risk of diarrhea and other waterborne illnesses.

The visit was also an opportunity to get a first-hand look at the progress we've made with MTI to date. I had the privilege of visiting one of the first communities we focused on during our first four years together, the community of Esquipulas, and it's clear our efforts are making a real difference. For example, we met the first baby born in that community after we implemented the program to reduce respiratory illness, and it was incredible to learn that she has not had a single cough or cold in her young life. I was also inspired to see how self-sufficient that community has become with organized farming and its own solar panel system.

Improving health for a stronger Guatemala

It got me thinking that there is much more we can do to support these villages in building a healthier local economy. Guatemala is one of the poorest nations in Latin America - a place where 60 percent of the population lives on $1 a day and where many of the families we visited had only 14 days of water and one month of food on hand. Fathers were absent in over 90 percent of the homes we visited.

That's why I was blown away when I met a gentleman, Padre Manuel, who has taken an innovative approach to farming in Guatemala. In a region plagued by draught, he has introduced new ways to grow crops using less water. He's also creating more protein sources, including growing a protein rich superfood plant and starting tilapia fish farms. These endeavors help to create a fresh, nutritious local food supply. But they also help to create local farming jobs that make it possible for men to stay at home and keep families together. By supporting projects like these, I believe we can improve health for a stronger Guatemala.

What community leaders can teach us about leadership

It's inspiring to meet people who are committed to making their communities a better place to live, and I always find it fascinating to hear their stories. I spoke with one of the ministers of community health - Feliciano - who shared how he walked six hours by foot to take his sick child to a healer only for his child to die. The experience made him more committed to working with MTI to bring more resources to his community.

Throughout the week, many of the community leaders and MTI leaders shared their thoughts on how to be effective in the community, which completely resonated with me and aligned with my personal beliefs about what makes a good leader. Some of the key attributes that came up in conversation included having humility, being good listeners and having a strong sense curiosity, as well as the importance of leading with love, not fear, and finding joy in the work we do.

Our team of volunteers included about 20 senior executives from across the PSJH family. Each day, we reflected on our experiences, and one of the reflections that stood out for me was this poem by Margaret Wheatley:

There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask what's possible, not what's wrong. Keep asking.

Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don't know. Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what's possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert in something. Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don't fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

-Margaret Wheatley

How to get involved

This was my second service trip to Guatemala and my sixth to Latin American. Each time I go, I come back feeling grateful for the opportunity to serve among people who have so little in terms of material wealth but are abundant in joy and love for one another and for life itself.

If you are a PSJH caregiver who is interested in volunteering for one of these transformative experiences, our Global Partnerships Program is now recruiting for service trips through the summer. We are planning on deploying 10 PSJH volunteer teams to Guatemala this year. You can learn more by visiting the Global Partnerships Web site.

Thank you to the friends, family and colleagues who helped our team fundraise for the people of Guatemala. Together, we raised $115,000, which will help jump start our new four-year plan with MTI. I also want to express a special thank you to our in-country partners MTI and Faith in Practice, as well as all the remarkable people we met on the trip. We learn so much from you. Thank you for sharing your generous and joyous spirit with us. I'm already looking forward to my next trip back to Guatemala.

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