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Experiences and Insights of Individual Volunteers

Individual Volunteer at Salud y Paz, Guatemala
Andy Henson at pharmacy of Salud y Paz clinic in Guatemala

We invite you to read the following writings that have come from many different individual volunteers. We hope that these excerpts will help you get an insight into their experiences, and will be an inspiration for you.  - Walt and Betty Whitehurst (Consultants for Individual Volunteers, 1999-2004)

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Part 3: Ordinary / Extraordinary Experiences of Volunteers


Last week a group of women from Arkansas visited us, preliminary to a trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and then an International Women's Forum conference in Singapore. It included a former and the current Arkansas First Lady. Here they participated in a WiLD (Women in Livestock Development) tour. Wednesday, the 18th, we all took a two-hour boat ride up one of the Mekong River tributaries to Dong Thanh, a village of 528 families. In February, 2000, about 50 women in Phuoc Thanh hamlet, one of two in the village, formed an organization, Women Group I, to support each other in crop production, animal husbandry, and marketing activities. Heifer Project International has supported the women's group with loans of about $35 US to each member and also with technical assistance. (Before the group was formed, families usually obtained high interest loans, from 10 - 20% per month.) The return on investment at year's end is outstanding, from 30 - 100% which means the members are now able to pay taxes for the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges which means it is easier for them to get their produce to market. Also, crime and other social problems seem to have declined in the area. We attended a banquet for the members where the Arkansas ladies presented awards to outstanding achievers. The demeanor of both groups of women during the ceremonies was very humbling to this man. And at the same time I was so proud to be a part of this organization and proud of those Arkansas ladies. The boat trip back in the dark also had some interest - we hit a log and lost the ability to maneuver. Another boat towed us but it had engine problems 2/3 of the way back. Our dinner scheduled for 7:00 PM started about ten. I was told to expect adventures.


At the guest house where I'm staying... I heard about a new species of deer recently discovered north of Hanoi, the first new mammalian species found in this or the past century. Only one individual was found but they suspect others. Anyway, some Danish journalist paid a bounty on the critter, had it shipped to Denmark, stuffed, and put on display at some university. Seems the Vietnamese authorities were upset and it was returned.


Last Saturday afternoon Mary baked bread with the women of Cristo Obreros (Workers for Christ) church. While the outdoor oven was heating, several women mixed four kilos of rice flour, two kilos of mashed yuca, a kilo of melted pig lard, two kilos of grated goat cheese and several cups of water with salt and sugar in solution. After thoroughly kneading the dough, we all shaped the dough into little rings and placed them on greased metal sheets. They baked in about fifteen minutes in a very hot oven.


Hola everyone. It has been another rather "normal" week here, which means once again we have been back and forth from the very depths of the pit to the pinnacle of the mountain top! A team of volunteers in Dallas is readying the equipment for shipment to Guatemala in the next few days. Thanks to UMCOR and all the willing volunteers in Dallas we are nearly ready to call the truck to pick it up. Once the equipment leaves Dallas we understand it will be at the clinic site in Camanchaj in 7-10 days! THAT'S FAST!

We have received funding support from Paradise Valley UMC in Phoenix to hire the Guatemalan physician we need for the clinics, for one day a week in each. We have also received donations to provide for a nurse and pharmacy person as well. So-now we have staff, opening date (June 14), and equipment arriving around the same time!


Recently at 3:30 a.m. I awoke to the screaming of some unknown woman... I jumped out of bed and grabbed my clothes. I ran outside to see what was going on. It turns out that Holy Week had started and the Catholics in this town have a tradition of a continuous "wailing passion" service for the next seven days. It's a live performance from a site unknown to me, but they sang the same "wailing as if you are dying" songs all day and night. They had erected a large loudspeaker near my room and it blasted all day. It was not supposed to stop for seven days - 24 hours a day! Fortunately (for me) something broke and it stopped after only two days.

These last two weeks, I've been volunteering as a teacher for Vacation Church School. I guess I was more of a teacher's aide, since I didn't really do that much teaching. I was responsible for visual aids. I drew lots of pictures. I held up signs and carried chairs. I sang songs and danced in circles. I jumped up and down and made airplane noises. I couldn't communicate very well with the kids. None of them could speak English, but they did a good job parroting every word out of my mouth. It sounded like I had an echo following me everywhere I went...We had about 30 children from the community. We didn't have a church or classroom to meet in, so we met under a big tree beside the rice field.


"She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger - there was NO ROOM for them to stay in the inn." We have read this story, many times, put on our bathrobes, located a cane or two, even had a live cow or sheep in the scene. We know that it is a story of another age - at least 2,000 years ago...

I now live in a country where that story is lived out every day and it is the year 2000... In this culture people do suffer, notably pregnant women. There is little health awareness, and tradition says that women in labor must go to the cowshed to give birth to avoid the gods' anger if they delivered in the home. After delivery, they must stay in the cowshed for 20 days eating a prescribed diet. This practice contributes to the very high infant and maternal mortality rate. There is hope. United Mission to Nepal has two auxiliary nurse midwives in that area who give as much care as possible to the mother and child and work to move the baby "out of the manger" and into the home.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

My first term as a teacher ended yesterday, and it ended in style! My 7th-9th grade history class had been studying Latin America (two of the five students are Argentinean and had never really been taught the history of Argentina or South America), and along with the actual history of Latin America we made up our own countries with flags, maps, and histories that were tangentially related to Latin American history. We had also drawn a map of Latin America (to which we had added our countries), and we spent the last week of the term playing a modified version of Castle Risk with our own countries as the centers of our empires and the rest of Latin America as the battleground...


Overall, second term went very well. I barely got in the literature syllabus I'd written for my 7th-9th graders, "Representations of Good and Evil in Literature," to the point that I was "forced" to throw a Star Wars marathon party for my students where we ate lots of junk food and watched 4-1/2 hours of Star Wars movies. They suffer so much having me as a teacher...

South Africa

On Christmas day, a collaboration of churches from the inner city held a Christmas lunch for the homeless, serving chicken, three bean salad, potato salad, beet root salad, a can of soda, custard, and Christmas cake to each person. We had about 800 people attend. Also, a nearby congregation donated a lot of nice toys to give to children for Christmas. That was the best part of the day for me. We probably had about 100 children, but had so many toys that kids were coming back three and four times. Toys are a great thing about Christmas, and it was great to see the happiness in their eyes...


I was wakened this morning at 6:25 a.m. by a very enthusiastic knock on the door. First I had to find something to put on as answering the door in one's nightgown, no matter how long it is, is not an option in Nepal. Rachel was asleep upstairs, probably had her earplugs in as she is trying to recover from a horrendous night on call and trying to catch up on her sleep. So I went to the door to find a woman who began talking in rapid fire Nepali. I figured out she was a census taker and I was about to be included in the official 2001 Nepali census. This is great irony as I missed the 2000 U.S. census! Of course, I could not understand her and told her so in my pigeon Nepali. Then she asked for my name which I had to spell very slowly in English for her. She kept asking me how many people lived here and I kept telling her two. But she didn't believe me, it is pretty unbelievable in Nepal that only two people would live in a ten-room house. But she kept asking, "How many people?" and I kept saying "two." Finally I gave her Rachel's name and added Dr. so I think she figured it out. She did not ask any other questions, like age, nationality, residence status, etc. It just must be a nose count. So much for a quiet sleep-in on my only day off in the week...

Yesterday, I had a great adventure. I went along with Shukun, the principal of nursing campus, and Sharon G., the new 23-year-old BSN nurse from Oregon with one whole year's experience under her belt, who is here as a new peace corps volunteer. They went to visit the second year students who are living in a village about 45 minutes drive from campus for a month as they do their community health experience. 15 students and one instructor live in a little village home for one month as they do a community assessment and then design and carry out their community interventions, mostly health teaching.

The instructor is Sunita, my favorite young Nepali faculty, and I think she has a huge job living with the students day and night for one month... This is a big responsibility, as in Nepal, she is very responsible for the behavior and safe keeping, meaning keeping the young students away from any interested young village men, as that is a huge responsibility in Nepal, to protect the virtue of young girls. Not to mention dealing with the political unrest now. The principal says they usually try to stay close to the police post for protection and safety but of course that is a very unsafe place now and they have to stay far away from it.

The students sleep on mats on the floor, eight to a room and Sunita this time is lucky enough to have her own room. They sleep and do their work on the second floor and the kitchen where they have to cook for themselves is on the third floor. I met the students who were coming back from the community assessment and they were complaining that they had to walk too far and it was too hot. I got some pictures, the students in their beautiful purple cotton saris with their umbrellas for shade...

Half of the students were working in the health post, staffed by a community health worker, who does antenatal checks, immunizations, and mild illness management. This health post wasn't too bad, it was roomy and fairly clean. This village is a Brahmin, high caste Hindu village, with some low caste laborers living in it and it looked fairly well off to me. I was amazed at the amount of gold jewelry all the women were wearing, but of course they wear all their savings as it is the safest thing to do and it is the custom. There were several older women sitting on the chautari, the stone resting place around the tree in the middle of the village, and they were very eager to let me take their pictures... Of course all the children quickly gather round and want their pictures taken also...

All in all it was an amazing trip, 45 minutes bumping along on the dirt road on the side of the hills. The countryside around Tansen is absolutely gorgeous now, green and lush... The rice fields are beginning to be planted. They start with a patch of very thick plants which is the seed bed. Then they prepare the rest of the fields, mostly plowing with buffalo and breaking up clods of dirt with hand tools. Then they flood the field and groups of people take the rice seedling and transplant them in the field in rows about four inches apart. The planters are usually women who work in a long line moving across the fields... Sometimes you can hear them sing as they plant, it is a happy time as the rice is such a significant part of their life and culture...

We had a real tragedy on the hospital compound this last week... A Swiss family with three young sons were keeping goats as family pets... The goats got out of their pen and ate their way through the nursing campus garden before they were discovered. Then the naughty goats were tied to ropes and stakes. But then one night, a leopard which apparently lives in a cave not far from the compound, had himself or herself a tasty feast. No more pet goats.


I am half way through my work in the hospital... One of my biggest jobs has been to teach the students about the value of play for sick children. The hospital has a lending toy service started by the wife of the executive director who is a nurse. So every day the toy cart comes around and each child is given a toy. The ones that are too sick to play with toys are given big shiny balloons. It is a real task to teach the students that play is important for children and the toy cart helps so much. Each student spends a day with the toy cart, helping the children and the parents pick appropriate toys. But we have had good successes with this toy ministry and the students are beginning to see my point about the value of play. For instance, we had a little five-year-old who had major abdominal surgery... On his third day after surgery when he was hardly moving, he got a truck which would go on its own by a friction mechanism. The toy people demonstrated it on his bed and soon we noticed that he was insisting his dad pick him up and put him on the floor. He then spent twenty minutes playing with the truck, sending it back and forth to his dad and anyone else who would play with him. By the time he went back to bed, he was moving much better and he had a huge smile on his face. There was another little boy who had had a chest tube for fluid in his lung and although the chest tube was out, he was not breathing deeply and his temperature was going up and his lungs were sounding congested again. So Dr. Sunil ordered him to blow up balloons every two hours and we got him a good supply of balloons from the toy cart. The child changed right before our eyes, he started to move and to work hard to get the balloons to go up. Even I who believe in the value of toys for kids was amazed with the improvement in him. By the next morning, he was down to one balloon left, his temperature was normal and his lungs were clear and he was moving about without pain...

I am pleased to say that the students also quickly figured out that in addition to diversion these children needed better nutrition and better "personal hygiene" as the students call it. So the students are doing classes in what kinds of foods are important to eat to help heal bones...

And the personal hygiene story is another challenge. I insist that all the children in the ward get at least two baths with shampoos a week and this is a big job convincing everyone this is important. Remember it is monsoon, 90 degrees with high humidity, and the ward has 8 children in a space smaller than my living room... But by the second day, even the most reluctant students have figured out that yes, the children really do need baths. The other challenge is lice control. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that lice, bed bugs and cockroaches live on the ward in addition to the patients?... I'm afraid the whole ward and work situation would not meet OSHA standards in the U.S. But the students are getting lots of very good experience and I am busy.