They were just small gifts -- colorful beaded scarves made of handkerchiefs that a class of Central Lakes College students created for about 50 schoolgirls in a remote Guatemalan village.
But the presents meant as much to the young girls as they did to the Brainerd lakes area medical personnel who felt privileged to hand deliver them to the Guatemalan girls' school more than two weeks ago.
About 17 Brainerd area residents, mostly medical professionals, joined a contingent of about 67 people who traveled to Barrillas, Guatemala, March 21-April 2 and worked at a makeshift village clinic, treating patients who otherwise wouldn't receive medical care. The group cared for about 3,000 patients and performed 87 operations during the stay.
Jan Kurtz, a CLC Spanish instructor, went along to serve as an interpreter for Dr. Paul Milloy and Sharon Kramer, a registered nurse from St. Joseph's Medical Center. While Milloy knows some Spanish -- he's a student of Kurtz's -- it was helpful for them to have someone along who was more fluent in the language.
Still, there are 22 different dialects in the Mayan culture, said Kurtz. There were times when the Guatemalan military guards had to translate the dialect of the Mayan Indians to Kurtz in Spanish and she would translate the Spanish into English for Milloy and Kramer. The organization HELPS International, which set up the trip, supplied a couple of interpreters but it is always helpful to have more, said Kramer.
Kurtz had worked with refugees and indigenous people before, but the recent trip was an emotional one to experience as people received life-saving surgeries and medical treatments that many people in Brainerd may take for granted.
"Instead of being this tourist trying to take pictures of these amazing indigenous people with your camera, they came up and wanted to tell their stories," said Kurtz. "It was a real special experience as a teacher to have access to the people."
Before she left, several of Kurtz's students volunteered one night to make scarves so she could bring them along on the trip to give to schoolgirls at the village. The Brainerd medical team had visited the girls' school last year and wanted to visit again with gifts.
Three Brainerd area nurses received awards from HELPS International for their many years of travel to Guatemala to help provide medical care to impoverished people. Kramer has gone for 13 years, Sharon Manion has made the trip for 12 years and Judy Wayt has volunteered her time to go for the past 11 years. The doctors from Brainerd who went on the trip were Milloy, Dr. Dave Boran and Dr. Arnie Rutman.
Kramer said she plans to make the trip next year, bringing along her 16-year-old grandson.
"I think you know the answer when you get back," Kramer said about why she continues to go to Guatemala. "You go flip a switch at your house and there's electricity. You go to the sink and there is water. You go to the fridge, and there is food. Down there they do with what they have and that's virtually nothing.
"You can read about poverty but until you're in the midst of it you have no idea what poverty is," said Kramer. "I had no idea what poverty was. They give us much more than what we're able to give them -- a smile and the ability to live another year because of the medical help we were able to give them. Each trip is so rewarding and different from the last."
Kurtz said the Mayan people they worked with had in the 1980s been essentially sought out for genocide by their own government. They are now attempting to reclaim their land and set up their lives again.
Some of the patients they treated included a 3-year-old girl who had a bullet lodged in her elbow and a young boy with a massive cyst on his neck that would have strangled him if it had not been removed by the Brainerd medical team.
Kurtz will give a Cultural Thursday presentation about the trip at noon May 1 in Room E354 at CLC. The public is invited to attend the free program.
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