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AMN Mission to Guatemala: The Land of Happy Children

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Bryce Klinesteker, Quality Services, AMN Healthcare

 Guatemala Hospital  EL RANCHO, COBAN, GUATEMALA – As an AMN volunteer for the HELPS International medical mission to Guatemala, I came with the expectation that I would be emotionally moved by the work that I was going to do – installing safety stoves in the homes of families living in extreme poverty. These stoves saves lives because they replace indoor cook fires that people in the highlands build on the dirt floors of their homes. The new stoves vent the toxic fire smoke out of the home and prevent burns from children falling into fires. 

I knew it was important work, but I never imagined the level of connection that I would make with the Guatemalan people – especially the children. The highlands are a region that seems to be overflowing with children. Installing a safety stove takes about an hour, but since the working quarters are often too small to accommodate a full team of four “stovers,” there is a lot of time to interact and entertain the children while waiting to do your part of the work.

When we are working at a home in El Rancho, the kids of the household, and there are usually several, and their cousins and neighbors all come to watch the excitement of a new stove being installed. They have an innocent curiosity that draws them to these new visitors to their village, but they also have a lot of shyness, so that at the beginning, they hide behind mom’s leg, look stony-faced or peek around a doorway. They won’t even smile. 

Slowly, their curiosity wins, and they come out to take a closer look. Once they decide that we are OK, these previously shy children transform into the most outgoing and genuinely happy people that I have ever met. The looks in their eyes and the smiles on their faces show a happiness that at first seemed incongruous with their surroundings of poverty. These are children who live in shacks with dirt floors, walls made of raw wood and leaky metal roofs. The walls and rafters are thick with soot from the indoor fires and the air inside can be choking. 

What it proved to me was that happiness is an inside job. If anybody has a reason to be unhappy, it’s the people of El Rancho, who live in what we in San Diego would consider terrible conditions. Yet, I’ve had ten kids screaming with delight climbing all over me. They love to play. We chased each other around the house, and I showed them a yo-yo trick that made them squeal with delight. Their happiness was overwhelming. I will never forget the love and joy that I saw in their eyes. 

It’s been an honor to be part of a mission that is spreading health and happiness in the highlands of Guatemala. But most of all, it’s been a real privilege to meet these incredible people.

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