Trip to Guatemala Focuses on Health, Development

  • A group of F&M students, left, takes part in a "charla" with children in rural Guatemala. The discussion focused on the importance of hand washing.

The climb was steep, and the sight was breathtaking. Lava flowed down the side of the volcano, only yards from where they stood. They could feel the heat of the glowing, molten rock as it rolled past their feet.

Now, it was time for the real adventure: roasting marshmallows over the searing lava of Pacaya, located near Antigua, Guatemala. With long sticks held by brave hands, seven Franklin & Marshall students prepared a delectable treat near the top of one of South America's most active volcanoes.

The volcanic snack marked an exciting conclusion to the students' trip to Guatemala in January, during which they identified service gaps in the nation's public health system and educated citizens on basic health issues. The group spent two weeks at three different work sites, working in association with Social Entrepreneur Corps, an organization whose mission is to design and implement entrepreneurial solutions in rural and developing countries. The Ware Institute for Civic Engagement organized the trip.

The students began their journey by spending three days in Antigua, a city of approximately 35,000 in central Guatemala, where they took basic Spanish classes and visited a series of hospitals and clinics. From there, they traveled to small indigenous towns around Lake Atitlan to conduct surveys on prenatal care, nutrition, hand sanitation and diabetes. They also helped local entrepreneurs promote and sell health-related products, and gave free eye exams to local residents.

"I'll never forget one small boy who had an infection in his eye, and a film developing across his eye," says Siva Reyna '12. "The sun is so strong that a film develops over your eyes without protection. People don't have the money for sunglasses."

Joining Reyna on the trip were Rachel Haimowitz '12, Eric Kane '12, John Mitko '11, Jeffrey Lienert '12, Maggie Serpi '11 and Alice Zients '12. The students helped to advertise and sell sunglasses and reading glasses, in addition to other products, at a price the residents could afford.

The F&M group also visited a local school in Nebaj to educate children on personal hygiene. The students put together a "charla"—an interactive talk—on the importance of brushing teeth and washing hands.

"This was my first time leaving the United States, so that will always be a big deal," Serpi says. "It was also my first real brush with the public health field, and while it was a great experience, I think I prefer a more clinical environment because I'm pre-med."

At the conclusion of their trip, the students presented a series of recommendations and analysis to Social Entrepreneur Corps. They emphasized the importance of speaking with parents, in addition to children, about basic hygiene issues. They also recommended that Social Entrepreneur Corps include hand sanitizer on its product list and create a brochure on the importance of sanitizing.

For Reyna, the group's visit to a children's HIV/AIDS clinic was the most lasting memory. It left such an impression on her that she wants to return to Guatemala next summer.

"Apparently, they had a doctor who left at Christmas and never came back," Reyna says. "These children have been abandoned by their families. One girl was left at the hospital by her mother, and they took her in. I'd really like to go back to work at that clinic. I'll remember those children the most."

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