When Clarkfield physical therapist Wayne Hennen was offered the opportunity to travel to Guatemala to volunteer his time there, he lept at the chance. The trip was sponsored by by his employer, Big Stone Therapies, which is based out of Ortonville. Big Stone Therapies has sponsored the bi-annual trip for 14 years. Hennen also invited his daughter, Isabelle, to come along, hoping that she would benefit from the opportunity to help others.
During their week long stay, the volunteers would work with locals and help treat their mobility problems. Hennen and the team brought with them three pediatric wheelchairs, one standing frame, six walkers, and two pair of forearm crutches. The group also brought along donated clothing to give to the communities they visited visited.
Arriving in Guatemala was quite the culture shock. Like many developing countries, the water was unsafe to drink and volunteers had to be cautious about certain foods. Other than the bare essentials (beds, fans, and electricity), the team had to make do with few luxuries.
Hennen observed that “people seemed to have a lot more time for other people and the pace was a lot slower when you talked to people. Makes me think that we chase after a lot of ‘stuff’ here that doesn’t really make us happy.”
In spite of this, Hennen was struck by the exceptional beauty of Guatemala, particularly the lush green forests and towering volcanoes that surrounded the city. The food and coffee was also delicious, and Hennen sheepishly admitted that he “added plenty of hot sauce to most everything at breakfast and supper.”
During their stay, Hennen and the rest of the team would drive out to one of the remote villages surrounding the town of San Lucas Toliman. The 21 university students who accompanied them on their trip would split into four teams who would then start working with the local villagers. Each team was led by a medical organizer from the area who knew who within the village needed to be treated.
Hennen recalled how lack of proper documentation sometimes made this process more difficult. “Sometimes we could look back through our records to find the [latest] info on the patient from prior groups but many times we just walked in blind and evaluated and treated whoever they took us to based on what we found.”
During their stay, the teams would help patients through physical therapy. Hennen described working with one small child who couldn’t move or feel his legs. Despite his condition, they were able to practice therapy exercises with him, during which he would play with the volunteers. He even jokingly told them that he wanted to “color and draw the Gringos’ -- a Spanish slang word for ‘white people.’
Another child they encountered suffered from chronic stomach problems which prevented him from walking. While the team helped adjust his new wheelchair, their female interpreter Enma, confided in Hennen that the mother of the boy must be bearing a heavy load. “You could tell that she was definitely very involved in wanting to help the people in the area and it kinda bonded me to her,” said Hennen. “We spent quite a bit of time with her and I enjoyed getting to know her.”
The human connections that Hennen and others in the team created with the communities they visited deeply impacted the volunteers. Hennen described meeting one boy for the first time, saying that “it was a little awkward at first but it definitely bonds you to the boy.” Isabelle and the boy slowly bonded over their shared Catholic faith. Observing that the boy was quite shy, “Isabelle ran back to the hotel and got him a soccer ball and I gave him a Catholic medal my dad had given me.”
Hennen said that he thoroughly enjoyed the trip. “You felt like you were doing something helpful,” he recalled. He hopes to continue volunteering in the future, and promised himself that he would return to Guatemala someday.