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Volunteer in Guatemala

HELPS International Welcomes All

Guatemala highland view from corn field.

“If you’re thinking about volunteering, then you should.” This remark, made by a former HELPS International volunteer, landed me in a rural Guatemalan medical clinic, 2,000 miles from home. As a pharmacist with no prior experience working on a medical mission and only one year of untested night school Spanish tucked under my belt, I wondered if I would be more of a hindrance than a help. There was only one way to find out.

Founded in 1984 by Stephen W. Miller, a Texas businessman, HELPS International is a non-denominational Christian organization dedicated to helping the people of Guatemala through community improvement projects, education, and medical assistance. With medical teams from across the United States—from Saint Cloud, Minn. to Cascades, OR—making annual trips to various parts of Guatemala, HELPS International celebrated its 100th medical mission in 2005.

“The LA HELPS team” was the official name of our group of over 60 volunteers, primarily from the Los Angeles area. About half of the group were veterans of previous missions; the rest were, like me: newcomers. We were a diverse group, with representatives from every decade of life, from 20 to 80. With different cultural backgrounds and different faiths, some of us had health care backgrounds, and some simply a willingness to pitch in. We were new college graduates, retired dentists, medical students, flight attendants, emergency room nurses, laboratory scientists, plastic surgeons, and almost everything in between.

Life in a Makeshift Medical Clinic

Teams set up temporary medical clinics in rural Guatemalan communities and perform medical screenings, surgeries, and dental procedures over one to two weeks. We were deployed to San Juan Sacatepéquez, a highland Mayan village located about 35 km northwest of Guatemala City.

With half of our medications still jumbled in supply bags and the other half lying in disarray on every available surface, we opened the doors to our temporary pharmacy and quickly began filling prescriptions for the steady stream of patients being seen by our team of internists, pediatricians, obstetricians, gynecologists, surgeons, and dentists.

“Farmácia?” asked one of our first pat- ients, a young mother, as she shyly peered through the doorway to the pharmacy.

She was carefully dressed in an embroidered huipile (a traditional Mayan blouse) with a kapperaj (an all-purpose cloth used for everything from covering baskets to carrying babies) snuggling an infant close to her chest. Shepherding two small children into the pharmacy, she presented prescriptions for herself and her children. As I searched for a small bag for her medications, she methodically tucked the packages of pills into the sash of her skirt and the medication bottles into her kapperaj, still leaving both her hands free. Her way, of course, was much better.

In the dental clinic, the dental drill determinedly squealed away while volunteers with steady nerves assisted the dentists, wiped away tears, and reassuringly held sweaty palms. Meanwhile, prospective patients placidly waited on the steps outside with a surprising lack of anxiety not often encountered among patients in the United States. Even when the occasional frightened whimpers of a small child filtered through the windows of the clinic, the patients only exchanged nervous sideways glances and tight smiles.

If you want to help in the operating rooms, wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for long hours. Most of the complicated surgeries are scheduled for the first few days of the clinic to allow the patients sufficient recovery time in the clinic hospital. Surgeries may continue well past midnight, allowing the operating room staff just enough time to sleep before heading back to the operating room the next morning.

In just four and a half days, the team performed 90 surgeries, including gallbladder removals, hernia repairs, cleft palate repairs, and gynecologic surgeries. A trained staff of nurses provided around the clock post-operative care to these patients, who ranged from toddlers to adults.

Contemplating volunteering on a medical mission but lack prior volunteer experience or medical training? Many medical missions, including HELPS International, welcome “helpers” and translators for paramedical positions, in addition to non-medical positions, such as facility and equipment management. Steely-nerved helpers may be placed in the dental clinic, while others assist nurses in the pre- and post-operative recovery areas, help with patient intake and triage, or work in the pharmacy. Interested volunteers may also rotate through food preparation (all the meals for the volunteers are prepared on the premises) or operating room support areas.

Invisible Language Barriers

Standing in front of me was an older Kachikel-speaking Mayan woman with a familiar, weather-worn face.

“You gave this to me yesterday,” she explained in Spanish, shrugging her shoulders, and emptying the contents of a small bag onto the pharmacy counter.

I instantly remember explaining to this patient how to take the six different medications that were now sitting in a disorderly heap on the counter. Why was she here again?

The young woman accompanying her tells me that my patient forgot how to take the medications and could not read the directions I had written. She then sought the assistance of her friend, and together they realized that she had taken an incorrect dosage. They decided to return to the clinic for clarification.

In the United States asking, “Can you read?” might be considered rude. In rural Guatemala, it is necessary. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of the population is not literate, and many of the indigenous Mayans speak one of over 20 different Mayan languages but do not speak Spanish.

Volunteer Survival Tips

“Don’t forget to pack a shower curtain,” warned one of my teammates, the night before our flight to Guatemala City.

Volunteers generally are sheltered on nearby military bases or schools, where accommodations are less than luxurious. Expect to sleep “barracks-style” on cots and to share community bathrooms with your team members. Hopefully, your team coordinator will have remembered to bring along makeshift curtains for the toilet stalls and showers, fulfilling your need for privacy and obviating the need to pack your own shower curtain. Unless your coordinator is a plumbing and electrical wizard, however, prepare for cold showers and iffy plumbing.

The lack of luxury, however, created a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers. A maliciously temperamental water heater, which required the coordinated efforts of three people to operate it, quickly turned showering into a team sport. And, in the absence of other diverting activities, the hour before “lights out” began to bear some resemblance to a grown-up slumber party.

After sleeping, eating, and working (and sometimes playing) side by side for a week, we all discovered at least three common bonds—an adventurous spirit, a desire to help, and a passionate aversion to cold showers.


Team members generally are allotted two to three days at the conclusion of the clinic to relax and take in the sights of Guatemala, which means “Land of Many Trees,” or, more descriptively, the “Land of Many Volcanoes.” Activities range from exploring the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal, to wandering the tourist-friendly city of Antigua, to lounging by the pool. Because Guatemala is a relatively compact country, you can easily reach many attractions on a day trip.

Cost for a 10-day mission is approximately $1,500, which includes airfare from the United States to Guatemala City, all transportation within Guatemala, travel insurance, all meals and lodging at the clinic site, and three nights lodging in hotels before and after the clinic. Optional tours are not included. A portion of the cost may be tax-deductible.

For More Info

HELPS International, HELPS International also sponsors non-medical missions to Guatemala, such as stove installation programs. Contact them to obtain more information regarding future mission dates and to download volunteer application forms.

Turansa Tour Operator , A Guatemalan tour operator that provides HELPS volunteers with a variety of sightseeing tours, such as volcano hiking, coffee plantation tours, sail-fishing expeditions, city tours of Antigua, and full-day excursions to Tikal.

More information about programs and articles on volunteering in Guatemala.


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