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Local dentists serve Guatemala mission

20111216_Dentists_02Seven local residents recently traveled to the highlands of northern Guatemala on a charity mission to provide health care to hundreds of people who rarely, if ever, receive any medical care to speak of. As part of a medical and dental mission trip sponsored by St. John’s Episcopal Church in McAllen, this group of health professionals and their support staff spent six days providing urgently needed medical and dental care to impoverished men, women and children in the Santa Cruz del Quiche area of Guatemala.

McAllen dentist, Dr. Lorena Rojas and her husband, Jorge Rojas III were among those that embarked on this Guatemalan mission trip in October. Others who made the trip were Valley residents Dr. Argelia Douglas (physician), J.B. Townsend (dental assistant), Dr. Suman Balajelin (dentist), James Chase (surgical nurse), Norma Jessulat (post op nurse) and Houston resident Dr. Sandra Carrier (dentist).

“We’re doing God’s work. I feel as if it’s our responsibility as Christians to not just sit and watch others do,” said Lorena Rojas. “We don’t have to go that far, you can serve your neighbor or the person across the street but for us the call was there and that’s why we’re going there.”

This was not the doctor’s first mission trip nor is she planning on it being her last. She has been making mission trips to impoverished areas of Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala since 2002 when she joined a team of health care professionals and their support staff on a medical and dental mission trip to Honduras on behalf of St. John’s Episcopal Church. 

20111216_Dentists_01Most recently, St. John’s church has been sending teams of doctors, dentists, nurses, dental assistants and others to Guatemala. These trips began after a Guatemalan colleague informed Rojas of the dire need among the local villagers for medical and dental care.

The first of these trips was in October 2010 and it included 13 Valley residents in the village of San Andres. That trip went so well and the need was so great that the Rojas’ made a trip to Guatemala on their own in January. On that particular trip, Rojas treated 105 people over a four and a half day period.

“We see everything. From small decay on children to the worst thing that I’ve seen is a case where I just pulled out 29 teeth on a 29-year-old lady,” Lorena Rojas said of dental cases. “They’re not familiar with dentists restoring teeth. They have had other teams going in and doing extractions and really they just hold on to their teeth until they hurt and then they have them pulled.”

While the medical and dental care needs in the Santa Cruz del Quiche area are great, there are other needs such as housing which are all too apparent. Seeing the living conditions of the locals firsthand, the Rojas’ saw an opportunity to get their two teenage sons, Alec and Jorge IV, involved in the mission work by organizing a construction trip to Guatemala. With the support of St. John’s Church behind them, the entire Rojas family and eight other Valley residents made this mission trip in August. The group of 12 built two houses and installed five stoves during this trip.

20111216_Dentists_03Unlike the shacks the locals are used to living in, which commonly have dirt floors and corn stalk walls, the houses built during this trip have concrete floors, wooden walls and tin roofs. 

“We mainly get the materials there. This time around we were so fortunate because Lowe’s donated a gift certificate to buy tools and Harbor Freight did as well,” Jorge Rojas said. “We actually left the tools over there for other teams to use.”

The homes are 15 feet by 20 feet wood with tin roofs. Inside the houses, volunteers installed built-in bunk beds, a full-size with a twin-size on top including mattresses. The cost of each home was $1,800, Jorge Rojas explained.

The stoves they installed are especially important.

“People there have a way of cooking with three stones inside the house which smokes up the entire house and they have a lot of asthma problems and a lot of lung disease,” Lorena Rojas said.

The new stoves are vented to the outside which eliminates the problem of smoke filling the huts every time they cook.

In regards to the living conditions of the local villagers, Dr. Rojas said it isn’t unusual to see 17 people living in a one- or two-room house. As for the women and how they are treated in that culture, Lorena Rojas explained that, “machismo is very prevalent there. If the women are left alone, it’s even harder for them to get ahead in life. They usually have plenty of children and they have to take care of them.”

During the most recent trip to Guatemala, not only did the group set up a clinic in the village of San Andres as they have in the past, but they also spent two days in Chichicastenango. With the help of an Episcopal church in the area, they were able to inform the locals that this group had arrived to provide free medical and dental care.

As for who can go on these mission trips, J.B. Townsend who has been on seven trips said, “Anyone can go. We can always find a job for one willing to serve.” When asked if there were any specific skills which are needed the most, she said, “We can use everyone. Of course we need doctors and dentists in order to have a trip. Dental assistants are a great help. It is really tough for the dentist to practice dentistry in foreign countries, so having someone who knows the instruments and the procedures is a big help.”

When asked what anybody who wants to help but cannot go on one of these mission trips can do, Lorena Rojas replied, “You can continue to pray for our ministry. Prayer is always welcome. You can also support us financially or you can give your time and talents by helping out when we do our fund raisers.”

Jorge Rojas said sponsorships are always welcome. In the past, people have sponsored one or two of the volunteers that went on the construction mission. It can cost approximately $1,300 to send a volunteer; that includes transportation, meals and lodging. Others have sponsored by donating stoves, which can cost around $200, or water filters that run about $50 with replacement filters costing about $20.

“The need is great and we will always welcome whatever help we can get,” he said.

With plans to send another group to Guatemala this summer for a construction mission and another group in October for a medical and dental mission, St. John’s Episcopal Church is organizing a 5K Fun Run as a fund raiser on Feb. 18, 2012. The fee to enter is $20. Anyone wishing to help by donating time or money can do so by calling the church office at 956-687-6191.

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