This week-long trip to Guatemala offers the opportunity to give a gift that lasts a lifetime to a disabled child and the child’s family – a wheelchair.
Donating and seating children in wheelchairs is the primary focus of our trip. However, they are not the only ones receiving a gift. We, the travelers, the givers, the helpers also receive a gift that is immeasurable.
We devote 2 days to meeting the families and adjusting wheelchairs to perfectly fit each recipient. We spend the first day at the Hope Haven factory in Sololá which is where the wheelchairs are made.
Many of the employees at Hope Haven are disabled themselves. With their own mobility assist devices, they have transitioned from disabled and dependent to abled and independent.
Upon arrival at Hope Haven, our first job is to assemble the wheelchairs.
After the wheelchairs are assembled, our group divides into teams of 3 or 4 people. Each group meets a family who has brought their loved one who is in need of a wheelchair. We are instructed as to how to measure the child and choose the wheelchair for the appropriate size of the child. Many children 10 or 12 years of age are the physical size of a 4 or 5-year-old normally developed child.
The next step is to select a chair, seat the child in the chair, and begin to make the fine adjustments necessary. It is so important to involve the family so they know they are an integral part of the process.
Many of these families do not speak Spanish. Rather, they speak their native language, Kaqchikel, or one other of the 21 Mayan languages. Often there is a younger family member present who does speak Spanish. Hope Haven always has an interpreter available for Spanish-English and often there is someone available who can also give instructions to the family in their native dialect/language.
Lunchtime arrives and the staff, our group, and the families are ready for food. It has been a tradition of Wilderness and Travel Medicine, now for 10 years, that we provide pizza for everyone.
After lunch, we are back at work. It is time to get out the standing boards. The concept of weight bearing for non-ambulatory children has become an important parameter to enhance muscular strength, prevention of contractures, and strengthening of bones. Sadly, some of the older children are already so contracted their little bodies cannot be straightened enough to allow them the opportunity of weight-bearing. Our goal is to reach these children early enough in their life to prevent the contortion caused by contractures that develop when a child is carried their entire life. Some of the older children we see have such twisted spines that it is difficult to even seat them in a wheelchair.
The board is laid flat on the ground and the child is positioned and safely strapped. Straps are secured around the chest, pelvis, thighs, lower legs, and top of feet. As with the wheelchairs, parents are involved and educated in the process of how to safely use the board. Once the child is secured, he or she is gradually “lifted” into a near vertical position.
This year, in addition to about 50 wheelchairs, because of the generous donations of our group and a few other benevolent donations, we were able to provide 12 standing boards to children.
The two days we spend assembling wheelchairs, meeting families, measuring children, adjusting chairs, giving children their very first opportunity to actually “stand” on their own, seeing the smiles of parents and children, are worth so much more than the time and money we donate for this trip. There is nothing that can measure the value of the gifts of wheelchairs and stand-up boards that we give.The utmost gratitude of families is expressed in the pictures and words we receive from the families.
It is our hope as I write this and as you are reading this, that you too will want to join Wilderness and Travel Medicine on a medical mission to Guatemala to give a gift that will last a lifetime.
Next trip: March 7-14, 2020