The Amigos of the UCC's Penn Northeast Conference strive to raise awareness of international mission work
Written by Emily Mullins
September 12, 2012

An Amigos de Guatemala volunteer helps a local villager find a pair of eyeglasses.

To say that Roger and Karen Heim are ambitious would be an understatement. The couple, members of Hope United Church of Christ in Allentown, Pa., is currently in the midst of a three-year, $300,000 project to build a multi-use clinic in one of Guatemala's most remote villages.

The Heims are co-chairs of Amigos de Guatemala, an initiative of the Penn Northeast Conference. They are in charge of how the work gets done, who is going to do it and, most importantly, where the money will come from.

"We came back charged up," Roger said of the group's most recent trip to the country. "We knew we had to do something about this very poor area."

Roger, Karen and their 12-member team from churches around the conference became interested in developing a partnership with a South American community in 2008. With help from Global Ministries, the combined ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Pennsylvania team connected with the Ecumenical Christian Council of Guatemala, a group that works with the country's mainline churches on social advocacy initiatives. Amigos de Guatemala made its first trip to the country in 2010 and quickly noticed the need for improved, accessible medical care, a need the Guatemalan council agreed with.

"We are counting on [the council] to guide us to what their needs are – we don't want to go down there and do anything without their feedback," Roger said. "We want to make sure the local people want – not just need – our help."

Villagers offered their kitchen tables to use in the exam rooms.

Amigos de Guatemala conducted a weeklong medical mission trip in May 2011, sending down a team of two doctors, two nurses and others who provided childcare and served as interpreters, among other duties. When the group reached the village of Monte Margarita, they were greeted with colorful banners, a band and endless food. However, the village was so remote it lacked access to running water and plumbing. The "clinic" was a tarp over a concrete slab and villagers offered their kitchen tables for use in makeshift exam rooms. This is where Amigos de Guatemala knew they were needed most.

"This was a real eye-opener," Roger said. "We were serving the poorest of the poor, some who had never even seen a doctor before."

The goal of Amigos de Guatemala is to construct a multi-use clinic that also will serve as a classroom and dormitory for visiting physicians. This will require installation of plumbing, potable water and backup generators to supply electricity during the village's many power outages. Ideally, the Heims want to have the clinic up and running in two to three years, and for it to be self-sustaining in five to 10 years. In the meantime, the plan is to train promotores, health care providers, to conduct basic first aid between visits from Amigos de Guatemala nurses and physicians. Current estimations to build and furnish the clinic are $250,000-$300,000.

While the timeline is set, the energy is high, and the basic blueprints for the building are drawn, this is where the project currently stands. In addition to the challenge of raising such a significant amount of money, other obstacles stand in the Heims' way. For example, the trips to Guatemala are expensive, so the group cannot send people down there to do training, survey the area and engage with the community as often as they'd like. Also, the country has a mail system that is unreliable at best, making it difficult to get supplies and equipment to the village.

"When we try to send stuff, we are never sure if it will arrive because of theft and corruption," Karen said. "If we sent a shipment of pain medication to the clinic, it would be stolen before it got there."

A volunteer physician meets with a local in one of the exam rooms.

To relieve some of the financial stress, the group is trying to get other denominations involved in hopes of sending down at least four different groups once a year to provide medical care and to train the promotores. The Hope UCC congregation sells handmade goods like bracelets, necklaces and table runners made by the Guatemalans as part of their efforts, and have tried to host a fundraising dinner with the Pennsylvania medical community. As plans become more solid, the Penn Northeast Conference also has discussed utilizing capital campaigns and endowment funds to raise money.

Relieving another stress, the Heims are also glad to note that the country is implementing a private mail system that should alleviate some of the corruption and make it easier to ship medicine and other supplies.

While the journey may be long, the Heims stress that Amigos de Guatemala is an ongoing project. The most important thing is to make people within the Penn Northeast Conference and beyond aware of and interested in their mission. Perhaps their most successful fundraising so far has been old-fashioned grassroots campaigning, going to from church to church telling their story and asking for donations.

"We are trying to spread the word and invite others to participate." Roger said. "No matter how big or small you are you can contribute to this cause."

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