By Linda Scherer
HOWARD LAKE, MONTROSE, WINSTED, MN The small village of Finca El Tabacal in Guatemala, with an estimated 200 people, experienced the generosity and kindness of a mission group led by Dr. Jim Neff of Winsted during the week of Nov. 5 to 13.
The group took equipment and supplies needed to provide dental care to the villagers, small gifts and fun activities to share with the children, and, because 95 percent of the villagers are Christian, they took Bibles, videos and Proclaimer units in K`iche`, the village language.
Every year since 2004, Neff has worked with individual groups traveling to the Philippines, Honduras, and Guatemala to help make the lives of people living in poverty just a little better. This trip was organized by Michael Robertson, a missionary in San Lucas.
Besides his own time, talent, and treasure, Neff receives donations to continue his work from many other sources.
Assisting Neff on this trip to Guatemala were two women, Chelsea Kovar of Montrose, and Alicia (Hart) Parochka of Howard Lake.
Parochka, who works with Neff as a dental hygienist at his clinic, Winsted Gentle Dental Care, had wanted to be a part of a mission group since before she graduated from Watertown-Mayer High School in 2005.
When Neff asked her if she was interested in going to Guatemala, Parochka knew it was the chance she had been waiting for.
At Neff’s suggestion to have someone accompany her, Parochka immediately thought of Kovar. The two had known each other since high school, living as neighbors in rural Mayer.
Parochka’s excitement spread to Kovar when the women met later that same day, and they agreed this was something they really wanted to do.
Kovar, who had been on a mission trip to Costa Rica in 2004, the year she graduated from Mayer Lutheran High School, had fallen in love with Central America and was ready for a chance to return.
After arriving in Guatemala City by plane, they spent the first two days at the House of Hope in Santiago organizing instruments for the dental clinic that is almost completed there.
The group said they felt safe, but the area is known for street gangs, made up of kids of all ages who carry guns.
The week before the group arrived, a 14-year-old boy was shot on his way to church by a stray bullet from a gang fight.
“He was shot in the head and died right in front of his mom,” Parochka said.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Kovar said, but she didn’t tell her parents about the young teen who lost his life until after she returned from the mission trip.
“The gangs are in control. It’s survival,” Neff said of the shooting. “The kids on the streets haven’t any chance for a future. They end up in a gang, or doing menial work, or prostitution.”
“The only children that can go to school in Guatemala, public or private, are the ones that have enough money for school supplies and uniforms,” Neff said. “If they don’t have enough, they can’t go.”
The House of Hope’s mission is to find children who are left in their homes during the day while their parent or parents are at work, and through sponsorships, keep them in school so they can get the education they need for a better future, according to Neff.
They traveled by truck from the House of Hope to the village community of Finca El Tabacal on a very rough road that was maintained by people with shovels.
Kovar said she felt like a human pinball in the back seat of the truck because the road was so bumpy. When the mission group was within a mile of its location, the villagers surprised them by preparing the road, filling in the ruts, and making it a smoother ride all the way to the church.
“That really blew me away,” Neff said. “It showed they really wanted us there, and it stopped right at the church (where the clinic was to take place).”
The villagers who live in the small community of Finca El Tabacal are extremely poor. They fled their home during a war in the 1980s, leaving their land and most of their possessions behind. There was no electricity and the group saw only one vehicle in the entire village.
Because there was no running water or toilets, the missionaries stayed at a church in Zapote, a village close by, but still did without hot water.
The villagers’ primary means of support is farming, mainly growing coffee, but the land is very poor, according to Neff.
“I had a picture in my mind of how it would be, but to really see it literally, they had nothing,” Parochka said.
“The homes were very plain, very simple tin roofs, open air, dirt floors, very basic,” Kovar said. “But the houses are clean. They swept the dirt floors.”
Only 10 percent of the people are able to read, according to Neff. The Bibles would be used to help people learn to read their own language and eventually, Spanish. The other 90 percent of the population would have Proclaimers in their language, which is like a battery-operated radio, so the people could hear the gospel.
A Jesus video on the story of creation was shown to the people, the first time that any of them had ever seen a movie in their language.
This was also the first time a dental clinic had come to the village, and though the villagers had doctors and dentists come to other villages not far away, this was the first time dental care was provided with fillings to restore their teeth, Neff said.
The clinic was from Monday to Thursday, providing a total of 45 dental exams. The youngest patient was 6 years old and the oldest was 75.
The clinic was able to do 132 surfaces, 1 crown, 35 tooth extractions, two surgeries, and cleanings.
The village language of K`iche` required a translator.
“Some of the population in this village could speak Spanish so that helped a lot,” Parochka said. “I could speak a little bit because I had it in high school.”
“And they did a really good job of attempting to communicate with us, with pointing gestures,” Kovar said.
When Kovar wasn’t registering patients for dental work, she was entertaining the children.
“They would hear the truck pull up to the church each morning and they would just come running and then find us,” Kovar said.
“The children were sweet and it was fun to watch those who were a little shy at first, wanting to hold your hand at the end,” Parochka said.
The women didn’t see any purchased toys or dolls in the homes they visited, just a few hand-carved toys.
When they handed out Beanie Babies, which they brought for the younger children, they had older children standing in line for them, as well.
Parochka and Kovar also brought beads for the children to string to make jewelry.
“Even a day or two after the kids made the jewelry, they were still wearing them,” Kovar said.
Some of the women from the village wanted to make jewelry for themselves, too, according to Kovar.
Games, dancing, and singing were also part of the week.
“We were in the clinic and we heard this one song over and over again,” Parochka said.
Eventually the mission group learned the tune and hummed along.
While the clinic took place, many of the village adults would sit outside on the sidelines and watch the children play the games Kovar had planned.
“Some of them would stay the whole day,” Kovar said.
After returning from the Guatemala mission, Parochka and Kovar made a PowerPoint presentaion to Zion Lutheran Church in Mayer and the Evangelical Free Church in Watertown.
As far as future mission trips, Parochka, who said she had a lot of time to reflect during her time in Guatemala, said she is uncertain if she will be part of another mission trip.
Kovar, who works as a physical therapy assistant for Aegis Therapies, currently under contract with the Good Samaritan Society Howard Lake nursing home, has definite plans for another trip to this area.
“I just love experiencing other cultures,” Kovar said. She also enjoys the hospitality extended by the people who have so little, she said.
“We have so many earthly possessions and they don’t have any of those physical things, but they are still living a fulfilling life,” Kovar said.
Neff already has his next mission planned. He and his wife, Mary, are going to the Island of Pawalan in the Philippines to work with Vernacular Media Ministries and their partners.