Service Abroad: Students Assist Health Clinic in Guatemala

Ann Bahnson

At Augustana, some students volunteer at homeless shelters. Some donate goods to homes for children. Seniors Anna Bahnson and Abby Waylander decided to look a bit further and found a small medical clinic struggling to find enough resources and in desperate need of help.

The clinic’s name is El Centro de Salud in the remote Guatemalan town of San Jose.

It’s hard to understand how two students from the Midwest could somehow develop a relationship with one tiny clinic of which few have ever heard, but this is not Augustana’s first encounter with El Centro de Salud.

Dr. Craig Spencer, biology professor, and Dr. Dave O’Hara, associate professor of philosophy, frequently teach an interim course called “Tropical Ecology of Guatemala and Belize, and Spanish Immersion,” but the clinic had previously been more of a side stop. Bahnson and Waylander wanted it to play a bigger part.

“A friend of mine [Ashley Weber ‘12] had visited the clinic briefly on her trip [with Spencer and O’Hara] but was interested in spending more time there,” explained Waylander, a nursing major. “I asked to join her, and after months of planning and gathering various medical supplies, we spent six weeks living in San Jose [in the summer of 2012]. We volunteered in the clinic daily and also had daily sessions with our native Spanish tutors.

“Dr. Craig and Dr. O’Hara asked me if I would return to San Jose with their ecology class. I was ecstatic about this opportunity to return to a place I had fallen in love with.”

Bahnson, a biology major and a member of the Civitas program, joined the team when Spencer asked if she would be interested in completing her Civitas honors project in the clinic. She jumped at the chance.

“I was drawn to the course itself because of its reputation,” said Bahnson who plans to soon begin medical school. “Another biology professor I spoke with told me he had not heard of anyone returning from the course without having a life-changing experience.”

Bahnson and fellow Civitas classmate Kade Klippenstein designed a health program for the children of San Jose and the isolated village of Corozal, 50 miles from San Jose. The program focused on the importance of hand washing and oral hygiene.

The pair then led their classmates in an alternative Christmas gift sale, selling decorative cards that people purchased as donations in lieu of a physical gift. Together, the class raised nearly $3,000 with which they purchased stethoscopes, testing strips, blood pressure cuffs, a fetal Doppler monitor and soap along with other medical and dental supplies.

“Our professors gave us complete freedom to plan and carry out the project,” Waylander said.

Once the 12 students arrived in Guatemala, Bahnson, Waylander and Klippenstein led a series of games to illustrate the importance of proper hygiene. One was a version of tag in which the Guatemalan children were frozen by two kids labeled “gérmenes” (germs) and were saved by two other kids labeled “jabón” (soap) and “agua” (water). Another was a version of “duck, duck, goose” called “gérmenes, gérmenes, jabón.”

Over the course of two afternoons, more than 300 kids participated in the activities, and each was given a bar of soap and a toothbrush, a first for many of them. Several asked to take extras for family members back home.

The group had fun, but they also learned important lessons about the importance of proper hygiene, which could largely prevent several diseases that are among the leading causes of childhood mortality in the country.

“[The clinic workers] said they had never seen the kids paying such careful attention and participating in the games and activities as with our group,” Spencer and O’Hara said in a joint report of the experience. “The kids were mesmerized.”

The students also had the opportunity to observe nurses and doctors and assist in basic procedures, like checking blood pressure, while practicing their bedside manner entirely in Spanish.

This project is not the end of the relationship between Augustana and El Centro de Salud. Spencer and O’Hara said President Rob Oliver and the San Jose community signed a memorandum of understanding several years ago committing to a “partnership for the education of our respective communities,” but according to the clinic workers, this was the first time anyone had volunteered at the clinic.

“Following in the footsteps of Ashley Weber, Abby and Anna have now deepened our ties to the community of San Jose, spearheading this new outreach effort between Augustana and the community health clinic,” Spencer and O’Hara said. “The clinic is extremely appreciative of this relationship, as are we for the impact on our students.”

Spencer and O’Hara will return next year with another class full of students who will maintain the partnership with the clinic. Furthermore, an Augustana alumna working at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, heard about the project and has already offered to donate medical supplies to the continued effort.

Bahnson and Waylander both credit Augustana for making their experience possible.

“Without Augustana, I would have no idea where San Jose, Guatemala, is on a map,” Waylander said. “The previous connections made by the professors opened the door for me to have my experiences and to now share my new passion for the Guatemalan community.”

“‘Enter to learn. Leave to serve,’” Bahnson said, quoting an Augustana motto. “The Augustana environment truly fosters a desire to lend service to others. Our liberal arts education teaches us the importance of engaging with both the local and global community. My experiences at Augustana broadened my perspective about my place in the world and nurtured within me a deep desire to be of service to others.”

This summer, the two recent graduates will continue their mission of serving others.

Waylander entered the Partners in Nursing (PIN) program at Sanford Health this summer to begin her career in the nursing field. Bahnson is working as the assistant associate director at Flathead Bible Camp before giving a year of service to Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Tacoma Washington at L’Arche, a faith-based community for adults with developmental disabilities, before pursuing medical school.

These young women have bright futures ahead of them, but they still fondly look back on their time at Augustana.

“Augustana has taught me self-discipline, critical thinking, and to look at the world with a wider lens,” Waylander said. “When I entered college, I never believed that I would have so many opportunities to experience the world in a different way. These culturally enriching experiences have taught me to step outside of my box and take in as much as possible from each opportunity. Augustana provides opportunities to be involved in a manner that can suit anyone. Take advantage of these opportunities and use them to share your gifts with the Augustana community.”

Bahnson agreed, focusing on the many opportunities to serve others.

“Every student at Augustana should take advantage of opportunities to engage in intentional service both locally and abroad,” Bahnson said. “Whether it be the Campus Ministry Fall Break service-learning trip to Pine Ridge or volunteering at El Centro de Salud in San Jose, Guatemala, we are called to serve our neighbors whether near or far.”

In recognition of their efforts, Bahnson and Waylander were awarded the Covenant Award for Service, one of five awards given each year to recognize students who demonstrate one or more core values of the college.

Augustana asks all of its students to participate in service. Be it through class assignments, student employment, or extracurricular groups, nearly everyone on campus participates in some sort of humanitarian activity, but Bahnson and Waylander took it upon themselves to execute a life-changing project and go above and beyond the call to service.

Augustana students at El Centro de Salud

Spencer and O'Hara's class poses for a photo outside of El Centro de Salud in San Jose, Guatemala.