Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflections From a First-Time COTA Volunteer

I first heard of COTA a year ago (January, 2016) from Mike McNevin, and I learned a little bit about his experiences. While I enjoy helping and serving people, it was difficult to imagine me going to Guatemala and facing similar circumstances.
Over six months went by and I felt a strange desire to look into going to Guatemala on the next trip. I learned more details and discussed my concerns with Mike, and even though he relieved some of the concerns, committing 100% to going was a leap of faith.

From the day the COTA team was aware that I had interest in going, I received lots of support through E-mails to get me prepared to go. I was also excited to hear that other people from Colorado that I knew were going, including Valesca Bybee, Brady Avery, and Andy Ashby.
Although the overall experience wasn't exactly easy, I am grateful for the adversity I faced and the opportunity to work hard as an interpreter and other roles for these amazing people. They still inspire me with their patience, love, gratitude and friendliness. They are a great example for all of us, and it was a pleasure to help them.

Jacqueline, Tanner and Heidi
In the days leading up to the first day of work, I had heard that everything would be pretty chaotic, so I set my expectations low. Thankfully to the team's great organization, things went smoother than I thought. I was able to get help and answers quickly, and I felt that the different components of the team were able to collaborate successfully.
To close, part of what made the experience so great was the peculiar challenge of adjusting back to being home. I felt like I was completely charged and ready to jump back into daily life and be more effective at work and other aspects of my life. However, less than a day after getting home and being welcomed by family members, I felt out of place for over a week! There's just so little that can compare with the great things that this team has done and will continue to do for the needy.
I am so grateful for all of those that took time to welcome me, get to know me, and guide me. I can't name everyone that made this trip great, but SO many people were influential to me, and I want many of them to know: Jody, Rosemary, Jackie, Heidy, Gerry, Tim, Jennifer, Diana, ALL THE COOKS, etc. (Obviously the folks from Colorado know who they are). Keep being great everyone! ¡Muchas Gracias!

When I first got to Guatemala, people from COTA had so much joy seeing each other again. Some described it as a "family reunion." Now I can totally understand how they felt, and can't wait to go again.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

More Than a Volunteer; Also A Teacher

It is no secret that Children of the Americas volunteers are a tightly knit group. The return rate of 80% of applicants to our Guatemalan teams speaks volumes about the overall experience and quality of our medical team members. Working in a challenging environment with each other creates a familiarity and kinship that carries us through the year until we see each other again. 

Rarely do we return from our week in Guatemala unchanged. Rosemary will carry home her thoughts on how the team functioned; our pediatric nurses bring a certain few children home in their hearts; COTA doctors think back on the challenging and life-changing cases that they were meant to be in Guatemala for. Our patients usually are the source of our inspiration. But there is one particular group of volunteers who are our teachers. Bernice Kita falls into that category. As part of the Maryknoll order, a Catholic non-profit mission movement working in overseas mission work, Bernice and fellow sister Jude Noone have been dedicated COTA volunteers for many years.

Beginning in 1977,  Maryknoll Sister Bernice lived and worked among the indigenous Mayans of remote Guatemala mountains. Sharing meals, stories, heart aches and joyful moments, Bernice documented her experiences in letters written home to her family.  The publication of her book, What Prize Awaits Us, is a physical entity of lives that were not meant to be diminished by fading into obscurity.

Our faithful Children of the Americas volunteers who have worked with Bernice would be surprised to hear that their dutiful interpreter is a published author. Bernice spends her week on a COTA team sitting quietly with our pediatric nursing staff and their patients, using her language skills to soothe the nerves of parents and children alike. The post-operative process is made kinder and more culturally sensitive thanks to her willingness to share her time with our organization. By association with her we have learned to respect the holistic needs of the Mayan patients who trust us with their health. 

Mother of cleft patient
Our Children of the Americas patients come into our clinics in Guatemala with a poor understanding of health care issues.
They are scared, confused and and overwhelmed. Assisting our physician and nursing volunteers in crossing the long bridge of cultural divide that exists between ourselves and our patients is a ministry within itself. We are looking forward to seeing Bernice and Jude work their magic once again in January during Team 2017.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Night Shift On A COTA Team

It is 2 am and I'm sitting next to a mug of hot coffee that Lauren just made- we are sharing it with the other nurses that work at the hospital. We bought the ground coffee at the market today and will definitely be needing it these next 4 nights! Our patients tonight are very gracious and kind. They don't ask for much. They either had hysterectomies, cholesystecomies, hernia repairs, or bladder repairs. Their husbands are not allowed to visit for long and only one member of the female family is allowed to stay with the patient. There are 2 women staying with 2 patients who don't speak Spanish but rather Quiche. Those family members are translating to Spanish for us. They are dressed in typical Guatemalan flare and are about 4 feet tall!
The pediatrics side is different. They can have any family member stay with them and some of the mothers sleep in the crib with the patient. One little girl named Siría had her left club foot released and told me she has no pain- she simply said "I'm bored but not tired." She is probably 6 years old and is just smiling. She keeps waving from her bed when I walk by. The other patients have had club foot repairs, cleft lip/palate surgeries, and one amputation. And everyone is successfully asleep right now!
I started writing this while sitting outside of our patients' rooms (there are 2 with a total of 8 patients), and found myself staring into their rooms with not a thought on my mind. Maybe it is because I am already exhausted and it is only 2 am on the first night shift. Maybe it is because I am at peace or perhaps it is because I'm living in the present. I'm not completely sure. What I do realize is that these moments make me reset, reflect, and start over again. It is a nice pause that I wish happened more often. Now I've gotten to thinking how lucky I am to meet these sweet women and children. While they think I'm helping them, they are helping me more. They make me appreciate life and family. These patients are simply happy to be here, as am I. One woman continues to thank us and hopes that she will see us again. She keeps rattling off a thousand words a minute while just squeezing my hand- I'm attempting to understand her Spanish but I am overwhelmed by how thankful she is. There is a patient next to her who asked me my name and she said she remembered me from 2 years ago- I met her with her son who wanted his leg amputated due to a congenital abnormality. The mother was very skeptical but the son was 16 at the time and was allowed to choose- my dad performed the surgery on the 3rd day that week. He came to visit the clinic on Sunday for a minute and looked great- I had no idea I would be taking care of his mother next!
I am learning from all of these women how to be strong and gracious. I am also learning from my other night shift coworkers. It's nice to spend time with people and genuinely get to know them in such a special environment. I've also been reading a book this trip and have found a quote that I will end tonight with:
"The power of giving is so strong that the excitement and the good feelings are often greater for the giver than for the receiver. Which is why, when you find your calling and you design your life in such a way that you can share your gifts with the world on a consistent basis, you feel like a rock star."

Written by Jenna Quill,RN
COTA Medical Volunteer

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Team 2017: A Work in Progress

Traditional Sawdust Painting
The applications for Team 2017 have been sent. Six months in advance of departure, board members and COTA volunteers have already gathered, inventoried, sorted and packed a semi truck full of medical supplies. On September 10th we will finalize the job with a group packing event. 
 Hours of meetings to troubleshoot the logistics of Team 2017 have taken place. Forms have been reworked, board members voted in and the hospital where we will be working in Retalhuleu, Guatemala has been visited, vetted and buttoned up. What then, is left to do? 
Here is the short list:
  • Hotels for over 100 Children of the Americas volunteers need to be secured financially, while beds in each room will be carefully planned to accommodate roommate requests. 
  • COTA's application committee needs to meet, review each application and approve the individual qualifications for participating in Team 2017. 
  • Medical CV's need to be copied and compiled, placed in a binder and hand delivered to the Ministry of Health in Guatemala City for approval. 
  • The packing list of every items on the shipping container needs to be typed in Excel format, and translated into Spanish for Guatemalan agents
  • The semi container must arrive in Guatemalan customs in time for inspection, and authorization of the contents.   
  • Vans must be reserved for shuttling team members to and from the hotels to the hospitals to cover our 24 hour nursing shifts. 
  • Two large buses have to be secured financially with a solid contract to assure their readiness for the team in January. 
  • The final scouting team will need to travel and obtain contracts with the Guatemalan hospital director, so all expectations of both parties are clear. 
  • Hospital areas must be secured for each COTA provider, our pharmacy, our OR's, prosthetics clinic, post-operative wards and our PACU.  
  • Team members, once approved, will need to be assigned, oriented, delivered and supervised once on site in Guatemala.  
  • Funds to pay for all of the above will need to be raised. $40,000 has to be raised (hint: see donate button on this page!)
  • The Guatemalan media has to be informed, banners need to be printed and local radio stations vetted, so that potential patients in the community know we are coming and what medical services COTA offers. 
  • Tents need to be set up, hundreds of chairs gathered and arranged and gate keepers oriented to how to humanely control thousands of anxious patients who are trying to access our providers.   
  • Food to feed 120 volunteers breakfast and lunch will need to be purchased, meals planned and logistics arranged with the Guatemalan hospital kitchen staff.   
  • Medicine to donate to 150 post-operative patients and thousands of clinic patients will need to be ordered, purchased, shipped, unpacked, inventoried and shelved for the on-site COTA pharmacy.
  • Passports, flight arrangements and travel waivers have to be gathered, placed on a spreadsheet, copied and sent to all team members. 
  • Team T-shirts need to be designed, ordered, sized and shipped. 
  • A team volunteer spreadsheet has to be formatted, printed and sent to all volunteers.  
  • Badges need to be printed, laminated and delivered to each member.  
  • Translators need to be vetted and assessed for adequate language skills. 
  • Our physical plant volunteers will assess the hospital for proper electrical load and adequate lighting, and will arrive several days early to do repairs.
  • The Pre-Team trip needs to be arranged, hotels secured and plans made for unpacking and arranging thousands of medical supplies. 
  • Medical supplies have to be unpacked from our Guatemalan storehouse and trucked to the Guatemalan hospital.     
  • Medical forms, order sheets and pharmacy requisition forms have to be approved, changed as needed, printed and packed.  
  • Each Guatemalan hospital room borrowed by COTA has to be approved by the Guatemalan director, set up for our providers and labeled.   

 As mentioned, this is the brief list of the multitude of tasks that will take place in the six short months before Team 2017 launches on January 14th. The hours, personal finances, and time away from family will be done without question when we see these faces (below) the first day we launch the team. 
Guatemala's healthcare system is shattered. The reasons for this are complex, and the history behind the issue is lengthy. The lines of patients awaiting us annually do not diminish in number, in fact they grow longer each year. Our next Children of the Americas team is a work in progress. But we will be ready, we have to be. The patients will be waiting. 

Guatemalan patients awaiting entry to COTA Clinic


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Saying Goodbye

They did their duty well, these three little ones. Standing resolutely as a representation of our organization for over thirty years, this Children of the Americas logo was stamped, printed and used in public relations presentations for decades. At the time of Children of the Americas inception, the symbols that these children held represented our mission purpose well. Our founding board members believed strongly in justice for Guatemalan people, caring for Central America's sick and in educating the children who were part of our long-term care stateside program. 
Under th watchful eye of this logo thousands of medical miracles took place for men, women and children in Guatemala. 
As board leadership and members changed, so did the focus and innovative thinking that accompanied them. Strong and insightful new organizational leaders brought fresh ways of thinking to our nonprofit.

These COTA board and volunteer legal advisors have been working diligently to refresh our organizational development. Bylaws have been rewritten; policies polished; legal issues refreshed. Elevating our nonprofit to a new level of professionalism is a commitment to a solid future of continuing to create positive change for the sick and injured citizens of Guatemala. Among the many changes is the focus on projecting a fresh image to our supporters, both with a innovative logo and our newly produced documentary. 

As documents that reflect our updated vision are created, former now-outdated files needed to be purged. Files that reflect the lost hopes of children we could not help, the hours of drafting and implementing state rules on foster care management, and the inspirations we all had for our little nonprofit that dreamed big. Each folder of an unresolved medical case that hit the recycle bin felt like the end of a parent's dream for their child. Every stack of formerly used forms represented a time when too few board members carried the emotional weight and time heavy burdens that would someday be shared by a more competent board. Nine file cabinets full of x-rays, charts and files are being purged as we move forward into a stronger more competent, broad-thinking international nonprofit. 

The tools may change but the character will not. Children of the Americas will continue to be the little organization full of compassionate medical and support crew volunteers who are as dedicated to our patients as they have always been. Our new logo projects that thinking. It is global, maternal and medical all in one sharp new image.
After three decades of service, the three children are now grown.
niños adiós. Trabajo bien hecho. 
(Goodbye children. Job well done.) 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

One Determined Mother in Guatemala

Angel undergoing exam in U.S.
Angel with mother

He was shot through the face as he rode in the bed of a pickup truck, while winding through the mountains of rural Guatemala. The unresolved crime left Angel with a shattered jaw and teeth that were of no use. For two years he ate only soft foods or liquids, until his mother heard of Children of the Americas and our ability to bring medically fragile children to the states for donated care. Networking with Mayan Families created the opportunity for the surgical care that rebuilt Angel's jaw with a bone graft and skilled orthodontics gifts of care. His little Mayan mama never stopped working and worrying about her son. While he lived in Kentucky, graced with southern TLC and excellent medical care, his mother prayed and trusted and loved. When Angel returned home, she gifted some beautiful woven textiles to the COTA volunteers who had helped her son. 

When this beautiful Guatemalan baby was born with a severe cleft palate defect, his young mother realized that her only option for adequate surgical correction was to send her baby to the states...per embassy regulations, without her. Faced with this decision, trust in Children of the Americas and devotion to the well-being of her son took on a whole new meaning. While he was in foster care in Kentucky, she worried, prayed and sought support from her family. Her days were long and her nights were longer but the trust this mama showed was rewarded with a baby who was surgically corrected and nutritionally sound. 

Delmy and Ever, 2015
These short stories are part of a long history of Guatemalan mothers who have trusted COTA with the very thing they treasure the most; the life of their child. We have met strong mothers, emotional mothers and fiercely protective mothers. 
But we have not ever known a more determined mother than Delmy.
This seventeen year old young mother knew from the moment her son was born with an abdominal birth defect that he would need an advocate. Without a husband to stand at her side, this role fell to her and she embraced it well. 
In January of 2015 Delmy was told that COTA would try our best to find a surgical donation of care for her son, and that she should call our Guatemalan volunteer every two weeks for an update. 
Arriving in U.S.
 Which she did. 
 Every two weeks.
 For a year. 

It took twelve COTA volunteers, fifteen months of effort, two nonprofit organizations and hundreds of hours of effort but Delmy's determination and faith came to fruition on April of this year when this tiny family landed in St. Louis for their medical miracle our partner organization, World Pediatric Project. (

Delmy and her son are already scheduled for their return to Guatemala; the surgery went beautifully and Ever's future quality of life has increased beyond description. He will no longer need colostomy bags and that fact alone is life-changing. 
Delmy and Ever, post surgery, May 2016

Guatemala has many more mothers who need medical miracles for their children than we have resources for. It is expensive, both financially and in volunteer hours, to bring a child to the states for donated care. Is it worth the relentless effort, child after child after child? 
Ask Delmy. 
Ever, free from medical concerns


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Preventing a Future of Disability, One Child at A Time

We see them every year. 
Older children, young adults and sometimes the elderly who are physically challenged from walking on congenitally clubbed feet. The options available to children born with this birth disability are scarce in rural Guatemala and non-existent for the population we serve on our annual team trips to this Central American country. Living in a country where ambulation, rather than automation, is the more common way of travel, walking is a critical skill. 

Toddlers are adventurous beings. They crawl, pull up and eventually discover the joy of being ambulatory. When tiny feet are incorrectly aligned orthopedically, weight bearing becomes problematic. Callouses form on the ankle bone, hips are thrown out of alignment, calf muscles atrophy and ulcers sometimes develop on ankles that were never meant to act as feet. Older children who have not received care often have to be carried into our clinics on their parent's backs. A street beggar in Guatemala with a disability is most likely an adult who can no longer walk due to  an non-repaired club foot.
When we see an infant with this common (an estimated 1 out of 1,000 children) congenital issue on our Children of the Americas teams, we are thrilled to have our volunteer orthopedic medical volunteers. Our surgeon, Dr. George Quill ( corrects each case with precision. COTA pediatric nurses care for each patient post-operatively and teach the parents how to tend to the casts. Our pharmacists donate pain medication and antibiotics, and COTA translators make sure parents understand the directions. Six weeks later, stitches and casts are removed and temporary bracing applied by Julio Fuentes, (, our Guatemalan orthotics and prosthetics professional. It is an amazing network of skilled volunteers who come together with the intention of helping the children in rural Guatemala with a critical skill for future self-sufficiency. The cost of this surgery, were it available to them, would cost many thousands of dollars. The average annual salary of an indigenous Guatemalan father trying to provide for his family in the areas we serve is less than $2,000. We donated fifteen club foot surgeries on our recent trip to Salama, Guatemala, making our in-kind donation of orthopedic clubfoot care valued at over $90,000.

Parents should never have to make a choice to use scarce financial resources so their child either eats today or becomes self-sufficient in the future. Children of the Americas strives to take this difficult choice off of the collective shoulders of over a dozen families each year through the donation of orthopedic surgery. Some children return the following year for surgery on the other foot, others need further bracing from Julio. 
There is nothing a child dislikes more than being different from their peers. When a disability is combined with immobility, the burden of a difficult future not only rests on the child, but also his caretakers. In-kind donations only reflect the dollar value of the medical care that was delivered. It is impossible to place value on the improved quality of life that repairing impaired feet offers.
 We think each child who was the beneficiary of this gift would say it was priceless. 



Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Both Sides of the COTA Fence

The Children of the Americas volunteers and patients have all returned to their respective homes, are settled into our routines and have tucked the memories of our Team 2016 experiences into the place where we mentally wander during quiet times. COTA board members and long-term volunteers sometimes find ourselves blending the different team trips into snatches of experiences that meld into memories which are difficult to differentiate: 
    • Which team out of the last fifteen was the year we were treated to the Mayan dancing ceremony?
    • What hospital was it that didn't allow parents to stay with their post-operative babies, which made for a chaotic ward of upset children and tired nurses?
    • What team consistently ranks as a favorite? (hint: we slept in army barracks)
    • And who remembers the team site where the number of bug bites on COTA volunteer's legs outnumbered the clinic patients?
    The years blend, the patient's faces blur, the preparation for yet another team comes sooner than we thought it could possibly be time for. 
    So it is always refreshing to hear from those new volunteers and patients who bring a fresh perspective to what we have long known as a special experience spent with extraordinary people. 
    Here are the personal experiences of two people new to COTA in 2016. Hearing the stories of both women help us remember that years of team trips may seem ordinary to us, but are extraordinary for completely different reasons, to them.

    "I remember that I said it a few times when we were at Salamá, but I wanted to make sure you really understand how deep I mean it, and how great this experience was for me. I sincerely tell you I loved everything about this trip: the nights at different restaurants to try different kinds of food, your "everything is going to be fine" hugs that really comforted me at night when we were all tired and gave me the strength for a fresh start in the mornings; the different clinics that we worked in; all the patients' stories that we shared; all the amazing people and team that we got to know and the incredible experience to go for my first time in the OR. So dear sister Bernice thank you for making all this possible, this experience truly changed and enlarged my vision of medicine and the real meaning of becoming a good doctor.
    I hope that we made you feel proud of our work last week, because when we talked with the girls believe me it was great to know that the COTA Staff appreciated what we were doing."

     Paula Galán Sancé
    4th year Guatemalan medical student

    "I was told years ago by local doctors that I needed a complicated surgery but I have been scared. My family and friends in my village were nervous for me to have an operation in our local hospital; the supplies are scarce and if I had complications my family could not afford the cost of the blood donations or the medications. I had a friend in my village who told me about COTA doctors and how they had helped her mother and sisters and had operated on members of her family with good results. They are all healthy so I decided to trust her words. Early this morning I got a bus and traveled for six hours to get here and I got scared when I saw the long line outside of the hospital gate. I was worried that I had put my trust in a situation that would not work out for me. I am so grateful to God for this opportunity and although I am nervous, I have trust that the COTA surgeon has the skills to help me return to health. Please tell the Children of the Americas volunteers that I feel blessed to be one of the thousands of clinic patients who was allowed the gift of a surgery."
    Ana, Team 2016 Surgery patient.

    Monday, February 8, 2016

    Our Wish for 2016

    If there were one thing that Children of the Americas volunteers could wish for in this brand new year, it would be this: We wish we no longer had work awaiting us in Guatemala.
    Don't be mistaken: we love our adopted country. Some of us are so fond of it that we winter there, or have moved there full-time. Others find ourselves dreaming of the "Land of Eternal Spring" during our dreary stateside winters. When our feet are not firmly planted on "terra Guatemala", we miss the warmth of the climate and of the people. Wouldn't it be nice, we sometimes think, to just be able to go to Guatemala to soak in the culture, to visit with long-time friends and former foster children and to relax on black beaches or on verandas overlooking ancient volcanoes. 

    The reality is that the need for donated medical care in Central America is just as pervasive as it was in 1986 when Children of the Americas was founded. Maternal and pediatric statistical parameters for longevity and all that encompasses a life of full capacity are improving thanks to concerted efforts and focus from organizations like ours. But the stark reality is that access to healthcare, no matter what developing country one lives in, is more difficult when financial means are meager. The poor are marginalized in all aspects of life, but the inability to acquire quality medical care is life hampering. 

    This is where we shine. 
    We receive, pack, organize and categorize supplies throughout the year. Our board meets, plans, communicates and strategizes weekly. COTA volunteers tweak budgets, work schedules and plan flights months ahead of time. All of this so that once a year, we can bring donated medical,surgical,dental and pharmaceutical care to our Guatemalan patients. 
    Our methodology and the need for it speaks for itself. Last month we operated on 131 Guatemala women and children, saw 2,364 clinic patients and over 200 dental patients. Seventy-four Guatemalan citizens needed the expertise of our orthotics and prosthetics volunteers and our ultrasound specialist performed 226 scans for diagnostic workups. Prescriptions? The need was seemingly endless: 5,375 packets of medication donated.
    Until the basic human need of health and well-being is available to all rural Guatemalans, Children of the Americas will continue do what we have done for thirty years:improving access to healthcare.