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Thursday, July 13, 2017

COTA Volunteers At Home and Abroad




Every January, Children of the Americas transports a team of compassionate, gifted and enthusiastic medical and support volunteers to Guatemala. Those of you who read this blog regularly know what we do and why we do it. What is less well-known is the individual identities in our lives back in the states. As a medical team in Guatemala we are cohesive, synergistic and dedicated to our mission purpose.
These personal and professional traits are no less evident in our work here in 
the states. 
 The article links (below), recently published by the University of Kentucky Medical Center, offer great tributes to some of our outstanding COTA volunteers.



Many of our COTA volunteers have received professional accolades and social media publication showcasing the work they do on our Guatemalan teams. Each and every time we read about "one of our own" we have a deeper understanding of why the Children of the Americas board is so proud of our volunteers.
Dr. James Liau is a pediatric plastic and reconstructive surgeon practicing at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital here in Lexington, KY where COTA is based. His surgical skills have restored health and emotional well-being to hundreds of Guatemalan children during his years of traveling with us.
As is evident in this article, fear and uncertainty are common denominators that cross geographical and social boundaries when parents are faced with the challenges of negotiating medical care for a baby with a complex surgical need.
Cleft Article.
Dr.Liau and his COTA support team are adept at meeting the myriad of emotional and surgical needs of both the child and the parents when it comes to cleft reconstruction. His UKMC support staff do the same here in the states. 
No matter what country our volunteer medical and support staff work in, the commonality of the human experience is the single most profound take-away we bring home with us.
In these times of increasing political and religious division, we think that is a valuable lesson indeed.




Friday, April 28, 2017

Behind the Scenes at COTA

For the majority of Children of the Americas volunteer team members, our medical team starts the day they land in Guatemala. That initial day in January is an intense experience both physically and emotionally. The year between COTA medical teams melts away as we join up once again to provide donated medical care to rural Guatemalan women and children.
Our hotel rooms have been matched to each volunteer, the evening pre-team presentation has been carefully orchestrated and our team seems to miraculously meld into a group (originating from over 20 different cities) that comes together for a common purpose. 
 
In other words, the mirage of of a smooth transition of 110 volunteers who synergistically play out their respective roles for a week in Guatemala would put any Broadway play to shame. 
Frank Sheeder, COTA Board Member
Question any team member about what Strategic Planning Sessions for the COTA board looks like and you would get a puzzled look.
A strategic planning process identifies strategies so that a nonprofit will achieve its mission. Ideally, as staff and board engage in the process, they become committed to measurable goals, approve priorities for implementation, and also commit to revisiting the organization’s strategies on an ongoing basis as the organization's internal and external environments - See more at: https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/strategic-planning-nonprofits#sthash.U9MPhLkc.dpuf
Discussions about Communications structure, Succession Planning and Operational structure are not topics that the majority of our COTA medical volunteers think about.
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A strategic planning process identifies strategies so that a nonprofit will achieve its mission. Ideally, as staff and board engage in the process, they become committed to measurable goals, approve priorities for implementation, and also commit to revisiting the organization’s strategies on an ongoing basis as the organization's internal and external environments change. Many nonprofits start the process by identifying the nonprofit’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, in what is commonly called a “SWOT” analysis.
- See more at: https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/tools-resources/strategic-planning-nonprofits#sthash.jvWIAAs5.dpuf
Instead, ask a team member how to smoothly transition 2,000 Guatemalan women and children through a five day clinic and they can eloquently describe the process. Start discussing Strategic outcomes for a long-term viable nonprofit organization, and eyes gloss over. The question then becomes; which is the most important
The answer depends on who you ask.

Club Foot Patient
At the end of the hardest-week-you-will-ever-love, COTA volunteers gather for our annual team photo. Smiles are broad, hearts are happy and we all leave knowing that we gave quality medical, dental and surgical care to thousands of rural Guatemalans. But in that team photo, there are a few dedicated souls who are already thinking ahead to how the next COTA team can be more efficient, professional and viable.
 Executive board members and key team administrators are brain storming about post-team surveys and vital statistics to utilize for fundraising. We are deep in thought about how to best communicate our accomplishments to our donors. Our team coordinators are making notes for future discussions on how to facilitate a smoother patient care experience on future teams. Our board is planning for the inevitable replacement of key administrative leaders, team coordinators and medical volunteers. Bundle these individual thought processes together and you have an end product that keeps COTA focused on the future mission focus and viability of our program. 

In other words, without strategic planning, what happens on the front end of a Guatemalan medical team would never be possible. Maria (above left) would not begin to understand the logistical aspects of board governance, planning and progressive movement. She wishes only for a foot repair that for twelve years has been out of the reach of her farming family's meager income. With the dedicated strategy planning guidance of COTA board members Frank Sheeder and Nancy Vastro, our organization will be in Guatemala once again. 
And Maria will walk normally for the first time in her life.  

 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

For Andy, It Took A Village


Editors Note: When compassionate people from three different countries combine their efforts and resources, the results are nothing short of life-changing. The following blog post was written by Lesley, a Canadian tourist who happened to run into a COTA voluteer at just the right moment. A circumstance or a miracle? You decide. 
Jody

When we first arrived in the first town Nueva Santa Lucia we stopped in the center of the village. Within a few minutes many people had gathered around Juniper as I think it would have been a first to see a white baby for many of them. One of the women asked if she could hold Juniper. I handed her over and Juniper was happy to visit with a new happy face. It seemed like seconds before I turned around and Juniper was nowhere to be seen. I had a little fright and told Vicente (our Guatemalan guide) what had happened. He laughed and said that they had probably taken her to show their families. He quickly told me that we would go and find her. It only took about 5 minutes and a walk down a series of footpaths through gardens and backyards to find her surrounded by about 20 kids. 

One of the kids was a four-year-old boy named Andy. Andy was sitting by himself a little bit removed from the other kids. We stayed there for about an hour talking to the family and playing with the children. While we were there we found out that Andy had been born with both of his feet fixed into a point position and sharply turned in. Colin (my husband) asked the mother where her husband was and she told him that he had died. He also asked what the condition was that Andy had and she said that she didn't know. Colin couldn't believe that a mother couldn't even understand her son's physical disability. 

Andy had never walked and he was 4 years old. The mother showed Colin that he couldn't walk by picking him up and moving his legs. His feet were crooked and absolutely stiff. The mother said she tried to contact a doctor but he wouldn't talk to her because she had no money. One of Colin's feet were turned in when he was born and they just put his leg in a cast for a couple of weeks and said it was no problem. People in Guatemala aren't usually born in the hospital though and there was no doctor in the village. 

We told Vicente about this in the morning as he was out negotiating a room for dinner and us to stay in. The next day at breakfast he acknowledged that he knew about that little boy and had a hard time seeing him because it was so sad for him to see those kinds of problems in the poor villages. He said he was thinking about it last night and he wanted to take a picture of the boy and put it on social media to try and get enough money just so the mother could get the transport to a hospital and be able to pay for the doctor. When they found him we took some pictures and Vicente was very persistent in telling Andy's mother that he didn't know what would come of it, he did not want to give her false hope. We left the town that morning and continued our journey.

A few days later I was walking through the streets of San Pedro and a lady stopped me and asked me if I knew where she could get a good cup of coffee. I was just walking around with Juniper waiting for Colin while he was in school so I told her that I would walk with her to a good Italian place. When we got there she asked me if she could buy me a coffee. I said sure and we sat and chatted. She told me that she was a doctor on a surgical mission trip with a group of doctors from the US. I connected Andy with her in my mind but was a little shy and thought it would be way too much to organize and coincidental for a connection to be made. I left the coffee shop to get Colin but the possibility of this little boy getting help was weighing heavy. I quickly returned because I thought at least I could get the name of her organization and pass it on to Vicente. When we got there Vicente was actually sitting in the same coffee shop a few tables away. I talked to the doctor, her name is Kaye, and she was actually really excited to see if she could help this boy. We brought Vicente over to the table and I did my best to try and translate, thank goodness for the few weeks of Spanish school. Kaye said that she would email me after she spoke with her supervisor and we would do our best to see if an operation or at least an examination would be possible. 


It was Wednesday and COTA was going to be doing operations starting the next Monday for a week. The good thing was that the hospital that they were doing these operations in, Retalhuleu was relatively close to the town where Andy lives. Relatively meaning that it was a 2-3 hour hike and two different camionetta rides (a pickup truck with a bar down the middle of the back that people can stand up and hold onto). Vicente said that if he got the word that the doctors could see Andy he would go to the village from San Pedro (where we were) about a 2 hour hike and a 1 hour camionetta ride, to carry Andy to the hospital from his village.

The next day I was walking around San Pedro and I ran into Kaye again; she was out of breath. She said that she had been looking for me for an hour because she had some urgent info. She said that not only could her group examine Andy they also had 1000 Quetzales about $200 for Andy to pay for the journey and food and hotel for Andy and his Mom while they were in Retalhuleu. I was buzzing, this was great news. I was also a little in disbelief and not wanting to get too hopeful because so much had to come together for this to work. We quickly went to find Vicente to give him the good news. This wasn't easy as I had no idea how to find him but after asking a few people we found out where he lived and walked there. 
He was overjoyed. We made arrangements while Vicente's nephew watched Juniper. Kaye also gave Vicente the phone number of a translator that he could call as soon as they arrived at the hospital. She said they would need to call, as there are usually line-ups of people waiting outside of the hospital when their group is there and he would be able to come right in if they called first. Kaye was in a rush so she took off right away after that. I said good-bye to her and quickly went to find Colin to tell him the good news. I was buzzing.  

I thought that was really nice of her to spend her few days of vacation before some intense work to find me and help us make this happen for Andy. Colin got really excited and said that he was going to round up a few people to accompany Vicente to help him carry Andy on the 5 hour hike to the village to find Andy and then on to the hospital. Colin got a few friends together and they made a plan to go on Sunday

There was so much excitement and energy around this where we were. In the past I have travelled to many countries where I have seen so much sorrow and illness and felt helpless amongst it all. Now it felt like such a blessing to us to have seen something that pulled at our hearts and been able to do something about it. Maybe, just maybe, this could work and Andy just may be able to walk and play with his friends. The funny thing was that Andy and his family had no idea what we were up to and that his life was about to change. 

Sunday came and Vicente, Colin and 3 others packed up at 5:30am to start the journey. Vicente had gotten a hold of Andy's family and told them to be ready for the journey. Vicente had an old metal-framed backpack and he built a wooden seat on it to carry Andy. Vicente told Colin that he was so excited and thrilled the night before that he hadn't slept all night. They jumped into a cameoneta and headed out to a remote village about an hour away. When they arrived they jumped off the truck and walked through the village and out the other side dropping out of civilization into the jungle paths of the western highland mountains.  When they arrived at Andy's house Vicente was very clear that they were just going for an examination and that there was no guarantee that they would be able to do surgery. They strapped Andy up into the carrier and made the journey in good time. When they got to the hospital Vicente made a phone call and they passed the big line up and went on in. Colin and crew found the bus back to San Pedro, as they wanted to get back the same day and Vicente stayed with Andy and his mother.

At that point Andy was scheduled for an examination on Monday, the next day. Vicente came back on Tuesday and said that the examination showed that surgery was possible and that they would do it on Wednesday. 
Andy got his operation to fix his legs and is now wearing braces for the next 6 months and when he takes them off he can begin to learn how to walk.   

Vicente returned the weekend after that to carry Andy back to his village. He said he didn't need help and actually did the 2-hour hike in 3 hours with Andy on his back by himself. The crazy thing is that that hike is mostly up hill in that direction. I hope that I have that much energy at 61. We heard from Vicente that his mother was really happy because the morning after the operation she saw him sit up for the first time by himself. 


It was such a joy to be a part of this adventure. I am hoping to hear about the progress of Andy but our only connection is through Vicente who doesn't use the Internet so I guess we will just have to go back and visit.
*With special thanks to Kay Beatty, for her passion and persistence in connecting Andy with the Children of the Americas 2017 Team

Written by:

Lesley from Canada