La Sierra University students began planning several months in advance for their 2,720-mile trip to Guatemala, collecting dozens of pairs of shoes, hundreds of stuffed toys, and other items for distribution to orphans, seniors, pediatric and hospice patients, and families in need.
Their eight-day trek around the country to aid others through donations, health care assistance, and other outreach activities would require sleeping bags each night and big steps outside of their comfort zone.
On the evening of December 12, 2019, a group of 18 La Sierra students, two biology faculty members, and a faculty member’s spouse departed Los Angeles International Airport for Guatemala City as participants in the Pre-Medical Society’s annual humanitarian outreach to the Central American country. The society, a student club for those studying various health sciences, has been traveling to Guatemala each Christmas break since 2004, led by Eugene Joseph, associate professor of anatomical sciences in La Sierra’s Department of Biology.
The objective of the mission trips is multi-faceted, Joseph said. It involves offering humanitarian aid to the children and families of Guatemala, including assisting local Seventh-day Adventist doctors, dentists, and health care providers in the delivery of medical and dental care. It also encompasses “[providing] our pre-medical, pre-dental, and pre-allied health students with the opportunity to serve and appreciate the value of helping others in an altruistic humanitarian context, [and inspiring] our students to return to Guatemala or other mission fields,” he said. Their work in Guatemala also provides an opportunity to “identify and encourage promising Adventist Guatemalan youth to receive college and professional degrees so that they can help their country to rise above some of the existing situations of poverty,” he said.
This year’s student group was the second largest in the 15 years the society has been making aid pilgrimages south of the United States border. The students took along 12 suitcases filled with 60 pairs of donated shoes, 100 hand-made Christmas cards, 540 stuffed animal toys, and some candy, which long-time La Sierra supporter and former academic advising director Iris Landa helped collect. Landa has secured donations of stuffed toys for the club’s annual outreach for more than a decade. Approximately 60 more stuffed toys were donated by La Sierra alumna Ariel Lynch and her family.
The La Sierra group’s journeys involved visits to several towns and churches, an orphanage, two hospitals, and a community medical clinic. Their activities ranged from painting houses and building chicken coops to distributing the donated shoes and stuffed animals, leading kids’ crafts and games, assisting medical and dental personnel, and volunteering at a Ronald McDonald House.
‘I want to give more’
For pre-nursing major and Auburn, California, resident Gillian Fralick, the trip to Guatemala was her first missions experience outside of the United States. It proved life-changing. “I just really felt called to apply for this mission trip,” she said. “It just felt right; I don’t really know how to explain it. I felt this peace about my decision to try and go, and if I was able to go, my talents with kids and love for people would be used for Jesus.”
Stepping into the world of profound poverty experienced by so many families in Guatemala deeply affected Fralick. “It was definitely a culture shock to realize that not everybody lives in a clean home with real floors and walls,” she said. She described one particularly heartbreaking moment in which she prayed for a 22-year-old woman stricken with cancer, who was lying in the only bed of a family home with a dirt floor. The young woman passed away later that evening. “My heart still aches for the family that lost their daughter,” Fralick said, adding, “Although we saw a lot of pain, we also saw a lot of smiles. This is what really kept me going through all the hard times. Seeing kids’ faces light up when we handed them their first stuffed animal that they could love and squeeze. Seeing the tears well up in the eyes of the parents whose homes we painted or when we handed them bags of food.
“The overall experience was incredible, and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Fralick said. “My outlook on life and how blessed I truly am has completely shifted. It’s addicting, and I want more. I want to give more since God has given me so much.”
Two families in Guatemala City who have served as hosts for the group for many years provided, respectively, sleeping quarters and a large kitchen where the group cooked its own meals. Students and faculty members slept in sleeping bags on top of air mattresses in one of the family homes, then cooked and ate their meals at the other home.
The outreach activity that had most interested Fralick was a day at the community medical clinic. However, she became ill on the day of the event and had to remain at the host’s home. Despite her disappointment, the day proved beneficial in an unexpected way. She witnessed her host’s “ministry in action,” cleaning the group’s rooms and making soup for Fralick. “It felt like home. Although I thought that I was going to miss out on the blessing of helping others that day at the clinic, I received the blessing of being helped,” she said.
La Sierra associate professor of biology Arturo Diaz went along on the journey to help with translation, participate in outreach, and provide other support as needed. It was his first experience taking part in the Pre-Med Society’s annual aid project, and the personal effect it had was greater than he anticipated, Diaz said.
“I don’t think I fully grasped the impact that they have on the local communities until I was there,” he said. “It was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had.”
Diaz noted the deep appreciation of the Guatemalan families in receiving toys, food, and other assistance, or simply playing games and interacting with the students. He recalled the reaction of a seven-year-old girl who received a stuffed toy during one event. “This was the first time that she ever had a stuffed animal. And so it reinforced something that I considered before in terms of how fortunate we are and how we tend to take things for granted,” he said.
“Everyone was blessed by the impact we made on the people,” said Jaymie Gacula, a senior biomedical sciences/pre-medicine major with plans for medical school. She serves as the society’s vice president and activities coordinator. Her many responsibilities included ensuring the students had enough supplies on hand for crafts, games, and other functions, and coordinating with the society leadership in overseeing the care of the group and its funds. “I was worried about things being prepared for each day, having to go out and buy supplies,” Gacula said. “Once I asked God to help me realize that I was there to serve and show people His love, I felt joyful. The tiredness at the end of every day could not compare to the happiness in serving others.”
The December mission trek was the third for Pre-Medical Society president Taryn Batin, a senior neuroscience major with plans to enter a medical career. Batin’s broad responsibilities included communicating with trip supervisors and Guatemalan hosts in executing activity plans, organizing shopping lists, cooking and cleaning tasks, and itineraries.
This year’s group of students presented some uncertainty, Batin said, as they differed from previous groups that were composed mainly of friends. “I was unsure of what to expect from this year’s group,” she said. “However, they were amazing at taking the initiative in leading out activities and getting tasks done, especially when I couldn’t be there to lead. They were also incredibly supportive of Jaymie and me when we felt overwhelmed by stress. I am extremely appreciative of the lasting friendships I gained.”
Batin said she was personally impacted by her interaction with the people of Guatemala and through witnessing their deep appreciation for the group’s efforts at bringing some comfort and wellbeing into their lives. “Seeing the gratitude of the people, despite their poor living conditions, allowed my faith to grow on a humanitarian level,” Batin said. “Being Jesus’ hands and feet might require stepping outside of your comfort zone, but seemingly little acts of service can mean everything to the people there.”