Santa Barbara volunteers continue to aid Guatemala
Santa Barbara is part of efforts to help Guatemala.
Local residents are among the board members of Local Hope/Xela AID, an international organization that has provided aid for more than 25 years in the area around San Martin Sacatepequez.
Every year the nonprofit brings health, education and emergency relief programs to nearly 5,000 Mayan people living in poverty.
The organization has headquarters in San Martin Sacatepequez and Long Beach.
Xela AID also has volunteers across the state ready to lend a helping hand, and there are Santa Barbara members on its board. They are Dr. Steve Kent, Kathy Burt and Sherry Robin.
Dr. Kent, who serves as the head of the Medical Committee, has been a crucial figure.
Dr. Kent first moved to Santa Barbara in 1990 when he first started as an interventional cardiologist at the Sansum Clinic.
After spending about a decade at the clinic, Dr. Kent eventually opened up his own private practice before retiring in 2014.
By the time he retired, Dr. Kent was very familiar with Xela AID because his sister-in-law was very heavily involved.
So, after finally having some free time after retirement, Dr. Kent knew he wanted to get involved himself right away.
“After I retired, that was in the back of my mind and right after I retired they had a special trip. It was combining the opportunity to climb some of the largest mountains in Central America alongside going to the village and doing work there,” Dr. Kent said.
While the 66-year-old physician loved the outdoors and the beauty of Guatemala as a whole, he said what really enticed him was the time he spent in the village and getting to know the locals.
“I say that I came for the volcanoes, but I’ve since then stayed for the village and helping the people out there,” Dr. Kent said.
Soon thereafter, Dr. Kent became much more involved and has made a difference, improving the medical clinic as well as educating locals who have gone on to become nurses at said clinics. They have also provided education on general health as well.
Dr. Kent also helped to start a screening program, one that has improved health outcomes for children in the Guatemalan highlands.
The program even saved the life of a little girl, Ana.
Dr. Kent first met Ana when she was just 5 years old. At the clinic, Dr. Kent was able to see that Ana was suffering from a congenital heart defect from birth.
Luckily, because it was caught early, the defect was correctable.
With some help, Dr. Kent was able to successfully advocate for Ana to receive some surgery in Guatemala City.
“It has really fixed the problem and now she’s thriving, and it’s just kind of wonderful to see how well she’s doing,” Dr. Kent said.
Equally as important in his mind, Dr. Kent also recalled seeing a similar congenital heart defect in another young girl, this one 11 years old.
Unfortunately, the problem was not caught quick enough. Secondary health problems related to her lungs made her no longer a candidate for any surgery to try to correct the problem.
“As great as it is to see her (Ana) thriving, it’s equally sad knowing the destiny of the first girl who can’t really be helped at this time,” Dr. Kent said.
“It really makes a statement how important you know health care is in general and how important it is in these underserved areas.”
Usually, Dr. Kent travels to Guatemala about twice a year, 10 to 14 days, but due to the current pandemic, that really isn’t an option.
Still, Dr. Kent provides continual information that is relayed to the people at Xela AID who stay at the local villages in Guatemala. That information is then passed along through a variety of ways in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re just trying to educate and inform and give, when possible, reassurance to the people down there because it’s a situation that creates a lot of stress and anxiety,” Dr. Kent said.
As a whole, Xela AID is also providing food to the locals whenever they can, to help people fight malnutrition and try to stay as healthy as possible.
While helping the local health system is important, so is the power of bonds.
Ms. Burt, who has been a part of the board at Local Hope since 2008, knows first hand how important it is for women to come together.
Ms. Burt first traveled to Guatemala alongside her daughter, Amy Marks. Amy, who at the time was 15, went to Guatemala alongside Goleta nonprofit Direct Relief, and Ms. Burt tagged along for the mother/daughter experience.
As they moved across the country, eventually Ms. Burt and her daughter traveled to San Martin Chiquito, which is part of the greater community of San Martin Sacatepequez.
“As corny as it sounds, we fell in love immediately with what Xela AID was doing, but really we fell in love with the community and the people that we met,” Ms. Burt recalled.
Once there, she remembers meeting a group of weavers, creating with a centuries old technique of backstrap weaving. She recalls how they talked about how they learned from each other, taught their children and really the culture of it all.
During the conversation, Ms. Burt found out the weavers had a cooperative, but it had folded due to lack of support.
“The question was asked by Leslie, who is now the executive director of Local Hope: ‘Is there anybody here who can help?’ And Amy and I, without really without hesitation, looked at each other and raised our hands,” Ms. Burt said.
Ms. Burt and her daughter founded the Tesoros del Corazón Weaving Cooperative, which for more than a decade has made it possible for indigenous women to feed their families and send their children to school.
“My heart has been for the women weavers. My love (is) for these 15 women who create their work through dimly lit households on dirt floors, and it’s just a beautiful tradition that goes from mother to daughter,” Ms. Burt said. “And it tells a story that speaks to their heritage It moved my daughter and I in a way that really nothing else has and it stayed with me for years.”
Ms. Burt has also sponsored dozens of kids in the villages, helping them get through school but for her, what really sticks out are the bonds.
“I don’t speak Spanish or Mam, their local Mayan dialect, but it’s amazing to me how two women from different backgrounds in different parts of the world can sit together and communicate and share and find commonality in our joys, our challenges and our sorrows,” Ms. Burt said.
Ms. Burt recalled talking to Magdalena, a local weaver, and despite not being able to share more than a few words, the two were able to connect and understand the other’s pain.
“In our souls, we are the same. We’re women trying to raise our families and take care of our loved ones and we’re doing it differently but we’re still the same. There really is nothing that separates us as human beings just trying to do our best in the world,” Ms. Burt said.
During this pandemic, the way Ms. Burt has been able to help is by simply donating what she can to help Xela AID continue getting supplies. You can donate to Xela AID and sponsor a kid by going to xelaaid.org.
Finally, there is Ms. Robin, who joined Local Hope’s board in 2014. A local family therapist and former teacher, Ms. Robin knows the importance of lending a hand.
In fact, Ms. Robin was on the same mother/daughter trip as Ms. Burt. She recalls out of all the nonprofits they visited how much Xela AID stood out to the four of them.
“I just remember going on our first day to elementary school, meeting the students and the teachers and then going to plant little trees on the hills, and there was just like a really good connection there,” Ms. Robin said.
Ms. Robin usually travels to Guatemala once a year and is very involved in her women’s literacy. She also founded Xela AID’s Montessori in the Guatemalan highlands.
“I just love it. It’s great because when I go, there are people I’ve known for like 10 years so you really form friendships, relationships and watch young people grow up so I probably get just as much out of it as they do get from our organization,” Ms. Robin said.
Even though she can’t just hop on a plane and go to Guatemala given the pandemic, Ms. Robin said she continually makes it a point to try to call once a week to her friends. She also donates money to help the locals gather food.
“I like to speak to some of the teachers that are involved in the food distribution or the leadership team down there and just ask them how things are going and tell them how proud we are of them,” Ms. Robin said.
“It’s easy for me to give money, but they are the ones down there getting food, putting it together and putting themselves in harm’s way to help others.”
Ms. Robin hopes to visit the local village the moment the pandemic dies down — and it’s something she’s very much looking forward to.
“The people are just so lovely down there, they are appreciative and it’s been a pleasure in these 10 years to be able to go down there and work alongside the community there,” Ms. Robin said.
For more information on Local Hope/Xela Aid, go to xelaaid.org.