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Guatemala quest: Minnesotans try to impact lives in Central American country

Fuego is an active volcano in Antigua, Guatemala.1 / 5
Pictured are (front, from left) Brian Lingle, Tom Ahlberg, Lona Smith, Ed McNiece (back) Teresa Williams, Kris Lingle, Bruce Ahlberg.2 / 5
Brian and Kris Lingle pose for a photo with a Guatemalan girl who was fitted for a wheelchair. (submitted photo)3 / 5
The Minnesota volutneers distribute food in Guatemala.4 / 5
Dentist Ed McNiece works on a patient in a makeshift clinic in Guatemala. (submitted photo)5 / 5

You know you’re not in Minnesota anymore when you wake up to the sounds of a rumbling volcano.

But for Tom Ahlberg, it was nothing new. Recently returned from his fourth trip to Antigua, Guatemala, to work with his brother Bruce, a full-time missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), Tom and his team of southwest Minnesota volunteers willingly gave up the frigid temperatures of home to spend nine days in the shadow of Fuego, an active volcano.

“The lava flowed down the opposite side of the mountain from us — we were fine,” said Tom nonchalantly.

To Bruce and the rest of his YWAM team, the mountain is nothing to worry about.  Far more concerning are the thousands of residents of the city who don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Ed McNiece, a dentist with Applewhite Dental in Worthington, shared that concern.

“I wanted to let the people know that we were not just do-gooders but that we were there to have a spiritual impact,” said McNiece.

In fact, the best part of the trip for McNiece was not the dental work he was able to do — although that was gratifying — but the man he met on a park bench.

“I had an opportunity to meet a gentleman in a park. He was bilingual, so I could talk to him. I invited him to Bruce’s Monday night English church service, and he came, and I was able to talk with him for quite a while.”

Unlike some mission trips, where volunteers go in and go out of a place and have no way to offer long-term follow-up, McNiece was glad to know that his newfound friend would have Bruce and the YWAM team available for further connections.

Even the dental patients he worked with would have follow-up if they needed through other dentists coming on future mission trips.

“I saw a lot of infections and abscesses. I don’t know how they had survived the pain,” said McNiece of his Guatemalan patients. “I had to pull a lot of teeth.”

All of the dental work was provided free of charge to patients.YWAM had advertised that a dentist would be coming, and many contacts were made through the Kid’s Club that meets weekly at the YWAM compound. Dental hygiene is almost non-existent for the economically challenged people of Antigua.

In addition to the dental work, the team provided food and even a live chicken to several families.

One recipient — who also received dental care — was so appreciative that she named her brand-new chicken “Dr. Ed.”

McNiece was not alone in his dental work, being ably aided by Tom as “sterilization technician” and Lona Smith, who, while never working as a dental hygienist before, is at least familiar with the dental world as the owner of Smith Dental Lab in Brewster.

“It was really, really good for me to actually be right there with the patient. I enjoyed it. I like people, so it was nice to get out of the back,” said Smith of her experience.

Tom described the situation with one patient.

“She was so afraid of having dental work. So we prayed for her. Then Teresa and Kris just stood and touched her to help calm her, and she calmed down. It was so neat. There’s no language to touch.”

Teresa Williams of Worthington and Kris and Brian Lingle of Willmar rounded out the team.

Teresa feels fortunate to have been able to go despite the broken foot she suffered while working on one project.

“It was a small price to pay,” said Williams of her foot. “It was so humbling to be there. I got more blessings than I gave.”

Kris echoed Williams’ thoughts.

“It was humbling and eye-opening,” Lingle said.

The team didn’t limit their visit to Antigua, but also spent two days in the smaller cities of Sum Pango and Xenacoj working with Hope Haven International (of which The Achievement Center, locally, is a part), which has a large warehouse nearby. There they were able to help build two kitchens and several wheelchairs. Many people in Guatemala use open fires for all of their cooking, so having an actual kitchen (albeit an open-air one) is a huge step up. The Minnesota team provided actual wood-burning stoves as well as the labor to set up the kitchen.

“We made two 12- by 8- outdoor kitchens,” Williams explained. “The prep work had been done already, and Hope Haven provided all of the materials. We also fitted kids for wheelchairs. It took about two hours to do just one because we had to measure the child in several places, make sure the foot rest was properly adjusted, etc.”

The group was able to provide six wheelchairs.

“Dr. Ed and I fitted one boy for his chair,” detailed Williams. “He was 11, but I held him in my arms like he was much smaller. The chair provided the first independence he’d ever had. Imagine the freedom it will give his parents.  They’d always had to hold him before.”

Smith, too, marveled at the changes in the lives of the wheelchair recipients.  

“These kids were totally dependent,” she said. “Now their parents would be free to do more work without their child always on their hip. The kids looked so much more grown up, sitting alone in their chairs.”

Putting together wheelchairs may sound like a technical or difficult activity, but the people at Hope Haven were there every step of the way, making the job possible for anyone to accomplish. The kitchen work, too, was overseen and not beyond the skills of those who made the trip. In fact, with the exception of the dentistry, everyone was able to jump in and accomplish things they’d never before done because, really, much of what they did was offer compassion and acceptance to those with whom they came in contact.

“When we went to talk to the homeless people, we were told to shake their hands, to pray for them and with them. Anyone can do that,” said Smith. “They were so appreciative of anything we did.”

“We brought them food,” said Williams. “And clothes and blankets and stuffed animals. We gave them Bibles, too. One man said he could not afford a Bible, and he was so glad.”

The language barrier got in the way at times, but just as there is no language to touch, so there is no language to smiles.

“I really loved spending time with the kids wherever I went,” said Williams, “and seeing the smiles on their faces when they received their gifts.They have a great deal of sorrow, but they’re more at peace within their lives than we are as Americans.”

Tom too, reflected on his life in relation to the lives of the Guatemalans with whom he came in contact.

“I can’t help but think, ‘What did I do to deserve this life?’ Only once in my life have I been in a position to accept help from someone when I could not possibly do the work for myself. These people are in that situation daily. I prayed that we’d provide God’s blessings on the trip. I was so gratified to hear everyone say that it was the personal impact moments that were their best moments.”

McNiece shared Tom’s feelings.

“The whole trip was bittersweet. It was sweet to help, but bitter because we weren’t able to do enough. There are so many needs. We just provided a drop in the bucket.”

“It is a great experience to have,” Smith agreed. “And we want to thank everyone who gave financial support to provide the stoves and wheelchairs and such. We couldn’t have done it all without their help.”

“It was a good trip,” said Tom. “Each trip has been different and great.”

Tom does not know what the future holds regarding more trips to Antigua, but his brother is still there and willing to take groups from mid-December through mid-February.

“Bruce takes great care of us when we’re there,” said Tom. “It makes the trip so much easier.  It’s just eight hours away, yet you can make such a difference.”