By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
Parishes in Newton and Colfax are working to make life better for people experiencing poverty and homelessness in El Salvador.
For the past 20 years, Sacred Heart Parish in Newton has been planning annual medical mission trips to the Central American country. In March, a group of 41 medical professionals, pharmacists, dentists, University of Iowa dental students and other volunteers from Iowa assisted more than 1,600 poor and homeless individuals over six days.
The group generally serves the communities around Berlin, El Salvador. Veronica Mangrich, one of the trip’s organizers, said the 15,000 people in the outlying villages of Berlin “are very poor. Most don’t have running water or electricity and have dirt floor homes. There are few opportunities to work.”
Additionally, in an impoverished area, it is hard for the poorest of the poor to receive help. “If you are homeless in a poor place, not many people have much more,” Mangrich said. “It’s much more of a disadvantage than here (in the United States). They can hardly beg from each other.”
Volunteers on the medical mission set up clinics in areas around Berlin, offering individuals the opportunity to see a doctor, have their vision checked and receive dental care, free of charge. Volunteers also brought medical and dental supplies, medication and educational items to distribute to clinic participants. Mangrich said 275 to 300 people attended the clinics daily this year. Altogether, medical mission volunteers served about 1,625 individuals.
Bradley Hagarty, a dentist and member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Colfax, has volunteered in El Salvador for the past 11 years. He said numerous issues affect the health and welfare of the rural poor in El Salvador. “Lack of education, roads, electricity, clean water and social safety net are a few of the obstacles faced by the poor. Lack of clean water causes intestinal parasites and substitution of sugared beverages to try to hydrate. Dehydration, consumption of sugared beverages, and lack of both the means and knowledge to perform proper oral hygiene causes rampant tooth decay.”
The mission relies on donations — about $7,000 to $8,000 per year — with the parishes in Newton and Colfax providing the biggest share of support. Volunteers pay their own way.
The Colfax parish has increased its involvement in recent years. About three years ago, the parish decided to join the Newton parish in raising additional funds to bring electricity to the school in El Zapote. “They had computers donated by a local organization but no electricity to run them,” said Deacon Joe Dvorak, parish life coordinator of the Colfax parish.
Hearing about the power issue prompted the Colfax parish to adopt the community of El Zapote and help with additional needs there. “Our first project was to help with their water issues,” said Deacon Dvorak. “They have a large building that collects and stores water during the rainy season for use throughout the year. … It had fallen into disrepair. Through several fundraising projects, the parish was able to raise $1,500 to repair the building.”
Youths in religious education classes wanted to help, too. During a presentation by Hagarty, they learned how youths in El Zapote made soccer balls out of trash. “It was quite an eye opener” for the youths, Deacon Dvorak said. In response, they chose to raise money to send soccer equipment. Through bake sales, Advent wreath sales and a can and bottle drive, they purchased soccer balls, air pumps, jerseys, cleats and socks and net storage bags. The youths in El Zapote received the items earlier this year.
Mangrich said the medical mission trip has become something like a “well-oiled machine,” with a core group that goes annually and can help guide newcomers. Each year, they try to make the trip a little better. She is grateful to have been a part of the mission for the past 20 years. “A lot of us have a heart for the poor, and to (help them) is rewarding. It’s a moving experience.”