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SUBMITTED PHOTO - Brittn Grey, a volunteer manager with Providence Health International, helps fit a fiberglass latrine onto the concrete foundation she and her team just built.

For Christina Vander Werf, making the world a better place came down to one thing — toilets.

Vander Werf was among a dozen Providence Health & Services employees who last month traveled to Guatemala to build latrines in a remote part of one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The trip was a big departure for the Cedar Hills resident, and not just because it’s more than 3,000 miles south of Washington County.

Vander Werf’s regular job is working in marketing and communications in one of America’s largest not-for-profit health systems, but on her recent trip, she spent four days in El Soch, a village of fewer than 1,000 people located deep in the mountains of central Guatemala. Vander Werf went to help people whose children frequently die from easily preventable diseases because they don’t have sanitary toilets, safe cooking stoves or adequate food supplies.

“I didn’t expect for my experience to be so much about the community and engaging with people,” Vander Werf said. “I was particularly struck by the connection with the kids.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO - This is the type of latrine people in the village of El Soch used before a Providence team built sanitary models. It's basically holes cut into wooden planks positioned over a hole.
Vander Werf’s latrine-building trip was just one of many that employees in Providence’s five-state region will make to El Soch and seven other villages in Guatemala’s Chicaman region during a three-year partnership with Tigard-based Medical Teams International.

Providence is funding the Chicaman work and sending teams of employees to provide much-needed health care and education services while also rebuilding some basic infrastructure, such as replacing unsanitary latrines and smoky stoves that contribute to diarrheal and respiratory illnesses that are especially dangerous to children.

“There are still children dying every day of things that are completely preventable,” said Mike Wenrick, director of MTI’s Latin America programs.

Medical Teams International is working in larger areas of Guatemala with about 150,000 residents, but Jeff Pinneo, MTI’s president and chief executive officer, said the partnership with Providence is by far its largest and most important in the region.

“Providence is allowing Medical Teams to have a really deep and profound impact in those eight communities,” Pinneo said. “Clearly this is a pioneering partnership.”

MTI employs about 20 Guatemalan nationals trained in providing health and education services to villagers. They know the Mayan dialects spoken in a region where the national language, Spanish, is at best a second language. The local team then trains “mother counselors” in the villages to promote better health practices, including hand-washing, breast-feeding and better nutrition.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The team of Providence volunteers met with each family before setting out to build their latrine. At this home, the 45-year-old mother was weeks away from delivering her 10th child. Her husband was away from home for months at a time to work.
“We’re able to reach tens of thousands of people that way,” Wenrick said.

Aimee Khuu, who directs service teams for Providence Health International, which leads its global health initiatives, said Providence employees return from the service trips refocused on their mission to help less fortunate residents wherever they live.

“I believe this work is deeply transformational for every volunteer that participates,” Khuu said.

To participate, Vander Werf contributed $800 toward travel expenses — Providence paid the rest — and used her personal time off. Her group helped raised $10,000 to pay for 50 latrines, and her group completed 38 during its recent trip and will pay a mason to construct the remainder.

For her, it clearly was worth every dollar and hour.

“I will never forget one of the grandmothers coming out and hugging me and kissing me. It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It was a really great experience, certainly life-changing.”

By Eric Apalategui
Beaverton Reporter
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