MISSISSIPPI: Mission provides medical, dental and veterinary care in Honduras

March 7, 2011

"Seeing humanity in a different culture helped me grow," said Iva Perkins, a young African American woman, while sitting on the floor of the international airport in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, waiting for her flight home.

Perkins was one of 31 team members from the Diocese of Mississippi and the Diocese of Honduras who spent five days in February serving the needs of the poorest of the poor in San Joaquin, a small village in the mountains in Honduras's Santa Barbara region. Honduras is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, behind Haiti.

The Mississippi-Honduras partnership, the Honduras Medical Mission (HMM), is in its 29th year serving San Joaquin, a regional hub, with much-needed medical and dental services, eye care and veterinary care.

The mission rotates two-year sponsorships in Mississippi parishes: the Chapel of the Cross in Madison hosted the trip for its second year in 2011. St. Peter's, Oxford, is the hosting parish for 2012 and 2013.

For the last 10 years, HMM has sponsored Kinder Mississippi, a pre-school Christian Education and feeding program for San Joaquin. Several building projects have given the village clinics, a social center and additions to the church. In 2010 a water purification system was put in place.

"I thought I had it rough growing up," said Perkins, reflecting on her first trip to Honduras. She is a certified nursing assistant in Jackson. "Seeing the people of San Joaquin changed me. I grew up this week. It was a very meaningful experience."

Young translators from Episcopal Schools in and around San Pedro Sula assist the mission teams, as do local health care professionals.

Native Honduran Dr. Paola Segura, 32, an orthodontist from Puerto Cortes, began working with the medical mission 17 years ago when she was a teenager at St. John's Episcopal School. Paola worked as a translator in the dental clinic for many years and that experience led to her vocation. Although unable to be on the mission this year, Segura helped out with some of the complicated logistics in getting needed equipment and supplies for the mission.

When Segura read the mission statistics at the end of the trip she wrote, "You could be the only doctors some of these people get to see throughout the year. A big thank you to all of your families who allow you to come. I pray that you may continue to do this for many, many more years!"

Dr. Lance Johnson, a dentist from Cleveland, Mississippi, was a part of the 2011 team. This was his second mission. His first trip took place 17 years ago and Segura was his translator in the clinic.

"The development of the village is astounding," said Johnson, "It's amazing. The people are so much healthier than when I came 17 years ago."

Each year the team sets up medical, dental, eye and veterinary clinics and sees patients from early morning until late afternoon, often staying open until the last patients are cared for.

Dr. Chip Leggett, a dentist and a 25-year veteran of the mission, attends church in the Parish of Mediator/Redeemer in McComb and Magnolia. Leggett's presence is legendary among generations of children in village who call for "Chipi Loco" to do his famous chicken dance.

Like Johnson, Leggett has reflected a lot about the many changes in San Joaquin. "They have been both physical and spiritual in nature. I am amazed at all the new epiphanies that just show up. My favorite pastime there is playing with the children. I feel the powerful love of God in their love for me and my teammates. That love fills my heart so full each year that it spills over in sharing the love of Christ here in Mississippi."

Dr. Andy Shores, a veterinary neurosurgeon by trade and a 10-year veteran of the mission, stated, "The general condition of the animals and the compassion of the people toward their animals has improved significantly over the last decade."

Additional members of this year's veterinarian clinic were two of Shores' former students: Dr. Kathy Kvam, a veteran of many trips and the 2012 HMM chair person. Shores' daughter, Dr. Lauren Shores of Dallas, Texas, also joined the 2011 team.

Shores says that the team is working on new ways of developing a program that will provide a level of sustainability for animal care through the year.

Cassie Cole is a nurse from Denver, Colorado, and has Mississippi roots. She led the team's dental sealant effort which many children receive each year. Cole has made several trips and echoes many of the sentiments of other team members.

"Arriving in the village of San Joaquin always feels like coming home. The excitement and joy of the children's faces is enough to never want to leave that place. I see God mostly in their eyes, as their eyes truly smile. It is such a blessing to experience such love and grace with people some cannot even communicate with due to a language barrier," Cole said.

Each mission has a closing Holy Eucharist on Thursday evening. This year the service was complete with two baptisms, the blessing of a marriage and the announcement of a change in church leadership.

Long-time Deacon Ramon Martinez has retired due to health reasons. The Very Rev. Hector Madrid, 52, who oversees 15 churches in the Santa Barbara Department (the region), announced that Encarnacion Gutierrez will be in charge of the church in San Joaquin. Gutierrez will be the lay leader in charge with Madrid. Encarnacion finished his seminary training this year and will soon be ordained to the diaconate.

One of the best changes regarding the mission is the inclusion of several young people who, along with the young translators from Honduras, made a big difference in the team character and its ability to interact with local residents. Two pick-up soccer games in the center of the village are memories the 2011 team will never forget.

Gabriela (Gaby) Soto, 17, was one of five young Honduran translators on the trip. Soto is from San Pedro Sula, and 2011 marks her third year as a translator. Soto is a senior at an Episcopal school in San Pedro Sula and hopes to continue her education in either veterinary science or medicine.

"I met such wonderful people who leave their families and change their lives completely for a whole week to spread love and help the needy. And also the people here, they made me change my way of viewing the world, not because they live in extreme poverty, but because even though they have nothing, at the same time they have everything. They are full of love, joy and they are so grateful with God for being alive.

"Being here has changed my way of thinking and my way living. I am more grateful than ever for my family, especially my parents, who have worked so hard to give me the life I have," said Soto.

Diocesan HMM chairperson the Rev. Deacon Deborah Hanson points out that the mission is not a part of the diocesan budget. "We are self-supporting through financial contributions from individuals, parishes and other institutions. These monies are used for the purchase of medicines, equipment and for various building and other projects in Honduras.

Hanson said that each member of the team pays his or her own way and many volunteers use vacation time to cover time away at work, "which is a testimony to the commitment of our team members."

Hanson also noted that the mission would not be possible without the support of the Diocese of Honduras and the local people of San Joaquin who assist in the team throughout the mission. "Their advice and logistic support have been critical to the success of the mission. This mission is truly a combined Mississippi and Honduras effort," said Hanson.

Click here to learn more about the Honduras Medical Mission of Mississippi.