SCHERERVILLE — Imagine schools closed due to leaky roofs. Imagine no hospital within walking distance. Imagine no public restrooms. Imagine a community with no garbage trucks.
Welcome to Gualán, Gautemala.
Despite efforts by the current administration, the city of 19,000 inhabitants faces plenty of challenges. Efforts by charitable groups have helped, but, as Gualán Mayor Alfredo Ortega told representatives of Hearts in Motion on Tuesday, more work remains in education, health care and infrastructure.
“What we have to attack the most is education,” Ortega said. “The only way to have employment is education.”
Ortega, 34, has been Gualán’s mayor for two years, during which he has restored schools and worked on infrastructure, while dreaming of a hospital for his city that measures 404 square miles. He lists education, health care and employment as the pillars of his administration.
Hearts in Motion, at 2210 U.S. 41 in Schererville, operates a thrift store providing low-cost items for struggling families. The charity also does mission trips to Guatemala.
Hearts in Motion has been working in Guatemala since 1990. Partnering with volunteers on short-term mission trips to the Central American country, the charity works with government leaders to identify needs and priorities.
In Ortega’s community, Hearts in Motion has developed Gualán Center, a 17-acre facility that provides assistance to malnourished infants and children, a social center for seniors and music opportunities for children.
However, as Hearts in Motion founder Karen Scheeringa Parra explained, her main purpose for calling the meeting with Ortega was to learn how to get others involved.
“We can connect them with other people who can help. We don’t have to do it all ourselves,” Parra said.
One way to help, Parra noted, is just the cost to send supplies to Guatemala. Hearts in Motion can send $500,000 in supplies overseas, but as Parra lamented, it costs $12,000 to get those supplies to those who need them.
Kimberly Berryman, director of community relations and volunteer recruitment for Hearts in Motion, explained that Hearts in Motion sponsors 30 to 40 mission trips annually to Guatemala. Hearts in Motion also sponsors Guatemalan fire department training trips.
The goal of all this support, Berryman said, is “not just to give them things, but to give them skills, to empower them, to help them become self-sufficient and be able to take care of themselves.”
Ortega said his city faces many complex, connected challenges. It is not uncommon, the mayor said, for parents to pull their children from school so they can work in the fields and earn money for the family.
Another educational problem, Ortega said, is the condition of school buildings. Of the 100 schools in his district, Ortega has worked on 20 so far and plans to fix another 12 this year. He has also opened a university, which operates one day a week, and hopes to open a trade school.
Another dream is opening a public hospital. The closest hospital is 60 to 90 minutes away. Gualán once had a private hospital, but it closed. First, though, Ortega wants to repair and equip his community’s main medical center and satellite sites, operated by medical students.
One recent medical victory for Ortega is Gualán’s first X-ray clinic. Other achievements include providing more potable water, paved roads and recreational activities.
Despite the long wish list, Parra noted, “We can make a difference here.”