Four-year-old Gustavo de Leon lives with eight family members in a shanty high up in the southwestern Highlands of Guatemala. Their home has a dirt floor, a tin roof and walls made of mud and corn stalks.
The outhouse and toilet are in deplorable condition. In the rainy season, the house is damp and very cold. But things are about to change for Gustavo’s family. They are about to receive the Christmas gift of their lives - a new 500-square-foot cinderblock house with indoor plumbing, electricity, a kitchen, a bathroom, and, for the first time, they will sleep in beds.
Gustavo was born with cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome and communicates only through facial expressions. According to Jayne Mittan, the medical liaison for Porch de Salomon, a mission/service ministry that operates in Panajachel, Guatemala, close to Gustavo’s village.
She also coordinates and leads medical and construction mission trips to Panajachel for Trinity United Methodist Church in Tallahassee
“The Guatemalan government had been to the house and had declared that it was not safe for Gustavo to live in, and they were going to take him away from the family,” Mittan said.
Gustavo’s family came to the attention of Porch de Salomon by the village leader.
“The village leaders know their people; they know who is sick and who really needs help. They coordinate medical care for villagers with ‘Salomon’s Porch,” Mittan said. “So, The Porch stepped in and said, ‘No, no, we are going to build them a new house!’”
|The Trinity UMC mission team.|
Each year, Trinity UMC fully funds the construction of a house and contributes money and services to medical mission clinics for villagers through Porch de Salomon. This year, TUMC helped to build the home for Gustavo and his family, which is being funded by Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach.
Associate Pastor Neal Avirett went along on this trip and helped to build Gustavo’s house.
“One of the leaders of Porch de Salomon said, ‘It’s not a house for a family that needs a house, but a house for a family that needs their child.’ That was my fuel every day,” Avirett said. “I couldn’t wait to get there every morning.”
A new home for a family usually costs between $7,500 and $9.500 and takes about three months to build. Throughout the year, Mittan spearheads fund-raising projects at Trinity UMC. The money raised through yard sales and the sale of coffee, t-shirts, and soup helps fund Trinity’s mission work.
Since 2010, TUMC has worked with Porch de Salomon to take mission teams to Guatemala. Frank Leonard was the first mission Team Leader from TUMC to run trips through Salomon’s Porch. He helped Lloyd and Melanie Monroe, the founders and operators of “the Porch,” lay the groundwork for future mission trips.
“When Wayne Curry, [Senior Pastor] asked me to lead a mission group, I told him, ‘Why would I want to do that? I have no interest in doing missions.’ Little did I know that it would be the calling of my life.” Leonard said. “It became the most important thing in my life, outside of my wife. I just fell in love with it.”
During one of their mission trips, Leonard and his wife formed a special bond with one of the children. Today, through Porch de Salomon, they sponsor her education and send money for food for the family.
“For just $240 a year, you can send a child to school! My wife and I have sponsored Anna since she was four years old, and we are committed to providing for her education through college if she wants that,” Leonard said.
To provide medical services during a mission trip, Mittan and her crew often drive deep into the jungle to serve the indigenous, ignored Mayan people, many of whom have never seen a doctor. It can cost up to $1,400 a day, but it’s about providing help where it is most needed.
“We see people who have never in their life received medical care,” Mittan said.
The indigenous Mayan people are treated as outcasts. They live in dire poverty and do not seek medical help. But if they do, they are served last or turned away entirely.
Frank Leonard recalled the mother of a family for whom they were building a house - she had given birth just four days before the TUMC mission team arrived.
“While she was in labor, she walked 5 or 6 miles to the hospital to give birth, but because she didn’t have money to pay, they discharged her the next morning,” Leonard said. “So, she had to walk 5-6 miles back to her home the day after giving birth. When she left the hospital, they wrapped her baby in newspaper for her to carry,” Leonard said.
“When you go to the hospital, you have to provide your sheets, towels, and toilet paper,” Leonard said. “If you don’t have those things, you get put on dirty or bloody sheets from the person before.”
Because of the lack of education, misinformation, and mistrust, superstition and fear often keep the indigenous people from seeking medical care.
“In fact,” Leonard said, “right across the street from the hospital in Sololá is a casket shop, and behind that casket shop is the cemetery. People don’t go to the hospital because they think if they go, they’ll die,” Leonard said.
According to Neal Avirett, until recently, Gustavo’s parents did not take him out of the house.
“They didn’t know anyone else with cerebral palsy. The family felt like something that they did caused it. Someone from the previous mission team showed them a picture of friends in Indiana with a child with cerebral palsy.” Avirett said,
“That really shocked them because they thought everything in the U.S. was perfect. All of the sudden there was this connection! And from there [that team] saw the family begin to bring Gustavo out.”
Jayne Mittan leads mission trips through TUMC once a year. This year Trinity partnered with Tallahassee Heights UMC to help build the home for Gustavo and his family.
People from all over the U.S and Canada, people from different denominations and faiths work with Porch de Salomon to the people in the Panajachel area.
“Porch takes all comers,” Mittan said, “that’s pretty much their vibe. It is very nonjudgmental and accepting.”
When asked if she felt progress is being made for the indigenous Guatemalan people, Mittan said, “Yes! We are definitely making a difference … one person at a time.”
--Sarah Hundley is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee.