Visit to Guatemala was eye-opening, life-changing
A recent mission to open a school in Guatemala and an unexpected natural disaster gave a group of Upper Arlington residents yet more to be grateful for on Thanksgiving.
Back from a trip to Guate-mala that began on Nov. 5, members of the Upper Arlington Rotary Club continued to count their blessings for the relative creature comforts life in America and the local community has brought them.
In addition to witnessing firsthand how their financial support helped open schools for people who largely are uneducated or undereducated in and around Panajachel, Guatemala, and the Western Highlands Mountain region, the local Rotarians also were there during a 7.4-magnitude earthquake that rocked the country's western coast and reportedly left at least 48 dead.
According to UA Rotary President Steve Sandbo and David DeCapua, a UA Rotary member and UA city councilman, the trip al-ready was an eye-opening experience before the Nov. 8 earthquake.
The two were among UA Rotary members attending the opening of a new school near Panajachel, which the local group helped fund.
It was another step in a roughly two-year project by the Rotary to build schools and get supplies to an area that previously didn't provide education to students beyond the sixth-grade.
Sandbo and DeCapua said they were on the roof of the newly opened school when, unbeknownst to them at the time, an earthquake with an epicenter approximately 100 miles away in San Marcos struck.
"All of a sudden, I felt the building start to shake," DeCapua said. "I thought someone was drilling somewhere."
DeCapua was able to fly back to the U.S. as scheduled the following day to, among other things, attend a scheduled city council meeting on Nov. 13.
Sandbo and fellow UA Rotary Club members Ned Clark and Dan Roe, however, were able to stay, and at 4 a.m. the day after the earthquake, they were among the first responders to San Marcos.
"They have a lot of earthquakes down there, but not 7.4," Sandbo said. "That was major."
After their more than four-hour drive through the mountains to San Marcos, the local Rotary members and their partners from a charity organization called Mayan Families, arrived at the epicenter with temporary housing units that provided shelter and clean water to earthquake victims.
When they arrived, Sandbo said, only the Red Cross, a group of military personnel and Roxana Baldetti, Guatemala's first woman vice president, were arriving on the scene.
After a brief conference with the vice president, the Rotary members set to helping the relief effort for the community.
"We rolled right in and were really at the central triage area," Sandbo said. "A woman came up and hugged the vice president and said she'd lost all of her family.
"We started doing damage assessment and started setting up shelter boxes. I've never been one of the first-responders to a major disaster, let alone in a third-world country."
The local group provided relief help until nightfall, when both the dangers of traveling at night in the mountains and the threat of bandits stopping them in the roadway forced them to leave the scene.
It was a "humbling" experience Sandbo said he and his peers won't soon forget. "These houses were collapsed," he said. "They never had a chance.
"It was an incredible experience being there, probably as one of the first two or three non-government entities on the scene. You're going in and the homes are all destroyed and people are standing outside because they don't know what to do and there are no phone lines to call anyone."
DeCapua lauded Sandbo, Clark and Roe for their courage and compassion in responding to the emergency situation.
Although he was forced to leave the country before that group's mission ended, he said the entire trip was life-changing because he witnessed how the Rotary's aid is providing hope and opportunity to people in need.
"Guatemala is third-world," DeCapua said. "In many place, they've got nothing - no running water, no electricity.
"The Rotary went in and has built schools to educate them and we're trying to get clean drinking water to a village. That, to me, is a worthwhile endeavor. It was a great learning experience for me, personally."