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Helping Guatemalans see Tell North Platte what you think
 
Courtesy Photo­Image
Kim Baxter with a client, a man dressed in Mayan clothes.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Waiting to see the eye doctor
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Guatemalan marketplace with flowers, firewood, masks and other things for sale.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Waiting
Courtesy Photo­Image
Replacing rock on the top rim of a well
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Tuk-tuk
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Examination room

The mountain jungles of Guatemala are lush and green, highlighted by volcanic rock formations and the colorful clothing of native Mayan people.

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Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Kim Baxter of North Platte and four other eye-care professionals from Nebraska, thousands more Guatemalans can see their country better.

Baxter spent four days in early November examining and fitting glasses for people who never before had them.

The name Guatemala means “place of many trees" and Baxter said it is a country of both beauty and poverty, where people live in steel-sided shacks, cook with wood-burning stoves and drink from hand-dug wells.

The people are poor, but warm and friendly.

“They are very appreciative, loving and emotionally connected,” he said. “In the rural areas, most have never had glasses.”

Lincoln County residents donated 700 pairs of used eyeglasses for the venture. Financial donations arrived from North Platte’s Sunrise and Noon Rotaries, the Presbyterian Church and Lora Bevington. The monetary donations paid for 25 new high-efficiency, wood-burning cook stoves and a dozen simple but effective water filters.

Besides, Baxter, four other Nebraskans, members of Nebraska’s chapter of the “Volunteer Optometric Society to Humanity” -- eye care professionals -- plus nine family members and friends made the trip.

In all, they took along 4,000 pairs of used, donated glasses and 400 pairs of sunglasses.

A group called “Mayan Families” arranged for them hold eye-clinic exams in three villages.

Friendly Guatemalans stood in lines for hours be checked and get a pair of spectacles.

Baxter and two other optometrists sat in busy rooms, examining people and prescribing glasses. Outside, two opticians fit glasses and made repairs and adjustments as best they could.

Examples of U.S. culture are apparent but not prevalent in the small Central America country of about 13 million people. Guatemalans sometimes speak Spanish, but most of them are direct descendants of the Mayans. As many as 20 dialects of the Mayan language are spoken, so interpreters helped the doctors communicate. Baxter also used his self-taught knowledge of Spanish to muddle through.

Happily, sometimes they communicated without the use of language, he said.

Afterwards, people who could hardly see were overjoyed to look through a pair of glasses. Hugs were plentiful.

Water is often drawn from hand-dug wells with buckets. The water filters that the group fit inside a bucket, removing parasites and bacteria from the water as it seeps down through into a bottom bucket. The simple filtering makes a big difference to the health of children, Baxter said.


Shaken

There was one crisis – a major earthquake at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 7.

The quake’s epicenter was 50 miles off the Pacific coast, about 100 miles from where the volunteers were working in the mountains near Lake Atitlan.

The quake registered 7.4 on the Richter scale. (By comparison, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 registered 7.7.)

It was the strongest Guatemalan quake since 1976. Fifty people died and 100 more went missing in costal areas.

No one was injured in the mountains, but at the clinic, people scrambled to get outside.

“They flocked out at lightening speed,” Baxter said. “I’ve never seen people move that fast. I think I saw them moving before I felt the quake. They were attuned to it.”

Civil war gripped Guatemala for 36 years until a peace agreement was reached in 1996, forged by a United Nations team of negotiators. Since then, the country has witnessed both economic growth and successful democratic elections, according to the free online encyclopedia, wikipedia.

Walking is the prevalent form of transportation, with an occasional car, bicycle or motorcycle, Baxter said. In the cities, three-wheeled powered carts, slightly bigger than golf carts, give taxi rides. They are called “tuk-tuks.”

The Guatemala trip was Baxter’s seventh eye-care mission overseas. Last year he went to Kenya. Family members often join him on the trips. This time, a prospective son-in-law who is considering a career in eye-care went along.

He came back enthused to help people see, Baxter said.



This report was published first in the Nov. 21 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 12/1/2012
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