CONCORD -- Once again, a group of 20 sojourners to Central America will get back far more than they give.
For the third time, Concord residents Doug and Betsy McLeod will lead a team of volunteers to remote Guatemalan villages to offer medical aid, and will return home with their suitcases much lighter and their hearts more than filled.
"It's hard to put into words how people touch your heart. We get so much more out of going, the smiles on their faces, the hugs they give us," says Betsy McLeod, a cosmetologist, who will bring her bottles of bubbles, ever well-received by young and old.
This Friday, they will take the estimated 17 suitcases of medications to help arrest the acute health needs of approximately 650 patients, and roughly six suitcases of school supplies for 200 families, along with basic hygiene kits.
And, the group, under the auspices of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, will return from its 11-day trip with stories of indigenous Mayan people they helped in some way.
"If we can change the life of one person on each trip, it's worth it to us," says Doug McLeod, an insurance broker and member of Concord United Methodist Church.
For the second time, the group is focusing on lowland areas around Coatepeque, close to the Columbian and Mexican borders, rather than the highlands around Quetzaltenango which receives estimated weekly missions. The lowlands region is where there is greater poverty, is
The volunteers will interact with patients who speak a local dialect, facilitated by double interpreters, notes McLeod.
For 10 years, Concord resident Dr. Maribeth Sayre has gone on these missions to administer care to those "with problems related to the hard lives they live," she says, citing the prevalence of musculoskeletal ailments, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and giardia, stemming primarily from the lack of clean water.
Sayre, a retired neonatologist who started the intensive care nursery for premature infants at Children's Hospital Oakland in 1973, will be one of six doctors, along with four nurses and two pharmacists, who will be providing treatment.
Physicians and lay volunteers from Bakersfield, Carson City, Nev., and as far away as Clinton, Ohio, are joining the crew for the first time.
Pittsburg resident Mari Ward has her vocational nursing certificate from Los Medanos College and is pursuing a career in the field. She is going to Guatemala for the third time, carrying memories of prior poignant moments.
She cites one: a young girl with a club foot being carried around by her brother, the cast of a foot the mission team made, and then seeing her walking independently on a subsequent trip.
"Everything in other places affects us somehow. To see the poverty like you've never seen is definitely a culture shock. They've found ways to make due with what they had and to see how happy they were, even given their situation. They were so appreciative of the things we take for granted," says Ward, a member of United Methodist Church in Walnut Creek.
Ward will be part of the triage team, registering patients, taking vital signs and testing urine and blood pressure.
The Mayan people being treated at their makeshift clinics that could pop up in cornfields, sheds or schoolyards, will get a year's worth of vitamins. Women, ages 10 to 50, will get folic acid doses to help counteract the significant number of cases with neural tube birth defects, and vitamin B-12 injections will be administered to the anemic.
The stoic and effusively grateful patients will once again be treated with just over-the-counter medications for pain relief, since the Guatemalan government does not allow the team to bring in narcotics.
"They have to bite the bullet, and yet they're so appreciative," says Doug McLeod. "The Mayans are so gracious and loving. It's unbelievable. It's why we keep coming back."