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Guatemala: An emotional trip

02. December 2019
Guatemala is a country with a captivating culture and vibrant history. The mysterious ancient Mayan civilization thrived here some 4,000 years ago, leaving behind impressive architecture and symbolic artwork that continues to fascinate today. However, life nowadays is incredibly tough, especially for the poorest in the country. Guatemala has one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America with poverty persisting in both urban and rural areas with two-thirds of the Guatemalan population living on less than $2 per day. Audiological care is extremely limited with only one audiologist in the entire country: Dr Paty Castellanos, founder of the “Sonrisas que Escuchan” foundation (smiles who listen).
Last September, I visited the country on my first volunteering mission with the Hear the World Foundation, which supports Paty and her foundation’s work across the country. The experience was incredibly moving and reaffirmed how important it is that children everywhere should not have to be limited by an untreated hearing loss. Therefore I was thrilled to be tasked with leading a team of four volunteers from the Sonova Group companies in a return visit to Guatemala in May 2019, including Dr Eva Lopez, an American-Guatemalan audiologist working for Advanced Bionics, Dr Christiane Basilio from Connect Hearing Canada, Ira Pisulla from Geers Germany, and Stefani Verbist from Laperre Belgium.

The Joy of Hearing

On day one we travelled across Guatemala City to the Cedaf Centre, a private clinic managed by Paty, providing a full range of audiological care facilities.  She generously provided the use of her clinic space for the day to help carry out fitting hearing aids donated by the Hear the World Foundation. It was an emotional and inspirational start for the team, seeing first-hand the effect of our work there as we witnessed children reacting to hearing for the first time in their lives!

One mother who came in had noticed poor language development skills in her son when he was just two years old. After having speech and language therapy for some years, it wasn’t until the age of seven that Joshua was finally diagnosed with hearing loss. Coming into the clinic for his fitting, Joshua was very quiet, even as fellow volunteer Eva Lopez turned on his hearing aids for the first time. Eva called out his name several times, gradually raising her voice. Joshua remained silent before shortly breaking down in tears and leaning into his mother’s arms. These were tears of joy. In this one powerful moment, no one in the room could contain their own emotions, sharing in Joshua’s joy. A few moments later, Joshua gave us a smile and kept repeating: ‘Bien, bien bien!’ (Good, good, good!). Joshua’s response was heart-warming and highlights how difficult it can be for a child living in a silent world.

Listen and Learn

The following day we travelled to the outskirts of Guatemala City to a large school in a deprived area. The school has over 1,000 children enrolled and our challenge was to screen as many as we could. 35 children were referred to the CEDAF clinic with suspected hearing loss. On our third day we travelled to a charity-led kindergarten attended by children of single mothers, working at local markets and shops. The children here are between two and three years old, so we used play audiometry to screen the children’s hearing. This was an exciting day with the children responding really well and literally smiling from ear to ear!

Helping a Community

The final two days of the volunteering were spent in a remote rural location, approximately two hours and a half drive from Guatemala City called Chimaltenango. Away from the hustle and bustle of the capital city, Chimaltenango was quieter and the locals wore traditional Mayan clothes. The vibrancy we experienced here helped us better understand the deep culture of this beautiful country and its people.

There are no audiological services provided locally and upon our arrival at the clinic we were greeted by a small crowd of waiting locals. They had known for several months that an international team of volunteers would be visiting the area and we could definitely feel their excitement. We used an abandoned hospital for the hearing tests, which was perfect as it was quiet and had several consultation rooms. Over 100 people turned up, out of which 96 had their hearing tested and 26 were fitted with hearing aids that had been donated by customers at Connect Hearing Canada and Boots Hearingcare UK.

This was one of the most challenging days for me due to my limited Spanish speaking skills and the fact that the locals spoke a Mayan language. It created a difficult communication barrier in the beginning which I was finally able to overcome and successfully perform full hearing tests and fitting hearing aids. It was incredibly moving to see the appreciation the local community had for our work, standing out in the heat preparing a delicious lunch for the entire team as well as letting us all have a go at making tortillas, too.

A Mission for Life

As this was my second volunteering mission in Guatemala, I thought I would be better prepared. However, throughout the week I felt I was facing different challenges, from experiencing difficult fittings to challenging hearing tests, and translating from three different languages. But it was also a mission of great opportunity and honour, serving with a fantastic local team who had planned everything meticulously, as well as the most incredible volunteering team members.

I am so proud of the work that the Hear the World Foundation is carrying out. Without it, hundreds of children would be deprived from hearing and the ability to learn. But there is still a tremendous amount of work yet to be done. Seeing the resilience and determination of the people of Guatemala has inspired me to continue serving as a volunteer, raising awareness by sharing my stories with family, friends, colleagues and customers to help further understanding. The time I spent volunteering in Guatemala has changed my views in life and I am very grateful for the things I have and I realised that my mission in life is to help those that do not have the same opportunity as me.
More about the project supported by the Hear the World Foundation