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Morrisville State nursing students volunteer, experience life-changing service trip to Guatemala

MORRISVILLE, NY— There’s no hiding the heart-wrenching emotion in Leah Siciliano’s voice and in her eyes as she reflects on her 10-day journey to Guatemala. The rotating photos on her computer screen of children laughing and embracing the kindness of strangers is a keepsake of beloved memories.

Nicole Johnson shares the same sentiment.

The two Morrisville State nursing students were part of a Transformational Journey mission to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, a service learning trip offered through Onondaga Community College (OCC) which exposes students to healthcare in other cultures.

Siciliano, of Albany, and Johnson, of Oriskany Falls, had no doubt they wanted to partake in the venture when they read an e-mail inviting Morrisville State nursing students to join the mission.

During their holiday break this past December, they packed their suitcases and left their comfortable lives to help families in need more than 1,500 miles away in a country known for its widespread poverty and poor healthcare as much as its rich history, culture and art.

San Lucas Toliman is a historically impoverished community of about 17,000 on the shores of Lake Atitlan, in central Guatemala, a country whose economy depends on the success of the annual coffee crop and has been wracked by decades of civil war. Surrounded by mountainous beauty, most of the residents there can’t afford healthcare or food, and disease and malnutrition prevail.

Despite the area’s reputation, Johnson and Siciliano were eager to use the skills they have been honing to help provide medical care to those in need.

“I wanted to do all I could to help,” Johnson said. “I also thought it would be an exciting opportunity to study abroad and a great way to enhance my experiences and contribute to nursing in a different way.”

It wasn’t a new experience altogether for Siciliano, who had participated in a mission to Guatemala as a junior in high school. “This was something I could not pass up,” she said. “This trip back was more nursing-centered than my last trip and I wanted to make a difference while broadening my educational experiences.”

Preparing for the trip was a daunting process. Each student had to come up with more than $2,000, take a three-credit course, give a PowerPoint presentation and prepare health education classes to present in Guatemala.

Leaving modern conveniences, their cell phones and lives filled with technology behind, they went with open minds and open hearts.

“Nursing focuses on making a difference,” Siciliano said. “This was another opportunity for us to do that.”

While in Guatemala, Siciliano and Johnson worked on health promotion activities including constructing fuel efficient, wood-burning cook stoves with chimneys for outside ventilation to replace the current open stove systems which led to respiratory and ophthalmic diseases.

They also participated in community health education initiatives, spending a day with a local midwife and a medicine man, observing the impact of traditional folk medicine practices in the community.

Some of their daily encounters were profound. They witnessed poverty, poor healthcare and listened to heart-wrenching stories. “Children aren’t named for 40 days due to the high infant mortality rate,” said Siciliano with sadness.

“You could tell many of the children were poor. They didn’t have shoes and some were very dirty,” Johnson added in a somber voice.

Around San Lucas and much of Guatemala, medical services and healthcare providers are sparse. Johnson and Siciliano teamed up with other nurses from OCC and local health promoters to encourage people to seek medical care, who may not otherwise, and help them get the medical attention they needed.

They helped treat common maladies such as cuts, colds, stomach viruses, asthma, malnutrition and skin conditions, where in more developed countries, those problems can be easily fixed or avoided with regular medical care or a quick trip to a doctor.

“Working in the villages was a very touching experience,” Siciliano said about the home health visits they performed. “The concept of two different cultures bonding over one issue (healthcare) was a beautiful thing.”

With assistance from a local health promoter, Johnson presented an educational program on oral hygiene, while Siciliano shared knowledge about malnutrition.

While they adjusted quickly to Mayan culture, Johnson and Siciliano had their share of challenges too, namely the language barrier. With neither knowing much Spanish, they corresponded through a translator.

“It was a little frustrating at times, but we made do with the little bit of Spanish we knew,” Johnson said.

In addition to being an eye-opening revelation, the journey clarified Siciliano’s calling in the nursing field. “This is my passion. I want to be a traveling nurse and provide services in other countries.”

Their most fond memories are the connections they made with the Guatemalan people. “They were so gracious and thankful,” Siciliano said.

While it appears they have little, they are rich in other areas such as resourcefulness and lack pretension. “I loved their simplicity,” Siciliano said. “It makes them happy. They pay attention to their surroundings and are more patient and appreciative.”

“Reading about cultural diversity is one thing, but going and experiencing it—to be in the middle of another country alongside its people makes me so much more respectful and understanding of cultural diversity,” Johnson said.

The experience also enabled them to reflect upon their personal and spiritual development. They returned to the U.S. with a broader world view, experiencing diversity, culture, community health, and friendship in a way that they never could from a textbook or online course.

More importantly, they made a difference in the world and in themselves.

“This entire experience was a chance for them to actually take a step out of the box,” said Christine Kowaleski, assistant professor of nursing, who is hoping to launch a nursing abroad program for Morrisville students. “I applaud them for their dedication and interest in a service mission such as this.”

Morrisville State sets the world in motion for students. Curricula are enriched with applied learning and pave the way for opportunity at both the Morrisville and Norwich campuses. An action-oriented, interactive learning lab, the college is a national leader in technology. Lauded for its exemplary, innovative and effective community service programs, the college was named to the 2012 President’s Higher Community Education Service Honor Roll. The college was recognized, by U.S. News and World Report, in its top tier Best Regional Colleges list and ranked second among regional colleges nationwide for outperforming its anticipated graduation rate. Visit to experience, Morrisville in motion.