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A mission to make a difference

Dr. Tim Gehring, an Alexandria dentist, poses with one of his dental patients during a recent mission trip to Belize.1 / 2
A team from Calvary Lutheran Church in Alexandria went on a mission trip to Belize.2 / 2

A mission team from Calvary Lutheran Church in Alexandria traveled to Belize in Central America recently.

The focus of the trip was to serve the children of Holy Cross Anglican School on the island of Ambergris in San Mateo near the city of San Pedro.

"We began planning and praying for this mission trip 18 months ago," said Pastor Dale Olson, senior pastor at Calvary.

The mission team consisted of three dentists, a physical therapist, teacher, landscapers, engineer, accountant, high school student and pastor.

"We shared God's love while we did dentistry, teaching, construction and shoveling sand," Olson said, adding that the team brought 500 pounds of dental and school supplies for the area.

The community

San Mateo is the poorest community in Belize. Several years ago the government gave away plots of land in San Mateo but never delivered on the promise to provide roads, water and an adequate sewer system.

The Belize government has a policy of taking back land if people do not build on it. So the residents had to build on the swamp even if there were no utilities.

The school

The Holy Cross Anglican School was started by missionaries Francis and Vernon Wilson, who visited the island and saw children playing in the streets when they should have been in school. They also saw sewer in the swamps and poor living conditions.

When asked what they could do to help, governing officials said, "Build us a school...we need that more than sewer."

With the help of volunteers, they opened the school four years ago with 62 children and no classroom supplies or desks. Today, they have 17 classrooms with 520 children attending. Unfortunately, they had to turn away 300 children because they had no more room.

In Belize, only children who can afford tuition are allowed to attend school. At Holy Cross, the tuition is $15 per child per semester, but no child is turned away because of lack of funds.

This is the only school in Belize to give a free lunch and fruit snack during the day as well as uniforms, socks, shoes and underwear. It is also the only school that does not use corporal punishment in the classroom.

The children walk to and from school on a small sand path about 3 feet wide. Some homes are completely in the disease-infested swamp so the children have to cross over sewage-filled water on makeshift scrap lumber bridges less than one foot wide.

Members of the Calvary team assisted in the classrooms, tutoring children and helping with miscellaneous duties.

"Holy Cross has a huge need for reading and math flashcards and non-electrical learning aids that make learning visual and engage the senses," noted team member Alene Olson. "The children have so little but happily share what they have."

Al Zeithamer of Alexandria helped design a compost plan and sewage system for the school's new restrooms. His wife, Diane, spent time working in the school's library.

"These children have so little and yet have so much joy," she said.

Dental care

Dr. Mark Johnson, an Annandale dentist and San Pedro volunteer, formed the idea of opening a dental clinic at the Holy Cross school. The dream eventually became a reality and the Smile Center Dental Clinic was opened.

Other dentists have since volunteered their time at the clinic, including Dr. Anita Thomas of Blaine, who led the Calvary group on its recent mission trip.

Dr. Lowell Einerson and Dr. Tim Gehring, both Alexandria dentists, were assisted by their wives, Nancy and Vicki, in the clinic during the recent mission trip.

"We were able to provide a variety of services from dentistry to children who were in so much pain they couldn't eat, to tutoring students in a one-on-one setting, to adding on to the school and even drawing up plans for a waste treatment facility," noted the Gehrings.

"It was a surprise to see how amazingly happy the children and families were in spite of their poor living conditions and lack of personal possessions. Our purpose was to share our time and talents with the citizens of San Mateo but ended up receiving so much more in return. It was a truly rewarding experience."

The Einersons agreed.

"Even though we felt our efforts had little effect in the big picture, to each of the people we helped, they hopefully had a large effect," said Nancy. "I believe we must do something to help, and if many of us do something, the total will be large. I got lots of hugs and smiles. I cried over the poverty and the kids' fears, but they appreciated all we offered."

"I wished I could have done more," added Dr. Einerson. "But if I have kept one child from experiencing a sleepless night of pain from a toothache, I will have considered this a success."

Future plans

Plans are under way for a return trip in February 2011. The team is hoping to add more people.

"We hope to expand our team with more health professionals, educators and people who enjoy building and fixing things," Pastor Olson said. "The needs are great, but the lives we touch are all worth it."

Learn more

The Calvary mission team members will share their experiences at worship services on Saturday, February 27 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, February 28 at 8:30, 9:45 and 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome.