There’s a group of families who grow coffee on the steep hills where they live. The coffee gives them a shady side to walk on, but it’s a long road from their houses to the nearest village. The village at the end of that road is called Rancho Viejo, which has a school and on Saturdays has running water. Rancho Viejo is another dirt road away from the town of San Antonio Huista, which is a six-hour bus ride away from Huehuetenango, which is the center of a remote department of Guatemala.
It takes some time, a good map, and a horse or a four wheel drive to get to those families. One stretch of road on the way curves almost into Mexico, and it’s a convenient place to send illegal drugs up, and to bring guns and money back down. If you’re not involved in that business, and you’re not involved in coffee, people wonder why you’re there. Federal police stopped us, in fact, and asked us what we were up to. Our habit is to drive by checkpoints unless a gun is pointed at us, or a man is standing in the other lane; this man was standing in the other lane. The three of us - a medical doctor, an entrepreneur, and a driver, none of us Guatemalan - did our best to seem friendly, helpful, and utterly out of cash.
We went through the formalities of an armed roadside checkpoint, and we tried to keep the conversation light: How’s work? How’s your family? It’s pretty this time of day. If someone’s going to shake me down, I at least want to make it as personal as I can. That strategy has kept us from being robbed more than a few times over the years.
The officer steered the conversation toward us: who are we? What do we do? Why are we here, in the middle of nowhere? I wish I could have gotten a picture of us together, the three of us and these policemen. But in a place like that, it’s a fair assumption that it’s not the police who controls the roads; the drug traffickers control the roads and the police. We didn’t want to be robbed, but didn’t want to get a young policeman in any trouble, either. So no photo.
We told him who we were and what we were doing:
We don’t actually have anything. We’re just middlemen. People from outside of Guatemala [I was talking about you, by the way] give us medical supplies, and they give us money, which we turn into more supplies. They pay for us to ship it, import it, and put it into our warehouse just long enough for our friends here to come pick it up. They are doctors and nurses from all over Guatemala , and they take care of anyone who needs help. When they have patients who can’t afford medicine and supplies, our friends use or give away what they were given. Antibiotics, syringes, eyeglasses, ultrasound machines. Today, we’re just driving out to meet some of the people who got supplies.
“I know there are a lot of organizations who come to Guatemala to help,” he said. “And, you know - there are people here who do need help. You see how people live out here.” I said I did.
“I guess most people stick to the big places, though. I don’t see people come this far out to help.”
He asked if he could email if he knew of a pressing medical need somewhere, and I penciled my email address into his notebook. We suggested we’d better go before we lost too much more sunlight, and he let us. We shook hands and were glad to drive away.
But back to those families and their coffee. In one of those houses there’s a woman I’ll call Silvia, whose body is unable to fully support itself. Silvia’s father and brother work, her mother tends a small plot of coffee trees, and sometimes Silvia is alone at home. The family was somehow able to find an old institutional wheelchair, which made it easier for everyone to move Silvia around, but it was not designed for her. She needs a system that is designed to support her.
Here’s where it gets complicated, but stay with me because there’s great beauty in this complexity: Felix Camposeco grew up in Rancho Viejo (the village with the school) and lives in San Antonio Huista (the closest town). He works with two organizations that support small coffee-growing families, ACODIHUE and 410 Bridge (both are great and you can probably look them up). Felix told Mike Mannina at Thrive Farmers (coffee suppliers to Chick Fil A - you can definitely look them up) that Silvia and others needed specialized care, but of course nothing like that was available within two days’ drive of where Silvia lives.
Mike and I had coffee at Thrive Farmers’ Atlanta offices a day or two after Felix had told Mike of the need. Mike showed me Felix’s pictures of seven or eight families who needed wheelchairs. A few weeks before that, our friends at Joni and Friends/Wheels for the World had asked if we knew where 200 wheelchairs could be given to families who needed them. We knew plenty of families, so when Mike told me about Felix and Silvia, those chairs were already onboard a Dole Ocean Cargo Express ship plowing through the Pacific ocean, in a container that was on its way to to our warehouse in Guatemala.
Dick Rutgers (last piece of the puzzle, I promise) gives everything away. He gives away wheelchairs; he gives away dinner most nights to neighborhood kids; he gives away all his time and his skills as a disability specialist. When Dick picked up those chairs at our warehouse, we told him about Silvia and others in her area. He packed the trailer that bounces behind his four wheel drive with specialty chairs and tools, and he met up with Felix. They spent a week together visiting families and customizing chairs. As far as I know, Dick is the only person in Guatemala who has the skills, experience, and willingness to go past the paved roads to put chairs together, and that’s what he did for Silvia.
I met her the day after we shook hands with the police, which was a few months after Dick had given her the new chair. Felix went into the house and found her alone and doubled over in her old chair. He was mad. Why was she alone, and why had no one helped her into her new chair? The only word Silvia used was “mama,” so we didn’t know. Silvia’s sister in law walked in out of the trees and explained that the rest of the family was away working. Silvia’s mother and brother knew how to use the new chair, but in their absence, the sister in law had been afraid to try.
Felix went back into the house. Silvia had been quiet all morning, but when when he rolled the new chair out, she yelled. She screamed. She moved her hands, she laughed, she said “mama” over and over. She was thrilled just to see the thing.
Felix put her in the new chair, her back straightened by the pads and supports Dick had built. He strapped her in and made her secure. She talked and laughed and smiled.
Silvia lives a long way from any place with resources to help her, and without a remarkable group of people, she would have stayed inside her house, alone, or in a chair that hurt her body rather than helped it. But think about that group of people: There’s Felix, who lives nearby and keeps his eyes open to the needs of his neighbors. Dick Rutgers has made a life of giving away what he doesn’t own in the first place. Mike and the folks at Thrive are dedicated to doing more than just getting good coffee at a good price. Joni and Friends/Wheels to the World arranged the donation, refurbishment, and distribution of that chair and thousands more just like it. You, the friends of Vine, sent chairs to Guatemala and put them in Dick Rutgers’ hands.
And of course nobody could have done it alone. In fact, take just one person out of the story, and the story disappears - Silvia and dozens of her neighbors with disabilities would still be stuck without the care they need. But together, Felix, Dick, Mike, Joni and Friends, and you were the Body of Christ, working together to express how God loves people. He moves and reaches all the way out to where the cops say nobody goes - to people up in the highlands, past the village, away from town, under the coffee trees, at home, sometimes by themselves.