Nearly 20 years ago, Sister Raquel Ortez left her home in Honduras for St. Louis, the headquarters of her School Sisters of Notre Dame province, to get the college degree and education needed to make her final vows.
She worked for the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Catholic Charities and then helped Hispanic immigrant members of the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Parish. She aided families when they were sick or had parent-teacher conferences and job interviews. Coats, beds, Christmas presents for children — anything they didn’t have — she would find. The city became her new home.
“I saw the need, so I stay,” said Ortez, 52. But still, she felt she should be doing more.
“When I come here, families called and asked, ‘Can you get me this? Can you get me that?’ And I got it for them, but I couldn’t help my people, and I couldn’t help my country,” Ortez said. “I prayed to God: ‘I’m helping, but I just feel so sad.’”
In 2006, the nun got a call from a St. Anthony’s Medical Center doctor. Dr. Helen Kornblum was about to leave for another one of her medical mission trips to Honduras, and she would pay for Ortez’s ticket if Ortez would come along to work as a translator. “Oh, my gosh, Honduras, my country,” Ortez recalls thinking.
On that month-long trip, the doctor and nun watched the sun rise over the mountains together and prayed to make a difference. They worked 12 to 14 hours a day caring for hundreds of people.
When they returned to St. Louis, over coffee at St. Louis Bread Company, the doctor and nun devised a nonprofit. A Mission in God’s Amor (love), known as AMIGA, would help raise money for trips and medical supplies.
Today, the best friends leave for the organization’s 25th trip to care for the poverty-stricken in remote mountains and plantations of Honduras.
“AMIGA became the answer,” Ortez said. “It became my connection to my country, my answer to my prayer.”
DREAMS AND SMILES
More than 10 years ago, a construction worker came into the St. Anthony’s emergency room with a cut hand. As Kornblum stitched the cut, she learned how he had helped build a clinic in Honduras. She wanted to work as a missionary, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Kornblum traveled with the worker to Honduras several times, using his connections and ability to speak the language to help where she could. Her children, teen-agers at the time, worked at an orphanage. Her husband taught baseball. Friends also came along, to teach gardening or help provide care.
Kornblum fell in love with the culture. She was amazed how local caregivers did so much with so little, how grateful villagers were despite their struggles and how they looked after one another. They had just as much to teach her as she had to teach them. “I thought, this is what I want to do,” Kornblum said.
When her translator couldn’t go, she found Ortez through the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Once in the bright sun among the lush green landscape, fruit trees and dirt roads, Ortez felt like she never left. Everyone stopped to chat, full of hope and happiness, despite the sickness, lack of jobs, crime and spotty schools.
“Just sitting and having conversation, to have a cup of coffee and talk about their struggles and their dreams and see their smiles,” Ortez said.
The nun’s perspective and understanding on the trip helped Kornblum form a clear mission and extend roots even deeper in the culture.
“It opened my eyes to a whole new world,” Kornblum said. Women could discuss their reproductive issues, and men sought care without hurting their machismo. The doctor learned people have worms under their skin because of insect eggs falling from thatched roofs, suffer asthma from cooking inside over wood-burning stoves, get skin problems washing with detergent and have gastritis from drinking coffee instead of the foul water.
Ortez helped Kornblum understand how to provide care in a way that empowered and respected the people, that portrayed her as an equal.
“I didn’t want to be a gringo,” said Kornblum, 53. “I wanted to be one of them.”
Ortez seemed to be the answer to her prayers. Kornblum said, “Our souls just clicked.”
On the way back to St. Louis on the airplane together after every trip, Ortez and Kornblum write down the miracles. They share many favorites.
There’s Jesus David, who has spina bifida. By age 11, he had spent much of his life on his porch, sometimes with no one able to help him to the bathroom. They gave him a hand-powered off-road wheelchair, which he uses to go to school and play with other children. “You know what?” he told them when they returned. “I’m smart.”
And Maria, who lost her fingers and toes to leprosy. Maria was isolated, living in a shack in the mountains with no running water. “I’ll never forget the moment as I looked in her the eye and touched her,” Kornblum said. The doctor’s visit prompted others to visit and include Maria in the community.
Over the years, other health care providers and youth groups have gone on AMIGA trips. About 15 others went on the two-week trip that began today, including pediatricians, nurses and dietitians from across the area. Each pays $55 a day to cover the cost of housing, transportation and food.
The volunteers will leave their small one-bathroom house jammed with bunk beds in La Lima for schools in the countryside, where they will care for about 350 patients day, many who travel and wait for hours.
AMIGA provides medications, vitamins, soap, nebulizers and brochures about how to treat common problems. Volunteers help train birth attendants, and a scholarship program has helped seven children go to school. A parish in San Antonio, Texas, collects and organizes an annual shipment of clothing, medications and equipment such as wheelchairs and canes.
“Thank you so much for not forgetting us,” one man tells Kornblum every time.
Much like how St. Louis has become Ortez’s second home, Kornblum sees the people of Honduras as her second family. Ortez agrees. “She is a part of us now.”
The mission of AMIGA has evolved beyond providing medicine and health care, to broadening the perspectives of everyone involved, to become more tolerant and compassionate human beings – just like the friendship of a doctor and a nun.
“She and I have become best friends,” Kornblum said. “We are so different, but culturally, we learn so much from each other.”
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