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Eight years ago, the impoverished community of La Entrada de Copan in Honduras had next to nothing, especially when it came to medical care.
Any attempt at improving their situation seemed impossible – except to a few special and talented individuals out of the West Chester area.
Among this group is Robert Sumner, a dentist that spent 15 years traveling to poor communities to provide dental care, including the Marshall Islands, Mexico and Costa Rica. During a trip to Honduras with his church group, he was asked to help a man that had a nail go through his foot. While treating the man, he turned around to find 125 to 150 men, woman and children silently staring at him.
“That image had really pressed me to the extent that I went back to the hotel and could not speak that night,” Sumner said. “I kept thinking, ‘how could we help these poor people who have no assistance and desperately need it?’”
Sumner came back to West Chester and found a group of people that agreed to help. This led to the birth in 2004 of Serving at the Crossroads (SATC), a nonprofit organization that receives tax-deductible funding.
The corporation wanted to build a medical clinic to help the people of La Entrada, but most importantly, to teach them about healthcare so they could eventually manage on their own.
“One of our key thoughts was that this clinic should be run by Hondurans,” Sumner said, who is recognized as the founder and president of SATC. “We wanted to guide them, but we did not want to be dictators to them.”
After a long process of obtaining donations, an agreement with Tech Serve, a mission group that helped gather and ship construction materials, and the relentless help from both the Honduran and American healthcare community, the dream became a reality in 2010.
The original facility of two exam rooms with one dental chair, averaging 3,000 square feet, tripled into a 10,000-square-foot clinic, titled Manos Amigas, which means “helping hands” in Spanish. The name came from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Manos Amigas de Honduras, which partnered with SATC to help run and administer the clinic.
Michael Tysowsky, chairman of the board of directors of SATC, does the strategic planning for the organization, and along with Sumner, has been to Honduras about 50 times since the start of SATC. Tysowsky said he is pleased with their progress, but that success is measured very differently in Honduras than it is in the United States.
“These people are moved slowly, they don’t have the advantages of the rapid changes of technology that we have had all our lives,” Tysowsky said. “So, you have to allow them to make mistakes, because that’s how they learn.”
Tysowsky said that a large part of the teaching process involves giving the Hondurans confidence about healthcare.
“In the states, we go to the hospital and think we will come back improved and better, but that’s not the mentality in Honduras,” he said. “Frequently, hospitals are regarded as the last place you go before you die. So we’re trying to change the whole concept of what medical services mean.”
For the Manos Amigas Clinic, this means treating about 12,000 to 13,000 patients this year, and more than 50,000 patients since they first started. They are now doing medical and dental work, prosthetic hands, hearing, eye glasses, and even outpatient surgeries starting in October of this year.
Dr. Peter Thompson, vice president of SATC, said that he expects progress to only grow more.
“We want to continue the work we are doing,” Thompson said. “We have the building built, so we want to utilize it even more now that we have the space, and to bring more specialists in the medical and dental field down to Honduras.”
All of the specialists and SATC members that come from the United States to Honduras are volunteers, paying their own way to make a difference.
As the clinic continues to grow, Sumner said his time with SATC has been just as much of a learning experience for him as for the Hondurans.
“It’s not about what I’ve learned in the medical or dental field, but what I’ve learned about building relationships with another culture, a culture that totally has lack of trust in us doing what we say we are going to do,” Sumner said. “Seeing people change and start to trust you and build a relationship is extremely meaningful to me.”
Even during Sumner’s most recent trip, which he returned from on June 18, the Hondurans continued to surprise him.
“Every time I go down, I learn things about their culture that I had not heard before,” Sumner said. “It’s the things you can and can’t do according to their culture, and you can’t learn it all at once.”
All of the men agreed that the experience has reminded them how fortunate they are to live in the United States.
“We want a TV for every room in the house and if we have one automobile, we want two or three,” Tysowsky said. “When you go there you come back realizing, you don’t need all of it.”
Tysowsky said that everything they have done for the people of La Entrada has been accepted with enormous grace and thanks, making them feel good in return. He calls it a “give-and-take” type of process.
“It makes you come back a better person.”
For more information on Serving at the Crossroads or to make a donation, visitwww.servingatthecrossroads.org.