The Hope Alliance heads back to build on its Guatemala framework
The Hope Alliance packs vision testing kits, thousands of pairs of eyeglasses and all of the needed supplies on their international service trips, but sometimes the people the nonprofit helps just want to be met on their own terms.
“This really nice, gray-haired, old Mayan lady was looking at all of the eye charts, and basically, in Mayan, she says, ‘Phooey with the eye charts, bring me a needle and thread,’” said Dell Fuller, board president of the Park City-based organization, describing one encounter on its expedition to Guatemala in 2018. “And so we ran down to the hardware store, got a needle and thread, and all she needed was readers. … And that just made her day, she was one happy lady.”
The nonprofit, which provides vision care to underserved populations in Utah and abroad, is set to once again head south to Guatemala on Friday, June 7, for a 10-day expedition where volunteers aim to serve about 1,000 residents of rural Lake Atitlàn by providing them with free vision care, testing and eyeglasses.
The expedition will be the latest of the Hope Alliance’s international endeavors, which include the previous Guatemala trip, a continuous partnership with a clinic located in rural Uganda and a permanent facility in Haiti.
Fuller, a Park City resident, said the decision to focus on a familiar set of regions abroad comes down to the belief that the organization can do more good by establishing itself in certain spots since the demand for vision care in developing countries is nearly “unlimited.”
“We’ve never had a lack of people show up to have their eyes tested,” he said. The volunteers will utilize water taxis to get around the lake as they add two additional communities to their itinerary from last year’s trip.
Lake Atitlàn, the deepest lake in Central America, is located at an elevation of more than 5,125 feet in the Guatemala Highlands. It’s both a residential area and a popular tourist destination. A stark class divide can be observed there, as Fuller said vacation homes overlooking the clear, blue water and verdant, mountainous landscape often sit steps away from villages stricken with poverty.
While the volunteers on any given Hope Alliance expedition come from many backgrounds and don’t necessarily need experience in health care, an ophthalmologist and optometrist will accompany the group in Central America to provide diagnoses and testing that, for many Lake Atitlàn residents, is too expensive.
“There is eye care available for those that want to pay for it; or have the ability to,” Fuller said. “Most of the people we serve just don’t. They’re looking for their next nickel.”
Another facet of the trip that requires a specialist is the fact that in rural Guatemala, a knowledge of Spanish isn’t necessarily a ticket to a smooth ride through conversation. The people who live around the lake are largely ethnic Mayans who may not have had access to the schooling necessary to learn Spanish and communicate in a modern dialect of their culture’s ancient language.
The people The Hope Alliance will serve are the descendants of one of the most resilient indigenous cultures still around today.
Rural Mayans, the majority population in one of the poorest countries in the Americas, have weathered countless horrors since the Spanish Empire began its conquest of their ancestors’ civilization in the 16th century. During the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, the U.S.-backed Guatemalan government carried out a genocide against the Maya that is estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people. And in 2005, as Americans continued to reel from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Stan tore through Central America and killed thousands. Heavy rain caused deadly mudslides, one of which buried the lakeside village of Panabáj and hundreds of its residents.
Still, Fuller said he has faith in the people of Guatemala to build a better future and sees plenty of potential in the country even as it’s faced with political corruption and violence that still plagues the region, noting the potential for agriculture and the persistence of its indigenous cultures.
“I think it’s education; try to educate the kids, the smarter people grow up, the better opportunities there are for change down the road,” he said. “The people are wonderful.”
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Arlene Loble served as the Park City manager in the 1980s, a pivotal period that prepared the community for the boom years that would follow in the 1990s. Loble, who recently died, is credited with introducing a level of professionalism to the municipal government that was needed amid the growth challenges.