Williston trio travels south for winter

Journey to Nicaragua is no vacation

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

In November, three intrepid travelers from Williston journeyed deep into one of Central America’s poorest countries on a humanitarian mission.

Realtor Jan Lawson; retiree Ruth Magill; and her husband, Charlie, a part-time pastor; joined with a United Methodist church group for a two-week trip to Nicaragua to help with health education and to work on the construction of a new medical clinic. The other members of the group were from near Schenectady, N.Y., Charlie Magill said.

The 13-person group, whose members ranged in age from 40-72, landed in the capital city of Managua, and from there was trucked over barely passable roads through dense jungle to a coffee finca, or farm, in the Department of Matagalpa, where they made their temporary home. Departments are the equivalent of states in Nicaragua.

The trip was organized by the Troy Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church Volunteers in Mission to help a local Nicaraguan organization called Christian Medical Action, or AMC. AMC is a non-governmental organization that works with poor communities in Nicaragua to improve health care and social conditions, especially for women and children.

Though the organizations involved were all religious, the three volunteers said there was no mission beyond simply lending a helping hand. Lawson said she was nervous at first because she did not want to be a part of proselytizing. But that was never even an issue, she said.

“We learned very quickly that we were not taking them any grand ideas,” Lawson said. “We were there to support what they already had in place. We were extra hands to do what the Nicaraguans knew they needed to do for themselves.”

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, located between Honduras and Costa Rica with borders on the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific. It is also one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with most people earning less than $1 per day, Lawson said.

She said the group brought with them about $3,000 in construction materials, and $2,000 in medicines. Some materials and funds for the trip were donated by members of the Williston Federated Church; the Williston Rotary Club; and local residents, she said.

Charlie Magill explained that the U.S. group was divided into three teams: public health nurses; health educators; and construction crew. Each day the medical teams would travel to different villages to either nurse or teach, and the construction team went to a central location to work on building the clinic from the ground up.

Lawson and Ruth Magill were assigned to the health education team, and Charlie Magill became the supervisor of the construction team. He and Ruth had lived in Guatemala and Guyana working with Habitat for Humanity for several years, so his construction and language skills proved invaluable to the team.

The women from Williston helped teach youngsters in the villages how to brush their teeth and wash their hands properly through a puppet show that Lawson wrote in Spanish.

They said that in the villages they visited many people suffered from malnutrition, scabies and dehydration. The children were also not familiar with toothbrushes, but luckily they had brought about 500 of them to dole out to the villagers, thanks in part to donations from Williston residents.

All three said the trip was physically challenging – hard work, hot days, sleeping on concrete floors – but they all agreed the hardest part was not physical at all.

“The greatest challenge for me was not getting spiritually bogged down by the poverty,” Lawson said. “And helping myself to acknowledge the hope and the spirit of the people, and believe that would shine through.”

Ruth Magill said she found herself saddened by the Nicaraguans situation, too, but she was also able to see hope in their plight.

“Those people we were working with, they work with enthusiasm, with motivation, they are looking to the future of their country with hope,” Ruth Magill said. “So, who am I as an American to say ‘oh, it’s depressing’ or ‘there’s no progress being made,’ when people themselves there are taking on responsibility for their own country and they have a sense of mission, a sense of hope for their future?”

Charlie Magill said he has been to Latin America for work projects almost a dozen times, but never gets used to the extreme poverty he encounters.

“I am always embarrassed when I come back and look at my own house and look at the things, all the stuff, I have,” he said. “You go into the home of a subsisting family, a family that’s working, that’s supporting themselves, and there’s so little. It’s unusual to see a book in a house, and I have three bookshelves and a basement that are overflowing with books even though I give stuff to the library every year.”

The trio agreed that the physical and emotional challenges were offset by the reward of knowing they were helping, and from the friendships they forged, that while fleeting, were indelibly etched in their hearts.

“I’ll probably never see some of those people again,” Charlie Magill said. “But they’ll always have a place in my heart, because they are really good people. Those relationships that develop in a really short time are precious jewels.”