Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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My First Mission Trip

by Susie Stanzel

Susie Stanzel
Susie Stanzel

From the Editor: Susie Stanzel is president of the NFB of Kansas. The following story is her account of her working visit to Guyana. She gathered courage for this adventure when she heard another Federationist describe her mission trip to Russia. This is an excellent example of the way we all inspire and encourage each other. This is what Susie says:

I began to be interested in going on a mission trip with the St. John's United Methodist Church back in 2000, when Bill Upchurch, a missionary who serves with his wife Diana in Guyana, South America, came to visit. Our church has supported Bill and Diana for many years, and Bill had come to encourage us to come to Guyana as Volunteers in Mission. He talked of the AIDS epidemic gripping the country, and the stories he told moved me. He said that when mothers find out their children have AIDS, they actually lock the door and will not allow them back in the house. Diana's dream is to build an orphanage for these children and those who have lost parents to AIDS. But Bill described a different construction project (rebuilding a church) where we could be of help. Actually, by the time we would arrive, the old church would have been knocked down, and the new church would be under way. He also told us that English is the language spoken in Guyana. That made me really happy since I don't know any other languages. When Bill asked for comments and questions, I raised my hand and said, "I don't know much about hammering a nail, but I know a whole lot about holding babies. After I've had three girls of my own, childcare is like getting back on a bicycle." I hoped I could find a way to help with the children of AIDS.

We have a very active missions committee, and other trips were planned. Therefore three years went by before we had time to make plans with Bill and Diana. They returned to visit our congregation in August of 2003. This time they talked about what we would actually be doing, the side trips we would take, and the loving people we would be helping. One of the side trips would be to visit Kaiteur Falls, located in a rain forest and five times higher than Niagara Falls. I put down my deposit. Actually I put down a deposit for both my daughter Ginny and me. Several weeks later Nan, the leader of our group, met with me and said she thought I should come on the first trip by myself. I have to admit that the idea of having my daughter along to assist me rather than asking other group members to help when necessary probably had something to do with my decision to take Ginny in the first place. But Nan said, "We aren't even going to think the `b' word (burden)!" Nan's urging made me think back to our National Federation of the Blind convention two months earlier. There I had heard Mrs. Judy Rasmussen's speech about her mission trip to Russia. I said, "If Judy can venture that far out of her comfort zone, so can I." Hearing about the success of other blind people is one of the best parts of being a member of the National Federation of the Blind. Judy's successful trip was my inspiration.

A month before our departure we had disappointing news: Bill and Diana were being called back to the United States. They would be departing from Guyana two days before we were scheduled to arrive. This meant the team would be adopting Plan B rather than the original plan. This had a huge effect on me. Throughout the months of preparation I had been planning to spend some of my time working with Diana and the AIDS victims in George Town. Now, unfortunately, construction, not babies, became my focus. The good part was that I would be with the group for the complete experience.

Our team of twenty-two excited volunteers had monthly meetings with Nan in which we talked about passports, shots, packing, payment schedules, and anything else that came to mind. The best part was that, unlike travelers on previous trips, we needed only up-to-date tetanus shots. But we did need money, so we planned a cookbook sale and a cake and pie auction to raise money to purchase building supplies. As we prepared, we endured the winter of 2003-2004 in Kansas City, which was snowier and colder than the previous few winters. The thought of escaping and going to a warm climate served to help calm the butterflies we all had about making the trip.

On Thursday, March 11, I rose at 3:30 a.m. after a scant four hours of sleep to begin one of the most exciting and challenging adventures of my life. We flew from Kansas City to Dallas, on to Miami, and finally arrived in George Town, Guyana, at 8:30 p.m. We had gained two hours, but we were not yet at our final destination, the YWCA. Finally we arrived to find one of the nicer meals we would be served. We had fish, some kind of potato, and guava juice. Since it was now 11:00 p.m., I was more tired than hungry.

The next morning I regretted that I had eaten so little the previous night. Breakfast was salt fish and bakes--fried or baked biscuits. I do not adore fish under any circumstances, but I absolutely despise it for breakfast. Being tolerant in every situation proved to be important, though. I didn't expect to be served scrambled eggs with small sausages with little flavor and resembling little uncooked hot dogs. One morning I actually ate half of someone else's eggs to avoid eating more salt fish. I thought cool showers were terrible until the water cut off while I was covered with soap and had to wait for the water to come back on. It seemed likely that on this trip no plan would end the way I expected.

On Saturday we made our trip to Kaiteur Falls. We were each weighed and placed on one of three airplanes for the hour-long flight to the falls. The first plane took off, but the weather was not clear enough for the other two to do so, so the first group had completed the two-hour adventure as we arrived. They kept talking about how rigorous the trip up the falls had been. Nan asked if I had been listening and said that, if I wanted, I could stay with the people who had already returned. But I didn't waver. I said, "I am determined to go, and I'll scoot on my bottom if I have to." I knew I had to make the hike successfully because the entire tone of the next week would be set that day.

So I joined the hike and discovered that the first group had not exaggerated at all. The terrain was quite rough. It seemed as if I climbed four feet only to descend that far again the next moment. One time I did sit to slide down a hill. I quickly learned that it was easier to go up than down. One of the disconcerting parts was stepping on slippery moss. Yet this was a beautiful rain forest, and the experience was great. We saw the falls from four different vantage points and listened to the crash of the water as it fell hundreds of feet to the bottom. I completed the tour; so far I had succeeded.

We arrived at the work site on Monday morning. The building frame and four posts were in place, and a mountain of sand lay in the middle. People started shoveling sand. I knew they were not going to invite me to join the effort, so I laid my cane at the base of the building and climbed up, asking for a shovel. I quickly learned that the amount of sand in the shovel was vitally important. Small was essential--if you planned to pick it up over and over again, that is. After moving the sand, we moistened it. To do this we used a drainage ditch at the front of the property and passed buckets of water from one person to the next.

Then we tamped down the sand. I was actually the best tamper. I had a piece of wood attached to a wooden pole, and I simply walked back and forth hitting the sand, just like vacuuming a carpet. Our replacement missionary Kirk had brought his girlfriend to stick with me to provide any help I might need. She kept telling me I was going over the same area. I knew I wasn't, but to pacify her, I assured her that I would move over. She was on the construction site for only the first day. It was clear that I had indeed proven myself. Sometimes a little vision doesn't help as much as I had thought. We were passing bricks from one person to the next in the same way we had passed water. I noticed that the passers on either side of me were faced the other way, so I turned around. Garth, a courageous soul, came to tell me to turn back around because passing bricks was easier if you were facing the person giving you the brick.

During the week I learned about disabilities in Guyana. I did one radio interview and one television interview and visited the Disabled Persons Organization meeting. At that meeting I met a thirty-four-year-old man who had lost his first eye at eight and his other at sixteen. He had had no education past the third grade. While I was helping at vacation Bible school (my only break from construction work), I met a six-year-old deaf child who had never even been to a proper doctor to determine the cause of her deafness. At six she sits at home with no language or education. Our driver in George Town, Derrick, told me his father did not work in the rice mill anymore because he had been blind for ten years. The cause was cataracts, a condition which is almost entirely correctable in the U.S. Now he just sits and drinks. At the end of our trip we returned to George Town, and I gave Derrick my collapsible cane to give to his father. I also gave him a few instructions on cane technique. Preventable blindness because of poverty is a terrible thing.

Guyana is truly a third-world country. It is not the place to be sick, elderly, or disabled. This trip made me realize how much I love our country and why I am delighted to be an American. I'm glad I was inspired by others to go on this trip, and I hope others in turn will be inspired by my experience. I gained respect from my fellow volunteers and all the people I met in Guyana. I believe that the word "blind" gained a new meaning for everyone with whom I came in contact.

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