TCNJ group brings “Hope” to families affected by Tropical Storm Agatha

TCNJ group brings “Hope” to families affected by Tropical Storm Agatha
azan barlis oleary in focus
Julian Azan ’13, Dr. Cara Barlis, and Georgeann O’Leary MSN '99 pose with children they helped during their trip to Guatemala.

In June, two TCNJ staff members and a rising sophomore provided aid to impoverished Guatemalan villagers as part of an annual mission trip sponsored by a local church.

Dr. Cara Barlis, a consulting physician in TCNJ’s Office of Health Services; her colleague Georgeann O’Leary, RN, MSN ’99, APN; and Julian Azan ’13 were among the dozen volunteers who took part in Allentown Presbyterian Church’s (APC) “Spring of Hope” project, providing medical and dental care, as well as basic necessities, to villagers in the Lake Aitlan region of the Central American country.

APC has run mission trips to the location for years. However, the needs of local residents were particularly high this year after Tropical Storm Agatha, hit in early June, causing flooding and landslides that killed hundreds and displaced countless families.

The group spent four days in the towns of San Antonio Palopó and San Lucas Toliman, where its members set up clinics and treated people of all ages for a variety of intestinal and respiratory illnesses.

The stomach illnesses were a result of villagers bathing, washing clothes, and drinking from the same lake, O’Leary said. “The lake has no outlet, so it’s full of bacteria and parasites,” she explained. O’Leary, Barlis, and other trained volunteers dispensed medications to kill the parasites, and also instructed villagers how to make the water potable.

Since so many villagers cook over open flames inside their homes, a large number of them suffer from respiratory illnesses, O’Leary said. Her group provided Nebulizer treatments to many of the families that sought medical care in the clinics.

“In most cases, the villages that we [traveled] to had little to no access to medical care,” said Barlis, who was taking part in the APC trip for the second consecutive year. O’Leary said that many of the roads in and out of the villages were still blocked from mudslides and falling boulders.

Even in those places where there was access to medical care, villagers often didn’t have money to purchase medications, Barlis said. Therefore the group solicited donations of basic medications ahead of time to bring along. In some cases, the volunteers purchased the supplies themselves. Group members also paid their own airfare.

Despite these out-of-pocket costs, Barlis said the satisfaction she got from “helping people…in desperate need” made it easy to decide to return this year.

“It was such an amazing experience last year,” Barlis said. “I made wonderful connections with the others who were working and the people I saw in the clinics.”

O’Leary, though not a member of APC, decided to take part after hearing Barlis describe those experiences. While the trip provided a way for O’Leary to accomplish a personal goal—taking part in a medical mission in a developing country—the experience affected her profoundly, she said.

“You go into something like this with the hope of helping others, but the experience also does something for you,” O’Leary said. “I’m so glad I went. It changed my life.”

Click on any photo below to open a slide-show. Photos courtesy of Dr. Cara Barlis and Georgeann O’Leary.

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