The gifts of Guatemala

John Kirkpatrick (performing extraction), Peggy Kirkpatrick (wife and volunteer dental assistant) and the mother of the patient (in plaid).

Published: Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 4:41 p.m.

As longtime fellow members of the Gainesville Rotary Club and Trinity United Methodist Church, John Kirkpatrick and Malcolm King have known one another for years. But their true bond of friendship was forged in the depths of the Guatemalan highlands over a common goal — building homes and creating healthier lives for villagers there.

In the 16 years since Kirkpatrick began putting together these mission trips sponsored by Trinity United Methodist Church, his and King's respective teams — medical and construction — have become well-oiled machines.

King, an independent property and casualty agent and owner of King Insurance Agency, is geared toward getting things done fast. That stands him in good stead in Guatemala, where the construction team he leads must move quickly and efficiently with limited time and resources. Their record for a single trip, he says with a chuckle, is four houses built in five days. He insists it's worth the effort.

“I cannot begin to describe the the joy and appreciation on a mother's face who will no longer have to shelter her children in a ‘lean-to' made of scrap lumber and tin,” says King.

Creating accessibility to clean, fresh water is another strong focus of King's construction team, and it fits in well with his work for Rotary. “Clean water for the world is a focus for Rotary International,” says King. “Dysentery from impure water is a leading cause of death in Guatemala. Our goal is to educate school children on the health benefits of good hygiene so that the people of Guatemala will enjoy longer and healthier lives in the future.”

It is impossible to overstate the impact water has on the day-to-day lives of the villagers, says King. Between cooking, bathing, washing clothes, cleaning their homes — much less nourishing their bodies — the constant pursuit of water becomes an all-important, time-consuming endeavor, says King.

Villagers, he says, often must walk miles across rough terrain to reach water and carry it home. The entire village would then share roughly 10 gallons of water every other day. To help put it in perspective, he says the average person in the United States uses three- to four-gallons of water every minute during the time it takes for one shower.

But a brighter future has arrived: In March, mid-way up a mountain outside the village of Tierra Linda, King and his team built four 10,000-liter water tanks that can hold up to 2,500 gallons of water, along with a mile-long water main to the village of 1,000 people. Freed from the need of constant trudging to fetch water, villagers will have more time to plant crops and see to their children's educations.

John Kirkpatrick's medical team focuses primarily on oral surgeries and dental extractions. “By extracting the tooth you completely remove the pain forever,” Kirkpatrick says. Many of these people have been living with chronic, debilitating pain and are in desperate need of care. “There are so many things we take for granted in our country: clean water, plentiful food, the availability of medical care,” says Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick is not a dentist — he is an entrepreneur who owns interests in several businesses, primarily Sonny's Real Pit BBQ restaurants. But as well as using dentists, doctors and oral surgeons, nurses and other volunteers work to perform the up to 200 procedures Kirkpatrick says are accomplished on average per trip. Kirkpatrick's sister, Frances, and wife, Peggy, routinely pitch in as volunteer dental assistants.

“We always have a need for medical assistants on the trips and these are the real workers on our team,” says Kirkpatrick.

King and Kirkpatrick speak fondly of the Guatemalan people they have come to know through their many years of volunteerism in different communities there. And unsurprisingly, they've also formed friendships with the other volunteers with whom they have worked year after year.

“When so much of our news is of hatefulness and cruelty in the world, it restores your faith in humanity to witness the goodness of so many,” says King.

The experience, though based on giving to others, seems ultimately to be one of the most profound gifts either man has experienced. “I think you will find that anyone who goes on these trips will say they receive so much more than they could ever give,” King says.

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