Reaching across the Americas
A humanitarian trip to Ecuador brought her face to face with so much desperate need, so many cries for help, so few ways to quiet them.
“You can’t imagine the poverty they live in,” says Randall. “By the same token, they could never imagine the wealth we’re privileged to.”
Randall spent 12 years as a nurse with the Mayo Clinic, home of the world’s most advanced health care. These days, her passions run toward those who don’t get any health care at all.
Toward that end, Randall and friend Kate Weld established a small foundation, Hands for Humanity, to help seven Ecuadoran doctors run a free clinic dedicated to providing health care to some of the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished people. Last year they started taking their show on the road in Ecuador, going into the tropical country’s villages giving advice and instruction, giving vaccinations – giving hope.
These kids have never seen a syringe or a needle, and don’t like what happens when they do. But a sucker and a few minutes to recover from the sting and they’re laughing and playing.
“They’re so proud, especially in their appearance,” says Randall. “The moms and kids are all dressed up when they come to these clinics.”
Randall’s Spanish is spotty, but she learned quickly that smiles are universal.
“All it takes is a smile,” she says. “All people speak that language.”
Rich man, poor man
Weld spent seven months in Ecuador, South America’s poorest country, trying to hammer out the adoption of a baby girl. It gave Weld time to think, time to see, time to learn what it was like to be truly poor – to live in such abject poverty that you may have to make the excruciating decision to watch one of your children die and have another, rather than to try save the dying one.
It gave her the motivation she needed to do what she could. She called Randall, who had just returned four days earlier from a bicycle trip from Montreal to Vail. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go, but her husband told her to follow her heart – her heart brought her face-to-face with people suffering from some of the world’s most crushing poverty.
You can’t help them all, says Randall, but you can help teach them to help themselves.
“We’re trying to help with self-sufficiency,” she says.
Go to the bamboo shacks those children call home and you won’t often find them home. The kids are sent out each morning to earn some money – any money – and not to come back until they earn it begging, shining shoes, whatever it takes.
Right now, 60 percent of the country lives in poverty; 40 percent is unemployed. One man, Randall says, was able to scrape together enough money to buy a machete used to cut grass in a rich man’s compound. He travels 45 minutes one way to work, mostly on foot, and works at least 12 hours a day. He’s paid $30 a month. He’s proud because he has work and can earn money for his family.
On the other end of that socio-economic equation are the extremely rich. They live in compounds behind locked iron gates and towering concrete walls, topped with embedded shards of glass and guarded by people with machine guns. The rich are surrounded by servants who can come and go through the iron gates, who can move about freely in ways they cannot. The rich cannot leave their compounds without guards.
“The poor are prisoners of their poverty, but are free,” says Randall. “The rich own more worldly goods than they can use, but they have no freedom. It makes you think about what you need to be happy, and it isn’t wealth.”
In the strong Catholic country, birth control is illegal and can land you in court, sometimes jail. The birth rate is among the world’s highest.
The death rate is alarming. Every year about 9,000 kids die of preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea. The child death rate is 20 times that of the U.S. or Canada. Ecuador’s rich travel to Miami for most of their health care needs.
More than half the country’s water sources are not treated and are used for everything – drinking, cooking, sewage, transportation. Septic systems are unheard of. In the rainy season, it’s not uncommon to swim back to a bamboo shack on stilts through water several feet deep. It’s a breeding ground for bacteria, disease and the insects that carry yellow fever and malaria.
Mudslides and floods isolated one village for three months.
“The question we get most often, and the question we used to ask ourselves is “What difference can you make?'” says Randall. “You pick projects that are doable, and you do what you can.”
Among the things they can do is feed people. When the kids are sent off in the morning and told not to return until evening, not without money in hand, it’s impossible to say when they’ve had a meal, and when they’ll have another. To help them, Hands for Humanity started a facility where kids can come during the day for something to eat, and possibly learn something.
When a mother dies, Ecuadoran culture does not expect the father to raise the children. If no other relatives will take them, they’re left to fend for themselves.
Hope flickers and lives
In a country of 12 million people, 7 percent of them have phones and 17 percent of the roads are paved. Four people per 1,000 have personal computers and 39,000 dial-up Internet connections exist in the entire country. Agriculture is the country’s main industry; flowers, bananas and coffee are its main crops. It’s bordered by Colombia and Peru, whose main crops are not coffee, flowers or bananas. The violence spawned by the drug cartels sometimes spills over into Ecuador.
In these destitute circumstances, a group of seven surgeons launched a clinic to do what they could. They’re in a converted warehouse.
Drug companies have been getting on board, as have other corporations. That makes the medical end of the mission a little easier. The Mayo Clinic has provided equipment, and the Shriners are helping fund the projects.
“The surgeons opening boxes of equipment were like kids at Christmas,” says Randall. “They would never have been able to afford anything like this.”
They still need a sterilizer. They need everything.
Randall is doing what she can, and is looking for help.
For more information, e-mail Louise Randall at email@example.com.