Dr. Jason Cunningham and members of his staff traveled to Guatemala this summer for a medical mission trip. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Employees from Cunningham Dental in Erwin were among those who volunteered their time for a recent mission trip to Guatemala that provided access to dental and medical care to more than 1,000 individuals from the village of Rincon De Pacaya.

Jason Cunningham, a local dentist who in 2010 permanently joined the longstanding dental practice his father established, along with Amy Clouse, a dental assistant from Cunningham Dental, were both able to attend the trip that was organized by Cunningham’s Church, Central Baptist Church of Johnson City.

“It was just a blessing and I can’t wait to go back next year,” Clouse said. “We stayed a week and there was so much more we could have done to help.”

Cunningham and Clouse were among the team of dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, physicians and medical students who graciously volunteered their time and services for the trip that took place from June 10-16, barely a week after the deadly eruption of the volcano Fuego that claimed more than 100 lives.

The group stayed at Camp Calvary, which was created by the Christ-centered ministry known as Clubhouse. With financial assistance from the Calvary Baptist of Shreveport, Louisiana, and Cunningham’s church, the camp was built to not only serve as a home base for U.S. mission teams, but to also provide training for local pastors and Guatemalan teens to work in local villages with the end goal of starting new churches in the area.

“It’s got a bunkhouse for men, one for women, and then there are two cabins for the volunteers who stay all summer,” Cunningham said about the camp.

Cunningham said the camp was also equipped with a main cafeteria, kitchen area, church area and a basketball court, in addition to the medical/dental clinic and pharmacy. In the village of Rincon De Pacaya where the camp is located, the village members are often unable to receive basic medical or dental care due to their isolation and lack of transportation to the country’s capital, Guatemala City.

“For many people it’s the only time they get to see a dentist … that was surprising to me, and of course, that place is about a 90-minute drive from the capital,” said Cunningham.

According to the website of the Clubhouse Ministries, the average family in the village makes less than $50 per month, and many children are not afforded the luxury of receiving an education; instead must stay at home where they learn to farm.

During the one week trip, between medical and dental, the group saw more than 1,000 patients, who would walk 45 minutes to two hours just to get to the clinic.

“We would open around eight in the morning and when we got opened they were already waiting to get into the clinic,” Clouse said.

The group worked in the tiresome heat for about 12 hours a day in order to ensure that they saw every patient.

“I saw more patients in one week than I have ever seen up here, and I have two busy offices,” Cunningham said. “They had to cut them off every day and tell them to come back the next day. If there were 30 hours in a day we might have seen more people.”

As far as dental work goes, patients were seen for everything from routine teeth cleaning to more restorative work such as fillings. Thanks to a portable machine, Clouse said they were also able to take X-rays.

“We were even able to do a root canal, and there were lots of extractions,” she said. “We’re the only ones they see, they won’t see more until hopefully we go back next year.”

Even after being seen for something as routine as a teeth cleaning, Clouse and Cunningham said the patients expressed intense gratitude and often times even hugged them.

Cunningham also recalled a medical student who attended the trip and was able to diagnose two infants with severe cases of pneumonia.

“They would have died within a few days if they hadn’t gotten antibiotics,” he said.

A preacher from the church was present to witness and pray with those from the village, many of whom Clouse said accepted Christ into their hearts as a result of the trip. A vacation bible school was organized for the local children, who had the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities.

“Everybody that came in, the preacher talked to them as they would leave, and we spoke with some people as well through interpreters,” Cunningham said.

In addition to providing medical and dental care, the mission group also had the opportunity to go out into individual’s homes where they provided them with beds, a luxury only a few can afford, with many people sleeping on nothing but dirt floors. They also provided the people of the village with solar lights and water filters, much-needed necessities due to the difficulty of accessing clean water in the area.

“It was something to see, and it makes you think what we take advantage of every day,” Clouse said. “It’s unreal what little they have yet they’re all still so happy with smiles on their faces.”

Cunningham was also surprised to see their modest homes, which were typically composed of nothing more than corrugated steel roofing and plywood walls.

“It’s a far cry from what we have here … obviously, they are very grateful to see us,” said Cunningham. “They’re lucky if they have lights or lamps … the poorest people in East Tennessee are much better off than they would be down there.”

One particularly touching event that Clouse recalled involved a young boy, whom she felt compelled to give her tennis shoes to due to the fact that his were so worn and barely usable.

“You would have thought I gave him a million dollars,” she said.

Both Cunningham and Clouse were quick to respond in saying that the trip was truly a memorable experience that they hope to have the opportunity to take again. Cunningham added that the camp itself is well set up for the mission work, and although there are a few missions that provide medical care throughout the year, there is only one trip that provides dental care.

“There’s plenty of other room for people to come in and do it,” Cunningham said. “It’s always a cool experience to get to go to new places.”

“If you have the opportunity to go, I highly recommend it,” added Clouse. “The other employees that work here we say to get your passports and go with us … it took me two or three weeks to even come down from the high I was on of getting to see those patients and how grateful they were.”