Thursday, April 30, 2015

last but not least....

After a very long road trip from Guatemala City into Todos Santos we arrived at our hotel where we were greeted with smiles and hugs by the founders of the GAAP (Global Alliance for Animals and People) Great people! Working with Elana & Guillermo was amazing! They are so dedicated to their projects in making this world a little better one project at a time. The world needs more people like them in it.

The people in Todos Santos were friendly and seemed grateful and happy that we were there, smiles everywhere! I felt welcome. I was surprised at the fact that no matter where we went the people of Todos Santos would smile and greet us. They have so little if anything at all but still manage to smile and say hello (Hola).
This experience has shown me that no matter how big or small are problems are we are very fortunate and should never take anything for granted. The people in Todos Santos work very hard and have so little but seem happy. I've also learned that these people truly love their pets and walk great distances to get to the the clinic.
This was my first time traveling with my coworkers to take part in this amazing adventure and I wasn't sure what to expect however for the most part it was pretty much how I pictured it. Dogs, cats roaming the street freely unlike the dogs/cats back home made me sad but I took comfort in knowing that we were there to help and better the situation for the people and their pets.
Saturday morning we had a day dedicated to the children in the community. Our goal was to teach the children and their families about proper care for their pets but having a little fun along the way. The kids loved the Face painting, balloons, games etc. My job was to help the kids make animal themed crowns which seemed to be a huge hit with the kids! So much so that some of them would come back to make a third and fourth crown. I watched as one little boy tried to trick me and he actually removed the crown he made then folded it up and tried to stuff it in his pocket so that he could make another. I smiled at him and helped him make a second crown but this one was going to be the best crown ever! I used half a pack of sticker jewels because his eyes grew wider and his smile bigger with each one so it made it harder for me to stop. He kept thanking me but his smile was more than enough.
Sunday we set up in the "Salon" (community gymnasium) for our upcoming week of vaccines and surgeries. Everyone worked so hard and it came together perfectly, Great team work!
Then our busy work week begun! I worked in recovery with the animals that were waking up from surgery as well as working with the veterinarians assisting in the exams and with administering vaccines. All hard work but the feeling you get at the end of each day made it all worth it!
I'm proud everyday to be a part of the Allandale team but this journey made me even more proud to work with these amazing ladies. This experience has given me so much and for that I'm grateful.

- Shawnah

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

round three...

I have been very fortunate to have made this incredible journey now for the third year.   When asked by new people what to expect I tell them - long days, hard work, you're filthy for a week and the 2 day travel time is almost painful.  However the reward of being one out of 21 strangers that all come together to form an extraordinary veterinary team that helps the people and pets of Todos Santos, Guatemala outweighs it all.
Our first day in Todos Santos is the Community Day.  The team comes together to help educate the villagers on being a good pet owner and the responsibilities that come along with that. The day is set up with educational games for the children to play and arts and crafts.  What I struggled with last year, was the young boys that were stained with ink up to their elbows and were shining grown men’s shoes.  These boys were not able to play as they were stuck making an income, which they could not afford to lose for a half hour of play.  It broke my heart.  This year I saw the same young boy shining shoes and with great surprise he quickly joined in on the fun.  I think about the difference one year to the next makes with our invasion on this small quiet village and it makes me smile.
Our goal this year was three times higher than last year and I was pumped with excitement to achieve those goals.  Whether you were restraining dogs, drawing up vaccines, on your knees in recovery, being run off your feet as an assistant or technician or  being a veterinarian standing in the same spot doing surgeries from 8am to 6pm, five days a week,  it was hard work.   I am very pleased to say we accomplished our goal without turning anyone away.  I truly admire the dedication of all.
As the week passed and the salon filled it was nice to see familiar faces.  The children and pets are returning and growing each year.  They are recognizing us and excited to see us.  The hugs they give makes it all worth it.  As I look back on the last three years I see how far we’ve come and I realize it’s working.  We see less dogs roaming, more coming for rabies vaccines, dog population seems less and we are building relationships to last a lifetime.
For a community of poverty, that has a hard time feeding themselves, it amazes me that they have dogs.  Dogs do not give them food, they cannot supply them milk.  They do not help with farming or any other manual labor like horses do.  So I have come to realize that the need for them is the same as ours; companionship and love.


capturing an experience...

This was my third out of country excursion with the Allandale team. This trip was much different than the Jamaica experience. The trip to Todos Santos is a long one. A connector flight out of Miami into Guatemala City, then the following day taking the long 8 hour drive into the mountains.
We were fortunate enough to have decent sunny weather pretty much the whole time we were there.
Off in the distance you can see the mountain range, with a few volcanoes that stand out. The volcanoes make the mountains look like small pimples. It was explained to me that there is no space to grow crops on farms like we have here. The crops are grown on the side of the mountains. As we drove along the main road we could see houses and crops off in the distance.
We finally arrived in Todos Santos. A large town with 2 languages spoken - Spanish and Mam (Mam is what the older generations speak, and some speak a mix of Mam and Spanish). We settled into our rooms, eagerly waiting for Community Day, where we all were given specific tasks to complete, like face painting, crafts, organizing games, yoga for the children, and more. My task was to go to the local school and paint a hopscotch – no any hopscotch but an educational one. When I got to the school, there were 2 old ones that were barely visible in the pavement. We decided we would paint both, because we did not want the children to have to line up a mile long to play nor did we want the children arguing over 1 hopscotch. The Community Day ended with a movie and popcorn using the microwave that our team had brought down.  After a long busy day, it was easy to rest our heads on our pillows.

The day came when we would actually start our work. Unpacking, organizing our supplies, meeting the rest of the team.  Team members came from all over including Chile, British Columbia, Costa Rica,  Mexico and New York.  My primary task and that of the other technicians was anesthetizing mostly underweight patients. Many of the families can barely feed themselves, leaving not much protein for the pets. The main staple of the dogs and cats diets are homemade tortillas. Most of the surgeries were routine, though there were a few tumors removed as well. 
It felt like a giant family, where we worked all day then met up for dinner in the evening, with the words “can you pass this, can you pass that”. The food was very good, with a variety each day. The best was the juice made from freshly squeezed fruits.  The week flew by and by the time we knew it, Friday had arrived and it was time to pack up and head out for the long journey home. We had to be up and packed by 4 am Saturday morning because the locals set up a market on Saturday mornings starting around 4:30 am. Many thanks to Dr. Lechten for giving us all this privilege to work with underprivileged pets and people.
To sum it up in a few words, cultural and humbling. Bye bye Todos Santos until we meet again.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

a synopsis from Dr. Lechten...

Another visit to Todos Santos has come to an end.  As usual, it was filled with highs and lows.  There were lots of smiles and laughs, as well as some very emotional moments.
Thursday and Friday were travel days.  This year our group consisted of 7 people, including Rose who was the client that won the opportunity to go with us.  Thanks to everyone’s generosity we had 12 totes worth of supplies and presents.  Luckily we had no issues getting everything through customs and loaded on the plane.  Our flights were smooth and the drive to Todos Santos was crowded and long, but accomplished safely. 

It is always exciting to arrive in Todos Santos to see old friends and meet potential new friends.  Change is slow in Todos Santos, but always visible.  The archaic jail has been replaced by a small park-like area.  The french fry/chicken stalls have moved.  Changes are never major, so even minor changes are quite noticeable.
Saturday was Community Day.  As usual, organized activities were presented in the square to the delight of the children.  Amaria is a school teacher from Guatemala City that happily donates her time to this activity each year.  The children enjoyed games, crafts and face painting by Stacey.  In Canada, tween boys would be much too cool to do crafts, but in Todos Santos they jump right in.  The older children are also wonderful about making sure their younger siblings participate as well.  Sadly there are many very young children working shining shoes and selling things.  This year many of those were able to take time out to participate as well. 
While the activities were occurring, Lisa (our own Allandale technician) and Guillermo went to the school and repainted the hopscotch squares.  They gave the squares a special GAAP flare by putting information regarding pet care and rabies prevention.  Lisa and Guillermo were assisted by Mario and Cristino, the two boys that we provide school funding for.  The entire outside of the school could use a paint job, so that is a goal for next year. 

Saturday night is “Movie Night”.  This year’s movie was Dr. Dolittle 3.  The movie is well attended by children and grownups alike.  This year there were approximately 100 people in attendance.  The Allandale gang brought popcorn all the way from Canada which was popped and distributed.  There were also small toys distributed to the children.  Can you imagine the joy of something as simple as a glow bracelet when you have no actual toys to play with?  There are certainly children with toys in Todos Santos though the vast majority do not have any store bought toys and just make do with whatever they can find.  One day we saw a little girl entertaining herself with a plastic lid.  I remember a story my grandmother told about the only store bought toy she had as a child and how devastated she was when it was broken.  My son had so many toys as a child that he probably didn’t even play with all of them.  Seeing children with no toys, but smiles on their faces is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. 
Sunday morning we were able to get up early and take our traditional walk around the village prior to heading to breakfast.  It is incredibly exciting to see people and animals that we remember from previous years.  It is even more exciting when the people recognize and are happy to see us.  The majority of Sunday consisted of unpacking and prep work for Monday.  Since the plan this year was to do many more spays and neuters than in the past we needed to be particularly organized.  To that end we had training sessions for everyone involved in the afternoon.  It’s a lot of work to take an empty community building and turn it into a functioning, though primitive hospital in one day. 
Sunday we were again assisted by Mario, Cristino and Cristino’s brother Roberto.  It is amazing to see how much Mario and Cristino have matured and how much more outgoing they are since they are able to attend school.  Cristino’s brother Roberto is now at an age where he will be requiring support for school and Mario’s sister Roxanne is currently working rather than attending school due to a lack of funds.  School is not readily available for the older children.  They are still attending public school, but must pay for schooling, books, supplies, internet time for homework and clothing for school.  Also, many families cannot afford to lose the income provided when a child goes to work.  So any funding for the children must cover both school expenses and lost income. 
A few of us were graciously invited to visit Cristino’s home on Sunday afternoon.  Cristino’s mother Santos was so pleased to invite us into her simple, but clean and organized home.  This family of four – mother and three sons – lives in a single room.  Canadians would be ashamed of such simple surroundings and would likely not invite anyone to visit.  This charming woman was happy to show us her home, her son’s homework and most of all the love that she has for her children.  She gave us the best hot chocolate I have ever had. 
Monday through Friday was spent working from 8am to 5 or 6pm doing surgeries, vaccines and preparing for the next day.  Previously we have only done surgery on dogs, but this year we spayed and neutered cats as well.  We have also only done rabies vaccine in the past since it is provided at no charge by the government.  This year thanks to a generous donation by Idexx, we were able to give canine distemper as well.  Next year it would be nice to give canine and feline distemper. 
There are so many moments that stand out from the week, but I will just mention a few. 
It has been a financially difficult year for this area and many of the dogs were extremely thin.  It is very difficult to tell people that are barely able to feed themselves and their families that they need to feed their pets more.  One little boy brought his dog in for vaccines.  Both the little boy and his dog were sooo very thin.  You want to take them both home and care for them, but the reality is that all we were able to do was to give the dog a big pile of dog cookies and the little boy a bag of chips and an apple. 
There was a lady that brought her dog in to be spayed.  Once the dog recovered enough to go home we watched the lady carefully place it in a crate the size of two milk crates combined.  She then placed the crate on her back with a strap across her forehead and prepared to make the 45 minute walk up and downhill to her home.  Melissa was going to give her money for a taxi, but our interpreter offered to drive her home.  Melissa and Andres set out to drive the lady and her dog.  They dropped her off at the top of a steep hill and left her to finish the downhill walk to her home.  Andres explained to Melissa that it is a fact of local life to walk up and downhill with heavy burdens. 
Many of the children come every day after school.  There’s not a lot that happens out of the ordinary in Todos Santos, so our being there is a big event.  The children are so sweet and cute.  They love watching surgery and interacting.  This year we were lucky to have some dolls that one of our clients knit.  We passed these out to some of the children.  We also gave one of the dolls to Juana.  Juana was the absolute cutest 80 year old lady.  Juana was there with her cat for surgery.  Many of the little girls enjoyed manicures thanks to Amy, one of the veterinarians.  Melissa and Andres applied temporary tattoos to many of the children as well.  Andres is a godsend while we are in Todos Santos.  He speaks English, Spanish and Mam (the local indigenous language).  We spend the entire day calling for Andres to come translate. 
Sadly we had two anesthetic deaths this year.  This is not surprising given the poor condition of many of the dogs and the limited facilities we have.  The deaths hit everyone hard as this was the first deaths in many years.  However, the Guatemalan veterinarians that were there explained to us that we were doing everything we could and most Guatemalan veterinarians will not run these types of campaigns in rural areas due to the high risk involved.  They thought that we should be quite satisfied with our overall success.  We were worried that the local people would be discouraged by these deaths, but there was not a single surgical appointment cancelled. 
Santos asked us to visit on Friday to say goodbye.  A group of us stopped at her home on our way for a final walk around the village.  Once again she invited us in.  She was busy making tortillas over an open fire.  With great emotion she told us (in Spanish) how grateful she was for the help we provided her family and the fact that our help allowed her boys to attend school.  She said how much they loved to learn and how happy she was that they were receiving an education as that was their chance to have a better life.  With tears in her eyes and her voice cracking she told us that she looked forward to seeing us again next year and that she hoped everyone would still be alive and well.  Santos told us to remember that no one knew what day would be their last and to live life to the fullest.  She explained to us how important family is and the ability to get together as a family.  She told us that her parents own the home she lives in and that she fears that if they die she will not have any place to live as there are other family members that may want to sell or live in the home.  By the time she finished speaking everyone had tears in their eyes and many in the group were openly crying.  Santos hugged each of us and again wished us well.  The strength of this woman – a single mother, no work, providing for her children as best she can – is incredible. 
There are people and animals suffering here in Canada and all over the world.  Todos Santos just happens to be the little part of the world that we are trying to make better.  Each year we go and provide education it helps improve the lives of the pets.  Spaying and neutering helps prevent unwanted puppies and kittens.  Rabies vaccines help to keep the pets and humans safe.  Trying to get even a few more children educated may help their families break out of a life of poverty. 
We are so grateful to all of the clients that support this project in so many different ways.  If you ever want to know more about Todos Santos or if you want to consider visiting with us next year, please don’t hesitate to contact us.  And make sure to check out The GAAP (Global Alliance for Animals and People) website at to see information on all of the great work that they do.  The project coordinators, Elena and Guillermo, are fabulous people that have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place for animals and people.