Three of the founders of Bien Estar, from left, Teeka Ferguson, Alyssa Franklin and Cheralynne Kennedy, are all alumni of the Selkirk College nursing student trips to Guatemala. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

West Kootenay nurses work for well-being in rural Guatemala community

Bien Estar is an offshoot of the annual Selkirk College nursing student trips to Guatemala

An innovative program that took a group of Selkirk College nursing students every year to Guatemala to work in a rural community has ended after 13 years with the retirement of its instructor, Mary Ann Morris.

But the 120 alumni of the program have started a new organization to carry on the work in a different form. And they are continuing the tradition of beans and rice dinners in West Kootenay communities that operated as annual fundraisers for the Selkirk trips.

The new organization, Bien Estar (“wellbeing” in Spanish) will fund and support health programs in the community of Nuevo Horizonte, which seems to have become a spiritual home to many of the alumni whose experience there was life-changing.

“I am still with them in solidarity,” says Teeka Ferguson, who went on the 2010 trip. “Coming home there was a feeling about Guatemala and Guatemalan people, that they belong to me and I belong to them, and I still want to foster that.”

Ferguson now works as the diabetes educator for Interior Health in Castlegar and Trail.

“We formed such robust relationships with these communities,” says Cheralynne Kennedy, who went to Guatemala in 2009. “It really is something I brought [home] with me and made me who I am today.”

Kennedy does home care nursing for Interior Health in Nelson. She’s also a member educator for the BC Nurses Union for the West Kootenay and works as the regional lobby co-ordinator for the union.

“It really brought to light a lot of the concepts we were learning in our nursing program in a way that I had not completely connected,” says Alyssa Franklin, who did the Guatemala trip in 2006, its first year. “The social determinants of health, concepts like capacity building, empowerment, what marginalization means, all that really came to life for me.”

Franklin works in home health in Trail, teaches in the Selkirk College nursing and gerontology programs, and co-ordinates practice placements for both.

With Bien Estar, the group intends to keep working with Nuevo Horizonte on supporting diabetes prevention and self management, as well as child health and wellness, educational scholarships, and micro-loans for community development projects.

Nuevo Horizonte is a community formed by ex-guerrilla fighters in the 1990s after the brutal Guatemala civil war. The community runs as an agricultural cooperative, with a number of education and health programs aimed at socio-economic health and independence for the community.

Morris’ annual trips to the community with her students always included a focus on mining operations of Guatemala as threats to the health of residents because of lax environmental standards and sometimes human rights abuses. Often these were Canadian mining companies, thus creating an international learning experience for Canadian nursing students. The trips often included a visit to the Canadian embassy in Guatemala City to discuss mining.

The groups also spent much of their time helping with basic health issues in the community but the difference from many other charity projects is that they take their direction from local community groups and learn from them.

That’s a philosophy that Bien Estar intends to continue.

“The communities are identifying what they need,” says Franklin. “It is not a power over or we know better, or us coming in and telling them that they need. It feels like an intention and philosophy and approach that I can get behind.”

The beans and rice dinner will take place at the Nelson United Church at 6 p.m. on Dec. 13.

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