Here are a few stories from our missionaries.
Learn how they were able to help and how the missions have changed their lives.
How would you describe your volunteer experience at HHMM?
It has truly been a life-changing experience for me.
How long have you been volunteering with HHMM?
How many missions have you attended?
What is it that motivates you to keep volunteering with HHMM?
I am motivated by the opportunity to serve Christ by helping others. I always return from the missions with a renewed energy.
What has been your favorite HHMM moment or story during your time of serving with us?
On a medical mission to San Juan Sacatapequez, Guatemala in October, 2007, I believe that God placed us there for a very specific reason. We were set up in a remote clinic in the hills that was staffed at night and on the weekends by medical students from the University in Guatemala City. It was a Sunday afternoon and while we were on a spiritual retreat at the church down the street, a pregnant woman presented in labor. She was not progressing and there were significant problems with the baby with hypoxia. The medial students anticipated that the baby was going to die. Fortunately, the students came and grabbed Dr. Mary Vader, a pediatrician who was a mission participant. Dr. Vader was able to deliver the baby, intubate the baby, and resuscitate the baby. She saved the baby’s life. The baby was then transferred to the University Hospital and made a full recovery. Had Dr. Vader and Helping Hands not been present, the baby would have died. I believe that God placed us there for that reason. After this event which took place at the very beginning of the mission, the rest was gravy. It truly was a miracle.
Home State: Ohio
Parish: St. Joseph Catholic Church
When I first joined Helping Hands Medical Missions 10 years ago, little did I realize two things. Firstly, that I would eventually serve as the Philippines site’s medial director, and secondly, that several family members would end up following my lead in serving the less fortunate. To date, my fiancé, brother, sister, brother-in-law, cousin, nephew and five nieces have all volunteered. What a truly unique bonding experience! We share endless stories at family gatherings which generally end up in laughter. However, we also deeply understand the more serious needs of the people, having witnessed them firsthand, and discussions about how to best improve or prepare for the next mission inevitably happen as we sit around.
Interestingly, family members learned new things about each other. We all have roles to play in the family structure, and in the mission, we saw each other outside of those roles. I am the youngest of my siblings and known to be very playful, so when I am seen leading a prayer or organizing the day, they see a different side of me. Likewise, I have been repeatedly surprised and impressed by the strength, resilience, compassion and patience my relatives have shown through a sometimes challenging day.
Participating in any event with my family is always fun, but sharing the medical mission experience is in an entirely different level. The bonds that develop there, draw us ever closer together for they are formed with prayer, sacrifice and in the service of God. What a blessing, indeed!
A chance meeting introduced Mark Knabel to the work that would change his life. It was the year 2000, and Knabel had taken his family to Rome for the Great Jubilee, a Catholic celebration of faith and forgiveness. There he met a Lupita Assad, a nurse organizing medical mission trips to poor communities around the world.
“I happened to run into her among three million people,” recalls Knabel, a Sheboygan, Wis., dermatologist and 1979 University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine graduate. “I have to think there was some divine intervention involved.”
That sense of purpose has driven Knabel’s subsequent work with Helping Hands Medical Missions in Cotija, Mexico, a community of about 20,000 where volunteers have spent nearly a decade building a clinic, recruiting doctors, providing free health care, and reinvigorating both their professional calling and their personal faith.
“It’s almost like I actually have a practice down there—whenever I’m in Cotija, I see people I’ve treated over the past seven years,” Knabel says. He’s currently preparing for his 10th mission trip in late May.
Knabel wants young people to share in the experience. In 2005, he and his wife created the Helping Hands Medical Missions Scholarship through the Mark and Mary Knabel Charitable Trust to send UI medical students and undergraduates from Loras College in Dubuque on weeklong trips to Cotija.
One of those students is Karina Silva, a second-year medical student who joined the mission in 2007 and spent an additional month working with local physicians. The trip held special importance for her, since Cotija is her hometown.
“When I was growing up there, a visiting mission group from Texas helped get me interested in medicine,” says Silva, who moved with her family to California at age 15. “Getting to go back as a medical student was amazing and fulfilling.”
A Cotija mission entails a packed schedule of clinic days in town, trips to remote neighboring villages, and evening continuing education sessions that feature lively discussion of Catholic perspectives on bioethics. The visiting volunteers work alongside local doctors, sometimes sharing new procedures or research findings.
For Silva, perhaps the most profound moment of the trip was treating her own grandfather, who’d been injured in a fall. But she also got to explore the role of faith in her life and the lives of her patients.
The evening before they begin seeing patients, Helping Hands volunteers go door to door spreading word about their clinic and offering to pray with residents. Silva feared she’d find this kind of evangelism awkward or intrusive.
“I had it totally wrong,” she says. “People actually expected and asked for us to visit. I was approached by a classmate’s mom who wanted to be sure we’d stop by her house.”
Helping Hands welcomes volunteers from any religion and doesn’t require participation in mass or prayer, but its dedication to melding spirituality and service is clear. Knabel says the experience reveals how faith can enrich the doctor-patient relationship—a lesson he puts into practice back home.
“I’ve become much more involved in caring for the whole person, and sometimes that means joining patients in their prayer lives,” he says. “I’ve learned that some patients are looking for that.”
Knabel knows firsthand how mission work can inspire budding doctors and seasoned physicians alike. His children Anne, Peter, and Daniel have accompanied him to Cotija on trips that encouraged Knabel’s sons to study medicine. Anne and Daniel will join him again on this year's mission.
For experienced physicians, the missions offer a rare chance to care for patients without the distraction of paperwork, insurance regulations, and other bureaucratic hassles. “You bring a sense of service home with you,” says Knabel, whose practice and teaching in Wisconsin focus on surgical dermatology. “It’s changed my view of medicine.”
Through their commitment to Cotija, Knabel and colleagues have made a lasting impact on the city’s health care infrastructure. Before long, the Helping Hands teams may find it’s time to shift their focus to needier communities, but Knabel says his connection to Cotija and its people won’t be broken.
“Cotija will always be a special place for me, just like my hometown,” he says. “Places like this become part of you.”
Story by Lin Larson; Portrait by Tim Schoon; Additional photos used with permission by Helping Hands Medical Missions
Home State: Michigan
Parish: St. Joseph Catholic Church
My volunteer experience was truly eye-opening. I’ve seen poverty in Mexico but, I’ve never seen it to a point where even the floors are made out of dirt. My missionary experience helped me to grow in compassion, and realize I need to be grateful for what God has given me. As a translator and not a medical professional I saw the mission experience from a different angle. Thus, my motivation was not the physical healing of a patient but improving the communication between the patient and the doctor. I prayed that I would be a useful instrument in God’s hands and draw closer to him and be the most effective translator I could be.
My favorite moment during the mission was meeting a boy named Sebastian. He was quiet when I first met him, but when we began to play, mostly coloring, he opened up about his life. While talking with him, I discovered that he only lived with his mom. His mom works all day and does not get home until 5:00 in the afternoon. His story broke my heart, he mentioned even some days no one prepares anything for him to eat. I invited him to eat with the missionaries, he was very happy and completely devoured his food. I was grateful for my opportunity to get to know Sebastian. Spending time with Sebastian taught me that we must always to attentive to the needs of the entire person, not just their physical needs.
I look forward to incorporating what I have learned in my day-to-day experiences and planning for another opportunity to serve on a Helping Hands Medical Mission in the near future.
Manaus, Brazil 2008
My first mission WOW! 4 hours down the Amazon and 2 hours the Aribe rivers, pulling boat up to villages, dropping the plank (literally) and providing the only medical and Spiritual attention (Mass/Reconciliation) in a year. Words can't describe the poverty as well as the natives appreciation of our being there. Work, prayer, retreat from dawn to dusk, living, eating, sleeping on a riverboat.
After Amazon River part of the Mission, back to Manaus Brazil. At the Cathedral there witnessed the Ordination of 3 Priests. Those present also can partake in the Celebration with families and offer Prayers and Best Wishes to Priests, touching the Hands still containing the ointments from the Mass. The following day one of the newly ordained Priests said his first Mass at the Benedictine Nun Retreat Center we were staying. One could feel God's graces pouring forth during the Mass. The first mission is indelible though subsequent missions have proved equally rewarding.
Manaus Brazil 2009
"What A Difference A Year Makes" is quite the understatement. The worse rains in over a hundred years. The boat got lost because all the villages and markers were UNDERWATER. Parts of the villages visited the year before were covered by the expanded overflowing river. At one Church location which was a the top of the village had 3 inches of water. This did not deter Mass being said and clinics being set up for medical attention to the natives.
We were also able to visit the Parishes of 2 of the 3 Priests Ordained the prior year.
The Priest that said his first Mass for us had a parish with the Church badly deteriorated and in desperate need a power washing and painting. Our fellow missionaries took up a collection and power washed and painted the church. The Parishioners were literally in disbelief that this was being done for them. Needless to say, the Priest had been praying for this understanding God's Goodness and his Providence to allow up to respond in kind to his first mass being said for us.
Last year was my first medical mission. During the mission, I experience how the Holy Spirit was working in a very special way in the souls of the doctors, nurses and volunteers. Whenever we forget about ourselves, our comforts and give to others we experience the power of true Love. During the days of the mission, we could hear the words of our Lord: “I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you attended my needs…” YES! We went to the mission to serve others but at the end of the mission, we all realized that we were the ones who benefited the most. We were the ones that were fed with a food that last forever. The people in Salvador were a beautiful medicine for all of us.
Why in the world would you skip school, spend money, and waste your time going to somewhere with no internet connection, no malls, and no friends just to help strangers?‖ Wow, harsh question. But yes, someone actually asked me this. Granted, I am skipping classes, yes I am spending money, and I am spending time to help serve those who I don‘t even know.
My name is Ana Caballero, a college student, volunteer, athlete, and part-time worker. Needless to say, I get caught up with day to day living but thankfully I had a wakeup call. One day, my father asked me to join him on a Medical Missionary Trip to Mexico. Without looking at my assignment notebook or work schedule, I said YES!
Since I can remember, my parents have instilled the importance of giving back to the world by using the talents that God has graciously bestowed upon me.
I try to live my life by my favorite passage in the Bible: the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-10 (the Beatitudes). These eight verses are a straightforward formula on how to seek Christ, know Christ, and become Christ. And the reason why I love doing service work is because of the fact that I know I have tried to improve this world. I can‘t cure cancer but I can put a smile on a face. There is something so contagious about giving back to the community, but I am not here to blab about myself, I am here to send forth the message that great things are happening in this troubled world.
My bags are half packed, my plane ticket purchased, and my heart ready to serve. I encourage all families to take time to understand the importance of service work. Go ahead and put your faith into action, it is easy and fun.
God only has our hands on the earth, so do good. Use your freedom to inspire and fill others with happiness and joy. I was told once that what is in our hearts is who we are.
So let me ask you, who are you?
Home State: Virginia
Parish: St. Anthony’s Catholic Church
You may remember Shirley Van Milder, M.D. from the February 2015 edition of Living the Mission Experience. Shirley has now served on six medical missions in El Salvador. Shirley is an Ob/Gyn doctor from the Washington, DC area. However, the last mission was special as she was assisted by her mom, Margaret, who was serving on her first medical mission, not as a doctor, but as a volunteer assistant.
Margaret spoke of how much she enjoyed the experience. “It was challenging at times, but the overall experience, the camaraderie and the joyful spirit of the whole team was great”. Margaret shared with us how blessed she felt to have the opportunity to serve the poorest of the poor in El Salvador. Margaret was assisted in her perseverance through the challenges, because of the balanced prayer life and, most importantly, daily Mass. “I have always wanted to work in the mission, but have not been able to until now. Scrubbing in and assisting in the operating room with my daughter while she operated, was special and has motivated me greatly!”
I am so happy I took the time to serve on a Helping Hands Medical Mission and I encourage others to serve on a mission as well, you will be better for the experience.
Home State: Missouri
Parish: St. James Catholic Church
I was seventeen years old when I stepped off a bus in Santiago Texacuangos, El Salvador on my first Helping Hands Medical Mission in 2003. I did not know what to expect as I walked down old cobblestone highways greeting the people that I saw and distributed toothbrushes to their homes.
As a teenager, it was shocking to be confronted by the truly impoverished scene that was before me. The stick houses, metal roofing, and the people’s lack of access – to what I considered the most basic necessities – astonished me. Yet, beyond the poverty and desperate need, I encountered something I least expected among the people; I encountered a life-changing love and joy.
One such moment I remember vividly was a time when I was approaching a small little girl on a bridge made of kindling sticks. She stood there looking over into the waste below. Turning to me, she burst into a huge smile. Without saying a word, she radiated love and joy and melted my heart when she said “bienvenidos, misioneros” which means “welcome, missionaries.” She grabbed my hand and tugged me into her stick home where her parents and five siblings welcomed me with great warmth.
Suddenly, the tables were turned for me; the poor and the hungry were giving something to me, the missionary.
The joy and thankfulness I found in the hearts of the people of El Salvador struck me with a profound realization of what it means to be rich; what it means to have and have-not. I truly encountered the joy and contentment found in the gospels, and as a teenager, it was life changing to realize that this joy was not found in material wealth.
I learned to appreciate the value of a smile as the primary way by which one presents themselves in the world. It gave clarity to my own mission: to help others by relieving them of avoidable human suffering. After returning to the US, I began to shadow various medical specialties and soon found my niche in dentistry.
I encourage any parent to consider this opportunity for their children. In the least, they will witness and come to love the simple closeness to God as they share in the spirit of faith in these communities. For me, it also provided my vocation. I have long looked forward to finally returning to Central America as a dentist and offer so much more to them than simple toothbrushes.
Home State: California
Parish: St. Joseph Catholic Church
It was mid-2014 when I corresponded with Cary, an HHMM Ground Team Member in the Philippines. I met Cary during the February 2014 medical mission in Tanauan City, Batangas, Philippines. Cary has worked collaboratively with Helping Hands Medical Missions for a number of years.
A simple suggestion of providing sandals to the children in the poverty-stricken villages became a beautiful story. I arranged with Cary that once I arrived in Batangas for this year’s medical mission, he and I will go to to the local market to purchase the sandals. He contacted a vendor and informed him of my intended budget of $100.00 USD which would allow me to purchase about 96 pairs of sandals.
After our mission team had arrived in Manila I met with Cary at the airport. I anticipated a quick visit to the market. Instead, Cary introduced me to Luisa, a volunteer from Manila. Luisa came and brought with her three huge bags of sandals, most likely more than 100 pairs! Luisa informed me that “ they’re paid for.” She claimed that she did not pay for them, and declined to be reimbursed. “ You’ll know it soon”, was her response.
As we began seeing patients at the village clinics, the rubber sandals were being distributed by other volunteers. The following day, I was introduced to Kumar, an entrepreneur in Divisoria, the hub of wholesale transactions in Manila. Luisa apparently came to Kumar’s store, and explained some of the goals of the upcoming medical mission. Not only did Kumar send the three huge bags of sandals, he came and joined us at a village clinic and helped as translator. He also brought mosquito nets which are essential to protect infants and young children from mosquito bites, which is the leading cause of Dengue Fever, an often fatal disease. Kumar expressed gratitude for being able to contribute to the medical missions through the merchandise he brought, and made a commitment to continue his support in the future.
So children of various ages, as well as adults, left the village clinic with huge smiles on their faces, as they accepted their new pair of sandals. No longer will they walk home barefooted. However, one boy declined to replace his old pair of favorite sandals he only agreed to wear a new pair if he could take the old pair home.
We love, we care, without boundaries. If you would like to experience the joy of collaborating on a Helping Hands Medical Mission I encourage you to contact Gloria Madrigal for more details
Home State: Colorado
Parish: St. Mary Catholic Church
Mission: Santa Maria de Jesus, Guatemala
This has been an eye-opening and gratifying experience. Getting to see how the poor live was a more powerful experience than I expected. I always knew they were poor. I had seen pictures and heard stories, but standing in their homes, playing with the kids and helping the sick taught me to value everything in a whole new way. It’s not just money and possessions that are important, or even clean water and medicine. What I’ve learned to value more than ever is a smile, a hug, generosity, love, and faith in God.
The evening talks have also provided a great learning experience. Getting to discuss pertinent questions (both about faith and to medical care) with new people always allow you to learn, and has encouraged me to continue to study my faith. Overall, the people we’ve served, the missionaries, the leadership and this opportunity has been one of the best experiences I’ve had. We are all called to serve the poor and needy, and without it, there is “something missing”. God made us to love Him, which we do by loving others. No life is complete without it, and this mission seemed like (and was) a good way to help. At the end of the day, and even in the difficult days, there is a sense of joy. You’ve seen many smiles, heard many “gracias”, and can look back on a day spent in the service of others.
Everyone on the mission has a great story to share, or a sad one that needs extra prayer, but everyone has on their face an expression of joy.