Finding community, grace and family in Guatemala

Have you gone on a Guatemala service trip? Share your story below.
Deb Canales

Deb Canales, EVP and chief people and experience officer

As People of Providence, we pursue a core strategy of “creating healthier communities, together.”  And we extend our compassionate service to the poor and vulnerable regardless of national boundaries.

Earlier this month, I was honored to contribute directly to that work by co-leading a group of human resources leaders alongside Mary Cranstoun, Providence’s vice president of Total Rewards, serving a community in the highlands of Guatemala. Our team worked in the village of Capilla Chiquita, helping almost 20 families address the public health issue of unsafe drinking water. We called our group ‘Team Aqua,’ an appropriate name for the first Providence group to install equipment for the collection of water, providing access to clean, filtered water at each home.

As we learned about the many needs and daunting challenges facing this community, the people of Capilla Chiquita taught us many lessons, and as we shared with one another every evening, each of us came away with a sense of gratitude, humility, patience and a focus on what is most important – family.

After two short days on our trip, I was invited to participate in a ceremony with our partners at Medical Teams International (MTI).  It was described as a low-key, intimate celebration to acknowledge the gift from Providence of medical supplies to the community of Uspantán (a village less than one hour from Capilla Chiquita). The gift was a shipping container full of wheelchairs, hospital beds, and other medical supplies that we take for granted here at home but are hard to come by in this remote part of the world.

To my surprise, as we approached the town of Uspantán, I learned that over 1,000 villagers would be joining in this “low-key” celebration! After scrambling to borrow something to wear that was suitable for such a large gathering, I was privileged to speak (using my less-than-perfect Spanish, no less) on behalf of Providence, along with the First Lady of Guatemala (Primera Dama De La Nacion), Patricia De Morales; the Guatemala Country Director for MTI, Dr. Manuel Calderon; and a number of local dignitaries.


What was billed as a “low-key” celebration turned out to be quite the affair! I was honored to represent Providence.

What a blessing to witness the joy and gratitude of the people in this rural community, for whom our support meant much more than just the monetary value of the supplies and labor we offered.

The First Lady of Guatemala, a woman of remarkable poise and compassionate leadership despite being just 36 years old, commented that many large enterprises send money and spend their time in the larger cities of Guatemala. She told us Providence is different: “You not only provide medical supplies and education, you are working side by side with us. The people in the highland communities of Guatemala would perish without your support and for that we are truly grateful.”


The first lady of Guatemala expressed her gratitude for everything our caregivers are doing to support villages in the Highlands.



We brought a shipping container full of wheelchairs, hospital beds, and other medical supplies. Another container is on the way in August.

Providence continues to work closely with our partners in Guatemala to determine how to best support their needs, and another shipping container of medical supplies will make its way there in August. For me, I witnessed a beautiful group of leaders who all are a testimony to our mission as we reveal God’s love for all through our compassionate service. We left energized, with a renewed spirit, and in the words of Leslie Pim, a member of Team Aqua, each of us vowed to “Take it forward and don’t forget the importance of community and family!”


Team Aqua members included Anthony Riani, Mary Cranstoun, Monique Ferguson, Quinlan Buchlak, Ron Chavira, Leslie Pim, Shauna Van Dongen, Karen Zastrow, Kendra Nordstrom-Seleaumua, Dana Vandewege, Deb Canales and (not pictured) Sister Vilma Franco.


Share your story!

If you’ve been on a service trip to Guatemala, I’d love to hear about the impressions or memories you took away from the experience. Please share your observations in the “Leave a reply” section below.

By the numbers

A look at our work in Guatemala so far this year …

  • Caregiver service trips: 10
  • Providence volunteers serving internationally: 197
  • Medical Consultations: 1,700
  • Surgeries: 129
  • Stoves constructed: 169
  • Latrines constructed: 50

Learn more

  • Visit the Providence Health International Website
  • Follow Providence Health International on Facebook to keep up on what our volunteers are up to in Guatemala




  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Deb! I was fortunate enough to participate on a service trip to Chicaman in February 2013. Our team installed clean stoves in the homes of several village families. What struck me was how welcoming and receptive everyone was. Here we were, a big group of Americans that didn’t speak their language, coming into their homes, putting huge holes in their ceilings (for the stove pipe), rearranging their kitchen to make room for the stove, playing with their kids, and taking photos. If someone were to come into my home in the US and do the same, would I be as welcoming? I don’t think so. It was humbling and has served as a constant reminder for me to be more welcoming and inclusive in all aspects of my life. Thank you to Providence Health International for allowing me to participate in such a wonderful experience!

  2. Dear Deb,

    Thank you for sharing your inspirational story. I had the awesome privilege of serving on a team last May. We built latrines in the most remote village of Monte Maria. We were deeply moved by the honor of being the first team to visit the beautiful people in this community.

    On our first day, we were greeted by the Mother Counselors with a handwritten welcome sign printed in three languages. The welcome ceremony was overwhelmingly touching. Working alongside the people in the village, my Providence colleagues and the amazing MTI team was a lesson in simplicity, love, community and service. Collectively, at least 30 latrines were installed and I left with the hope that the families would be impacted in a positive way. Without a doubt, the impact on me was far greater. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity and look forward to co-leading a team this October!

  3. Excerpt from our Hopes and Aspirations written by the Sisters of Providence.
    “We expect that Providence Ministries will continue outreach to the poor as a central element of the work of Providence Health & Services, responding to emerging needs of the poor and using its resources to address them with wise stewardship, but also with a willingness to take risks. We expect them to reach beyond the borders of our own country as global citizens exemplified through the witness of Providence International Missions.
    Such efforts provide transformation, not only for the recipients of the services but also for Providence people who provide services.”

    I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve on two mission trips to Guatemala; both trips have been life changing experiences. Thank you Providence Health International you are awesome!!!

  4. Maria was a patient Julie Doyle, NP, saw on the same mission trip back in 2015. Back then, Maria was frail and pale; people carried her into the clinic as she was too weak to walk. Julie diagnosed Maria with terminal cancer and had to deliver the news to Maria and her family, who until that point didn’t know why she had been so weak. The family of course was devastated.

    The team did everything possible to ensure Maria got the strongest pain medications they had on hand, and also worked with the MTI team to provide morphine for the strong pain. They prayed together, there was nothing else they could have done for this poor woman and Julie told her to go home, rest and be with her loved ones, predicting Maria didn’t have much longer to live.

    Back then the medical team took a very difficult decision — to not give Maria one of the few wheel chairs. The resources and supplies we have are quite limited and needs get met by prioritizing based on what will have the longer term impact. This prioritization is a heart-breaking decision because it means some will have to do with less. Unfortunately both the local people and the medical volunteers have to face such decisions daily.

    To everyone’s surprise and shock Maria was back again this year! On the 3rd day of clinics (the 1st day in the 2nd village) a woman came to see us, who had traveled 5 difficult hours to see us. She was extremely weak and gaunt as she was unable to keep any food down. It soon became clear why: she had palpable tumors in her abdomen that were probably blocking her intestines. The nurse practitioner, Julie, said she recognized her; it was Maria! Julie had thought frequently over the past year of Maria’s fate. This year, Maria had lost even more weight, was in severe pain, and had been affected cognitively as well. We were moved to tears as we cared for her, prayed with her, got her a wheelchair, and tried to get her some more pain medication to help her be comfortable.

    In the USA someone such as this would be under medical care. It was difficult for me to comprehend that there was simply NO medical infrastructure for these people. Although medical care was available, many people in remote areas of Guatemala simply had no access or financial means, and so were left out!

    Again and again throughout this trip a theme kept reoccurring – how similar we all were in our humanity, in our pain, in our need for love and care, and desire for our children to live well and be happy. We were all one and the same, regardless of the circumstances and location in which we had been born.

    It is difficult to contain all of my experiences in an email, or even in words. I am still processing this experience. Being in Guatemala in a medical context made it so obvious the gaps between the haves and have-nots. It is hard for me to be okay with being back in the United States and realizing I have access to everything I need, while there are people in Guatemala who go without every day.

    Story after story: women who had lost children, seniors whose eyesight was going, people whose shoulders were worn out from tilling the land with hoes, using machetes, and bearing heavy loads. Knees that were worn out from hiking up and down the mountains and lives of working the land.
    Guatemala is a country left broken by nearly 40 years of civil war in the 60s through the 90s. These people had come to the clinic with hope, looking to us for “magical” cures and miracles. We could only touch the surface of their great need. I found inspiration from a passage in Isaiah:
    Isaiah 58:12 “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings”
    Faced with overwhelming needs on so many levels, emotional, physical spiritual, we were truly carrying out the vision of Providence of easing people’s way. I faced enormous suffering in a way I had not done before, and through our work in the village clinics, I truly felt we were carrying out the Providence Mission of revealing God’s love for all, particularly the poor and vulnerable, with giving compassionate service. Even though we provided physical care, we pulled teeth, we referred people for a surgical program, which is free or donation based, one main thing that happened was my awareness was awakened. In this experience the Providence mission struck me on a deeper level.

  5. Thank you Deb for sharing such an integral part of your journey of your time in Guatemala; and what an honor to be part of such a celebration! I had the honor of traveling to Guatemala this past February and serving with an amazing team and working within a community called El Soch. We were a stove team; however the work provided within the community extended beyond the actual physical labor. I should say; we were much more than a stove team! Each day in El Soch we were welcomed into the homes of the families we served; and we operated with such a willingness and sincerity that crossed any language, age, or social barrier. Often it is the words that go unspoken; and that transform themselves into a smile or a pat on the back that become the most heartwarming and remarkable, I believe. I took many pictures on my time within country; this has always been my way, to document my journeys I embark on, whether large or small. For myself, it makes the journey an indelible fixture within my mind.

    I brought with me an instant camera, not entirely sure how I would incorporate this into the trip. After speaking with the leaders of our trip, in hopes of avoiding pandemonium within the community; I decided to approach this with each family on an individual basis. Upon completion of the stove within the home I would ask the family in Spanish if it was okay that I took a photo of them; and say something like this: ‘¿Está bien tomar su foto? Uno foto para ti, y uno foto para mí? The family would gesture to me, yes. I would in return put my hand upon my heart, and signal back; gracias. Even though we never tried to rush our experience within each home; we were always aware of the work that remain ahead; fighting against daylight in time to get back to Chicaman before dark. One photo I snapped was of a family with four children, two boys and two girls. All a little perplexed at the process that stood before them; my purple Fuji instant camera pointing their way, I pushed the shutter … ‘snap’!

    My hope was to obtain each photo with a quickness of calm and care. The motorized mechanisms contained within the camera began to work; everyone stood still for that moment, and ‘poof’ a picture capturing that moment in time spit out of the camera. I said in Spanish; ‘uno momento’. I wanted one more photo; so we both could have a copy. The process repeated with a subtle ease. This was a way in which I was able to connect and engage with the family on a personal level. Somehow this was how I spoke to them. I handed one of the photos to the father, and began to walk down the muddy path, the sun breaking through the mist of the morning. I turned at just the right moment and could see all the children; his four and others that were standing around watching this ‘photographic’ process huddle around him. He had to lift his arm so high in the air; not to drop the photo, or not to have it yanked by an excited child. He looked at me, and smiled, BIG. I smiled back; I don’t think he realized he would be getting a photo of his family until I actually handed it to him. I walked down the path, my heart filled; trying to hold my tears, and so happy I was able to give this gift of a ‘family portrait’ to this beautiful family.

    Thinking of this day today only makes me happy; I hope the family portrait still brings happiness to this beautiful family in El Soch. Have a beautiful day!

    • Thank you for so beautifully illustrating the poignant moments of connection and community that accompany our Guatemala service journey. Working alongside each family to promote health and wellness and also leaving a photo with each family you worked with was such an honorable way to extend care and demonstrate respect. Thank you for your service with Providence Health International and your commitment to building healthier communities in Guatemala.
      With gratitude,

  6. I had the privilege to serve on the last PSCS mission trip to Monte-Maria in Guatemala. While I signed up for a service mission to install stoves for the extremely poor people of this village I quickly learned it wasn’t at all about the stoves. Rather, our trip was to show God’s love for these people through our work; a people who may not have been monetarily rich, but were blessed with the strongest sense of community and family I have ever seen! Our work will increase the longevity of this community by providing cleaner air to breathe in their dirt-floor huts (the stoves replaced the need for an open burning flame they currently use) and ease the men’s way by decreasing the work burden of gathering wood used as fuel for heat and cooking as the stoves are more efficient. While I feel very blessed to have served, I also feel guilty as the people of Monte Maria gave me way more than I gave them; they allowed me to be a servant leader; they opened their homes and hearts to new ideas and didn’t judge this white skinned-white haired woman (the children were fascinated by my hair and skin color and kept lifting up my shirt to look for my brown!) We played soccer, sang, danced and rejoiced in our time together. Yes, there were devastating moments; seeing the sick children with no access to what I considered basic necessities – but we also saw hope! Together, MTI and Providence will make sustained changes in Guatemala and THAT my friends is what this mission trip gave me – the chance to fulfill our mission of creating community and fulfilling God’s mission wherever we serve! Thank you, Providence and MTI for this work. I hope to go back! (I have a feeling Dr. Andersen has already started recruiting for his next service team!)

    • Thank you for participating with us in Guatemala and for opening your heart to this opportunity, Rachel! PHI is so grateful for your PSCS team’s stove construction work alongside our MTI colleagues and the families of Monte María. Thank you for your compassionate heart of service and for the passion you bring back with you to your home ministry to share the message of what we can accomplish together.
      With gratitude,

  7. Thank you for your eloquent words, Deb. It was an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity, as a Providence caregiver, to make a positive contribution to the health and wellbeing of a humble, isolated, warm and welcoming community with you on Team Aqua. I will always be grateful for the experience and for the insights gained from directly experiencing the culture in Guatemala. Our MTI colleagues are an excellent, hard-working and inspiring team guided by the best moral values. I would encourage all of our caregivers to be a part of this impactful and meaningful work. It is personally and professionally enriching and the people of Guatemala are profoundly grateful for the assistance we can all offer them.

    • Thank you so much for your service with us in Guatemala, and for honoring our partners and the families you worked alongside as an ambassador for the community of Capilla Chiquita. We are so grateful for your passion for creating healthier communities beyond our borders!
      With gratitude,

  8. I participated in the PHS Surgery trip to Reu, Guatemala the first week of May. Besides general and gyn surgery, this trip was a pilot for a wheelchair program. Freewheelchairmission is a California based nonprofit that provides wheelchairs at no cost to people with disabilities in developing countries. This was a new project for Faith in Practice as well as for the PHS surgery teams. My main task was to screen patients for the wheelchair program (I’m an OB/Gyn by trade, but do a little of everything in Guatemala – general medicine and peds, assist at surgery, whatever’s needed). I admit that I thought the wheelchair program would be pretty lightweight stuff – some folks with strokes, perhaps some kids with CP (cerebral palsy) and so on. What I didn’t expect was the diversity and magnitude of the medical problems I saw in folks coming for wheelchairs.

    There was no specific triaging or recruiting for the program; there were newspaper and radio announcements in communities Faith in Practice serves that free wheelchairs would be available and people came. I was blown away by the circumstances these folks were dealing with. Strokes, yes, but paralysis from birth due to birth defects (spina bifida), severe auto accidents with suboptimal medical care, long standing neurological conditions. Folks who would spend all day sitting on a plastic chair that might be dragged from room to room; a 20-something man who was literally carried in on a blanket by four of his friends. Begin able to move from room to room, even get out of the home on their own power is a life-changing gift.

    This experience was also an amazing example of Providence teamwork – nurses (who not only screened patients, but had invaluable expertise in treating some of the decubitous ulcers we saw), physical therapists who fitted the wheelchairs and provided extra support and counsel, wheelchair assemblers (who put together over 100 wheelchairs in five days!), Faith in Practice people who guided us through the program. Back home we’d have committees and workgroups to design a program before we ever started; here we put ten people in a room with 120 boxes full of disassembled wheelchairs and they made it work – nearly 100 people screened and 85 wheelchairs fitted and distributed during the week.

    There was a lot more to the trip (and to the wheelchair program). Not every outcome was a happy one. And even in the grief and tears we supported each other and felt that the Guatemalans we were working with knew they had our love and prayers.

    I’ve been traveling to Guatemala for short-term missions for more than 10 years. While some call these trips life-changing, I prefer to think of them as life-affirming. Our experiences create a community with the poor and vulnerable that goes way beyond charity and sustains and inspires our work back at home as well.

    • Dr. Anderson,
      Thank you for your leadership and service.
      You have been such a gift to the patients you serve and to our international programs. I continue to be inspired by the stories from from this team.
      Thank you for sharing your story!

    • “Life-affirming.” Excellent point. I whole-heartedly agree. Thank you for your post.

  9. I participated in an Alaskan trip with PHI/MTI to build latrines and handwashing stations in Esquipulas this spring. What a powerful experience of serving, connecting and caring!!! I shared a story and some photos on my blog …, and hope to do more writing there about the experience!

    • Susan,

      Your blog is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
      I also appreciated your prior blog and reflection on Rigoberta Menchu and our call to meet the common good.
      I believe that these experiences help awaken in us a call to service and responsibility. It has been consoling to me to return to words of Cesar Chavez, “It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.”

      Thanks for sharing your story,