Long-term Volunteers in Mission assignment changes a life while saving others

December 04, 2013

By: Amanda Yanchury

In 2009, Heather Nielsen had a good job as a nurse at Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s most highly regarded health care providers. When a colleague invited her to an informational meeting about a medical mission trip through Christ United Methodist Church (Rochester) to the Central American country of Guatemala, she was intrigued. Such a trip would allow her to combine her Spanish skills with her passion for nursing, and her growing faith in God.  Plus, the trip was just a week long.

But seemingly in the blink of an eye, that week turned into four years. The mission trip left such an imprint on Nielsen that it stirred her to join the United Methodist Church’s Volunteers in Mission program, which provides opportunities for Christian service both domestically and internationally. Individual volunteers like Nielsen serve for between three months and several years and do so at their own expense, although there are opportunities for teams as well, including short-term mission trips. Six people from Minnesota participated as individuals in the program in 2013—including Nielsen, who returned home in late October.

Between January and August of 2009, Nielsen raised money, quit her job, and traveled back to Guatemala to begin work as a full-time medical volunteer at a medical and dental clinic in the rural village of Camanchaj, outside the tourist city of Panajachel.

“My head and my heart were on the same page for the first time,” Nielsen says. “People had fears for me, traveling to a new country, that I would run out of money, but God kept opening doors. I never went without.”  Nielsen says she started fundraising by telling the story of her first mission trip to Guatemala, a trip in which she and other young adult volunteers were forever changed through their service. Donations continued to come in during her two subsequent two-year terms of service.

The clinic at which Nielsen served, Salud y Paz (Health and Peace), was founded in 2001 and is supported by the United Methodist Church as an Advance Special of the General Board of Global Ministries. Every day, the entire staff team would travel 45 minutes each way to and from the clinic. Mornings would begin with prayer, devotions, and a psalm reading, and singing a hymn in Spanish out of The United Methodist Hymnal.

Nielsen’s duties at the clinic varied. Mondays and Tuesdays were spent seeing patients; the other days she would set up for surgeries, train health promoters, or serve as a nurse to local schoolchildren.

Nielsen says one of the most fulfilling aspects of her service work was teaching Guatemalans good health practices and seeing them take care of one another. One program, “Amigas,” designed for women’s health education and promotion, was challenging for staff because most people in it were illiterate. Nielsen was forced to think outside the box to teach them health practices.

“They learned to serve their own people,” Nielsen says. “One woman learned how to read on the back of a potato chip bag waiting for the bus each day. She went on to diagnose a prolapsed uterus in her mother and was able to bring her in for treatment.”

Roughly 25 to 30 volunteer teams came each year to serve at the clinic or in other rural villages on a short-term basis. Some teams focused on medical efforts, while others had surgical or construction duties.

“Volunteers in Mission is a win-win opportunity,” says Lyndy Zabel, the Minnesota Conference’s director of missional impact. “The host site or area receives help, volunteers experience generous hospitality as they learn about an area and its people—but they also learn about themselves, and most come back from their experience ready to do more in their own backyard as a result of their experience someplace else. They continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus, following his call in Matthew 25.”

That’s definitely true for Nielsen.

“I’m still going to be evaluating this experience over the years,” she says. “But one thing I can immediately take away is how the people are so grateful and so humble. Their first reaction to everything is ‘thank you.’ I will take that with me.”

Nielsen says she also approaches people who are different in a new way: “People who look different or have a disability—I talk to them now instead of passing by,” she says. “Now I engage with people, and that’s a direct result of this experience. I knew what it was like to be different in Guatemala.”

Zabel says that Volunteers in Mission is the fastest growing part of the United Methodist Church, and that our North Central Jurisdiction is well-suited to help organize missional opportunities. Those interested in long- or short-term service are invited to visit the NCJ Volunteers in Mission website to learn more.

“This experience stretched me,” Nielsen says. “I gave up a good job, but I knew that was where I was supposed to go.”

 She encourages other young people to consider long-term service. “I learned so much career-wise,” she says. “I had to find creative ways to solve problems. Now I can find ways to think outside the box. I grew professionally and spiritually.

“Though it was sad to leave, the programs I worked on got to a place I only dreamed about at the start,” says Nielsen. “Trips like this change lives.”

Amanda Yanchury is communications assistant for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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