Xpress, the Coolest Section of the St. Petersburg Times, is the home for features, news and views of interest to young readers. Most of the work in Xpress, which appears on Mondays in Floridian, is produced by the Times' X-Team. The team of journalists ages 9-17 from around the Tampa Bay area is selected every year at the end of the school year to serve during the following school term. The current team of 12 was chosen out of 150 applicants. Watch for X-Team application forms in Xpress during the month of May.
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By BHAVANA VANGARA
Published August 16, 2004
[Photo courtesy of Bhavana Vangara]
Tampa Bay area teens Kai Durai, left, Bhavana Vangara, far right, and Nick Kundra, lying down, visit with three of the youngsters who saw the doctors in the Medical Mission of Mercy in Jucuapa, El Salvador.
Serving at a medical facility in Jucuapa, El Salvador, might not be a typical way for teens to spend the summer.
But a handful of Tampa Bay area students did just that during an annual nine-day trip to the small Central American town in July. This was the 12th time that doctors, nurses and volunteers had made the journey to Jucuapa to care for the sick, give checkups to schoolchildren and perform surgery when needed.
The teens packed supplies necessary for the trip weeks in advance.
"The packing itself was an initiation," said Kai Durai, 15, a sophomore at East Lake High School. It tested how hard the kids were willing to work. The volunteers checked in boxes of medicines and medical equipment on the plane.
At the free clinic, which was open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., six doctors saw about 50 patients each for five days. The patients ranged from infants to the elderly. The teen volunteers assisted at the pharmacy, dispensing medication in resealable bags. Multivitamins, ibuprofen and worm medicines were the most popular.
Two doctors, William Atkinson and Victor Dragon, performed surgeries.
Alexa Kyros, 18,who is a freshman at Palm Beach Atlantic University helped with supplies and getting sutures and needles ready for the surgeons during operations.
Students also were responsible for the ophthalmology part of the mission and set up eyeglasses and prescription sunglasses on a stretcher. Once a patient came with a prescription, a student volunteer would help find what was needed. The glasses ran out in three days.
Taking German in school didn't help Durai much but there was no real language barrier.
"We did learn the Spanish we needed to know," he said. There were always Peace Corps translators at the clinic.
Mauricio Homberger, the owner of several coffee plantations around the world, provides lodging for volunteers. "As long as the doctors come, I'll take care of them," he said.
Homberger, who said he employs about half of Jucuapa's workforce during harvest season, follows through with that promise year after year. All the girls bunked at his home in Jucuapa. "It was fun sharing a room because you get to know one another very quickly," Kyros said. All the volunteers gathered at the girls' house for breakfast and dinner.
It took some students awhile to adjust to differences between the United States and Jucuapa. "The hardest part of the trip was to remember to brush my teeth with bottled water," said Nick Kundra, 14, a sophomore at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa. "I always forgot, but I have to say I'm still alive."
At the end of the mission, the volunteers gave toys to the children. "The kids were living through such adversities," Durai said. "Little things like beads brought smiles to their faces."
The volunteers' efforts were commemorated with tiles on a fountain listing their name and year they went. "It's a nice gesture from the community to let us know we're appreciated," said Dr. Roberto Araujo, the mission director.
After five days of service, the volunteers retreated to villas in Mount Suchitoto. Then they took an afternoon off to visit Homberger's beach house in San Salvador. "The house and the water were amazing," says Kyros.
Araujo, whose hometown is Jucuapa, also is the founder of the mission. "He is the most beautiful guy in the world," Homberger said. "He loves his country and he loves his town and that's what he lives for."
Medical Mission of Mercy was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for its service to the people of El Salvador. It continues to make a difference for the people who receive medical help and for the volunteers.
"This mission is unlike any other I've been on before. There were so many different people on this trip that got together for one cause," Kyros said. "It really feels like we made a difference in these people's lives."
Bhavana Vangara, 15, is a 10th-grader at Palm Harbor University High School and was a member of the 2003-04 X-Team. She accompanied her mother on the trip to El Salvador.