( Story by Hannah Reed and Photography by Ellie Falcao)
As I sit here overlooking the fields of Austin from the height of the plane, tears are coming to my eyes. Our team of 50 people is checked in, we are past security, all of the bags and over 40 crates full of medical supplies are in the plane’s cargo (hopefully) and reality is setting in. I have the chance to be en route to San Salvador with a team of medical and non-medical volunteers from Austin, Denver, Los Angeles and Houston to provide children and adults with medical care that will change their lives. This is Austin Smiles’ 44th annual medical missions trip to El Salvador! I feel the need to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t a dream. But no, it is indeed realty. After months of preparation, generous gifts from donors, this trip is finally happening.
Over the next week, I will be sharing with you personal stories about the children and families from San Salvador that we will be meeting; but first, I would like to introduce a few of the wonderful volunteers that are on this trip.
Let’s start by meeting Jenny and Lori, two of our nurses from Austin. Lori and Jenny are good friends who have known each other for ten years, and work together at Seton Medical Center. While we were getting to know each other, I asked both ladies if their work gave them paid leave to volunteer in El Salvador, and both answered that this is actually personal vacation time for them. Lori, the wavy haired brunette pictured on the right, came on her first trip to El Salvador with Austin Smiles three years back and this is her third trip total. While talking about her recent trips with the organization, she couldn’t stop smiling while detailing her previous trips as being so much fun! Her enthusiasm about her experiences has surely rubbed off on her friend Jenny, as both are on their way to San Salvador together.
Caitlin, a sweet spirited 23-year-old UT student, is experiencing a trip with Austin Smiles for the first time today. She is in her second year of the masters program for speech therapy, and it’s her dream to work with children. The University of Texas allocates special scholarships for students in this program who are bilingual, and Caitlin was chosen, as she is also fluent in Spanish. When I asked her what she was most excited about, she paused for a few seconds, but then summarized her thoughts by answering “ I am most excited to build relationships with the children and their families and see them through the whole process.” Caitlin will be working closely alongside Alisa Barron, our team’s speech pathologist.
During our two-hour layover in Houston, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Stephan Jessin, who is one of our team’s scrub technicians. Stephan is originally from Paris, France and his previous career was in technology engineering at IBM. As we were sitting there at a small table in the food court, surrounded by team members and whiffs of seafood from Pappadeaux, I asked him “why in the world would you go from being a successful engineer to a scrub tech?” He laughed and answered in his eloquent accent, “well, surely not for the money.” His face became a bit more serious as he explained that a few years back his son Liam was diagnosed with cancer and he had to quit his job to take care of him in the hospital. While in the hospital, Stephan realized that part of his life’s calling would be to help hurting children and show their families compassion, because he knew firsthand the feelings and emotions they suffered. Six months after his son’s passing, Stefan graduated as a scrub technician and currently works at Seton Medical Center in Austin. After hearing about Austin Smiles from his colleague Angie who has been on eight mission trips, he knew that this was the kind of trip he wanted to go on. For Stephan, using his hands to help people isn’t a job that he does for the money—it’s his passion and he’s excited to get up and go to work every day.
Each team member has their own unique story about why they chose to volunteer for this trip, and I’ve been so inspired by each one of them. We are all excited to meet our pillows at the hotel later this evening, but even more so eager to wake up tomorrow and go to the military hospital for triage, which means that our medical team will meet with each potential patient to determine who is the best fit for surgery. Also, be sure to search for our hashtag #smileSanSalvador for photos and updates from our whole team.