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Reflections of a Volunteer

“If you feel God has called you to a people or a place, just remember you are not their savior; you are their servant.”                             ~ a thought that inspired Betty Jo

It was simply a magical morning, my first full day in the island of Sapwaufik, a 4-8 hour motor boat ride (depending on the waves) from the main island of Pohnpei. In just 7 days, my time in the islands would be over. I awakened earlier than the others who joined me in sleeping on the cement floor with a quarter inch straw mat. We stayed in the lovingly built schoolhouse that no longer housed eager students. I went to use the toilet which the islanders had carefully put together for us. It included a black bucket where one could draw water from the outdoor rain water reservoir to flush with. I quietly set out for an early morning walk on the beach. I stepped over the low stonewall which kept roaming pigs from the footpath and houses inside. I loved the feel of the gentle warm humid breeze across my face, for really, I believe I am an island girl at heart.

Having lived on Guam for over 10 years helped prepare me for the life I now was growing to love. My sandals patted the sand down deeper; each step brought me closer to the water. The tide was out. I wasn't in a hurry; I wanted to take in the beauties of the morning sunrise. Soon I found a log where I could sit and enjoy the splendor. I sensed I had company and turned to find a local school-aged girl who was eager to practice her broken English. We chatted about simple things -- what grade she was in, what I was doing here.

Soon a young girl donning her Pohnpeian skirt came along with her 9 or 10 year old sister who was completely naked. She sat gracefully on the log in front of me resting her chin in her hand and staring at me with her big beautiful brown eyes and shoulder-length brown hair. Total acceptance of her appearance permeated the air. It seemed surreal. I'm embarrassed to admit feeling slightly perturbed that my quiet solitude with God and nature had been interrupted with humans. After a few minutes, her sister came and handed me an orange plastic bag, which I opened and to my surprise found shells that she had been collecting on the beach for me. I looked up and smiled at her wishing I knew how to say thank you in her language but she seemed to understand my gratitude. A few more minutes passed mostly in silence as we each enjoyed nature's bounties. I arose and started walking a few feet more down the beach. There in the shallow water was a toothless grandmother sitting in the water enjoying its warmth along with the squeals of her 2 1/2 year old naked grandson. They were playing together. She too held out her hand offering me a bigger conk shell that she had found beside her. I basked in the simple sincere generosity.

I had experienced that same generosity many times before during my stay on the main island of Pohnpei. It had come in many forms and ways -- the lovingly prepared local foods at a teacher's home; the boisterous enthusiastic singing of the kids who came to the Children’s Program and didn't want to leave after it was over; a hand woven pallet made of banana leaves overflowing with eggplant, tapioca, bananas, and taro dropped off at my door from the village people where John and I had spent the evening before doing health screening of blood pressure and glucose, and sharing a simple message of eating "local" foods, drinking plenty of water, and staying away from "crunchy" bags. My mind could fill hours of thinking just remembering these simple sincere gestures given from the purest of hearts. These people knew how to express hospitality at its finest.

This trip came at a time in my life that I had never personally experienced such brokenness. This trip from its planning to its culmination was a "God trip." Before July, I had not a thought of going on such a trip, but some money had become available to me and I knew immediately where I wanted to send the offering -- Pohnpei, for I knew from a previous trip to visit my son there in 2006 that someone was doing a work in that island for the health of the people. Being a certified diabetes educator, I was especially interested in helping in any way possible to stop the ravages of diabetes. As life unfolded, rather than sending the money, I bought a ticket and went to Micronesia to be of service for 5 weeks.

I thought often of what I had heard on a Bible study tape before coming: "if you feel God has called you to a people or place, just remember you are not their savior, you are their servant." Those words echoed in my mind many times as I, along with John, experienced the tiresome tedious attention to the details of providing a children’s program and diabetes education amidst limited resources. Where else would one tirelessly and ever so slowly cut with the dullest of scissors cardboard to use as backing for posters or spend much too long just trying to get the simplest of things xeroxed?

I ponder and savor the sacred special moments there. There were so many. I remember with fondness trying to get out to the track to run or walk by 6:15 so I could watch God's firework display of sunrise each day. Nowhere else in the world is there such an array of colors and clouds. It came with such quietness and subtlety; it would be suddenly over much too soon. I enjoyed the hot humid air along with the chats I had with fellow walkers. And I remember my feeling walking there with fellow exercisers during my last morning, wishing I had more time; there were so many more things I wanted to do, so many more observations in clinics I had hoped to make, and so many more people I had wanted to spend time with. However, the time was gone much too soon.

I always took a trash bag and found a simple joy in picking up trash on the way back home. There was always more than I could ever contain, but I could make a little difference and maybe someone someday might follow my example. That was my hope -- that they too would come to appreciate the beauty of this lush green landscape and treasure its cleanliness. Then, up to "Cupid's Point," where I could rest my eyes on the beauty of the greenery along with the view of the ocean below, the ships, the birds flying, the butterflies flitting, the quietness, the scent of flowers. Just God and me; it was profound. It was sacred. It was here I gained strength and courage to grace another day.

The days were filled with the excitement of understanding a new culture, eating new foods, meeting interesting people, and seeking to share some of the grace and love of God that I have been blessed to experience. Yet I was saddened as I faced the horror of the Western diet and the havoc it has wrought on the people in this island. The effects of "crunchy" bags filled with cookies, chips, or ramen have taken their toll. It's not unusual for kids to drink 5-6 sodas a day. It is estimated that one out of two people have diabetes. Heart attack and stroke are far too common at ages 40 and 50. The sedentary life is combined with their diet that is mostly ramen, white rice, fried meat or fish, breeds obesity. Most all adults male and female are overweight -- that's the norm.

An American woman whom I met at the Rotary Club meeting which I was privileged to speak at, asked me to come to her shop as her Pohnpeian worker had been diagnosed a year before with diabetes. As she spilled out the details with worried lines on her face, she spoke about how she saw her making good changes -- eliminating sodas, eating less refined foods. BUT she also refused medication and was using some kind of local remedy. She even wondered if her worker would allow me to do the check, but she hoped maybe her example of letting me do hers first would decrease her resistance.

The day I arrived, all went as planned and her worker succumbed to our gentle insistence. We rechecked because it was so high -- 480 -- but we got the same result. I tried to explain how important it was for her to go to the doctor. Unlike most others on the island, she was not overweight. She needed to receive medication so she could prevent the deadly effects of high blood sugar -- blindness, nerve damage, kidney shutdown, heart attack, stroke, and amputations. I wish time would have allowed our meeting again. I can hope she took it seriously and got the help she needed. And I hope that on my next trip, I will find her with normal blood sugars, happier and healthier.

It was sometimes exciting, often mundane, but I began getting a glimpse of the profound in the simple. That's what 5 days on an island with no running water, electricity, or vehicles could do in my heart. I will be forever grateful for those 5 short weeks. They have changed me forever. I experienced a peace and calmness in my soul like no other.

Back in Sapwuafik, I was blessed with a snorkeling partner, my 4'8" friend Saphina. Somehow our hearts were one. My experience in Guam with local women had already taught me that women are generally afraid of the water and never get in more than knee deep. But Saphina was different; she went out with us snorkeling our first day. Dustin, a previous volunteer to this island 2 years before and his fiancé Laura and I gathered our snorkeling attire and waded through the ankle deep water out to the reef trying to miss the coral as we gently stepped along. Saphina had no gear but she came. I have pictures of her with eyes open in the ocean water. She seemed to enjoy the time as much as we did.

And she went with me each day when no one else wanted to; she was my partner. I questioned her, knowing that no other local woman snorkeled, and even her own daughter was scared to go. She told me how she had learned snorkeling as she joined her husband in his spear fishing endeavors which provided food for their growing family. She was a one of a kind woman; and I was honored to enjoy her company. We talked of more serious things, sharing our stories, knowing that our hearts were one. It seemed odd and yet so natural to feel so close to a woman with kindred spirit who had never known the world I live in. Her life consists of cooking taro every meal discovering ever new way to make it for her children and husband but most of all loving everyone around her and sharing her deep belief in God with everyone she touches. Her simple example speaks to me and continues to quiet my soul in distress.

The Children’s Program was such a joy and yet for me at times so stressful. It again was a steep learning curve as I finally accepted the fact that I was in an island where I wouldn't change their way of life. I finally surrendered to starting when kids and staff got there instead of on time, just letting their culture and ways be a part of the program and savoring their richness rather than stressing over their inefficiencies.

The songs we sang are engraved on my heart and mind; I pray they are also in the hearts of the children and staff who came. "Ancient Words" was my favorite: "Words of life, words of hope. Give us strength, help us cope. In this world where ere we roam, Ancient words will guide us home. Ancient words ever true, changing me and changing you. We have come with open hearts; oh, let the Ancient words impart." As we together sang that song and made the motions for open hearts -- both hands held high with palms outstretched in surrender... surrender to the God in heaven who alone could change our lives and gives us open hearts, I found myself with goose bumps on very hot nights and tears freely flowing. Those were sacred times.

And there was also the elementary classrooms at the school on the main island where I shared practical suggestions for simple choices those children could make to prevent diabetes from happening in their bodies. Hopefully little seeds of health and life were planted that will continue to grow and sprout and spread. The "doing" of the ABC's.

After serving through MAHI International, I wonder, will there be more teaching? More learning? A Wellness Center? Only God knows; but one thing I know is that MAHI International is making a profound difference in many ways to the health of that community and people. It was a privilege and honor to be a part of that and to work with a man who seeks God's direction every step of his path among those islanders, who has a passion for guiding them in better health patterns, knows their language and much of their culture, is not afraid to find the profound in the simple, is not too proud to be busy with the mundane, is willing to trust God for the financial security of his family, and lives out everyday in practical life what he believes.

And as for me, where do I go from here? Praying, letting God direct my life. I learned in deeper ways how to trust the God who was directing my steps. Many times I was made aware of my own selfishness, control, and weaknesses. But God delights in using broken vessels and equips those He calls. I found strength in that.

And I wonder and pray that God may direct my steps back to those islands of warm sandy beaches and beautiful coral gardens but most of all the precious generous people who are forever in my thoughts and prayers. [Click here to learn more about our volunteer Betty Jo Vercio]

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