How San Antonio doctors are helping Guatemalan children overcome crippling poverty

The Guatemala City dump is one of the largest in Central America. Each day, trucks line up by the dozens, taking in over 500 tons of garbage. That trash functions as a lifeline for hundreds of destitute Guatemalan families, who pick through the garbage for items they can sell to recycling companies, and for food to feed their hungry children.

“They live in poverty that we don’t understand here,” says Dr. Marie Berkenkamp. The Greater San Antonio Emergency Physicians doctor is one of the founders of Shared Beat, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the families – especially the children – who live in the shadow of the dump. Twice each year, Shared Beat doctors travel to the dumps, providing vitamins, toothbrushes, health screenings, and education to children there. The group has even hired a year-round health specialist in one school in the area to provide consistent care to children, helping the kids stay in school.

 

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Dr. Marie Berkenkamp checks up on a child during a recent Shared Beat trip to Guatemala (Image courtesy: Snap Chic Photography)

 

“Our mission is to move people out of poverty by providing them better health, so more opportunity,” says Berkenkamp. “We partner with education reinforcement centers and we give them their medical care.”

 

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Sunscreen, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and vitamins are among the items Shared Beat doctors distribute each visit. (Courtesy: Snap Chic Photography)

 

“What we provide is something many of them cannot afford, even at the basic level,” added fellow Shared Beat founder and GSEP physician Dr. Wright Hartsell in a recent interview on KENS 5’s Great Day SA. “The people trust us.”

 

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Drs. Hartsell and Berkenkamp talk about their recent Guatemala trip on Great Day S.A.

 

That trust wasn’t forged overnight. In fact, Dr. Hartsell says it took about five years for the nonprofit to really start to see the community embrace Shared Beat. Now, people line up for checkups when the Shared Beat doctors arrive. Hartsell and Berkenkamp say the help they’ve been able to provide has done more than just keep kids healthy in school – it has also given those children a pathway to future careers in the medical field. The plan: teach the children how to become doctors themselves so they can bring that knowledge back to the area and help others. By providing those children with paths to purposeful futures in Guatemala, the doctors say they are also helping children and their families resist the calls from smugglers trying to lure them into fleeing Guatemala to come to the United States.

 

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Families post signs welcoming Shared Beat doctors. The doctors make two trips a year to the Guatemala City dump area. (Courtesy: Snap Chic Photography)

 

For those living in abject poverty, the call to flee to the U.S. is a hard one to resist – which could help explain why numbers of unaccompanied minors trying to get into the U.S. from central America are rising again after a big drop-off in early 2015. But Hartsell and Berkenkamp say with each trip, they see progress; more kids in school, more kids healthy, and now, 10 years after Shared Beat began, more health professionals are in the area – including nurses who received educational assistance through Shared Beat.

“Each time we visit, witnessing the progress we’ve made inspires us to come back and do more,” says Berkenkamp. “Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”

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