Joselín Hicho received the call the night of March 12. Her 21-month-old son, César Vicente, had been added to the next day’s schedule for volunteer surgeons to operate on his cleft lip. The next morning, they hopped on the 5:00 a.m. bus from their town of San Sebastian for the two-hour journey to a private hospital in Zacapa, Guatemala.

The humanitarian organization Hearts in Motion (HIM) has been sending surgeons to perform life-changing surgeries on Guatemalans for about 35 years. Cleft lip and palate, which can lead to malnutrition, are common operations in the area.

Hicho says she’s happy her child will have una vida normal, a normal life.

Lars Neuenschwander, one of 35 Washington State University students on this year’s spring break volunteer trip with HIM, witnessed surgeries such as Vicente’s, and his dream to provide free medical services to less fortunate individuals around the world solidified into a concrete goal.

“I had realized that I spent a lot of time engineering things that help people, but never really got an opportunity to work with those people,” says Neuenschwander, who just graduated with bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering and Spanish. “[Hearts in Motion] was the perfect combination.”

For 12 years, students, primarily health sciences and Spanish majors, have traveled to Guatemala with HIM offering assistance to dentists, surgeons, and other specialists. They were assigned a new duty each day, such as checking people in, measuring height and weight, or drawing blood. They also tested people for anemia and diabetes, assisted in tooth extractions, distributed and gave instructions on pain pills, helped with speech and physical therapy, and constructed homes.

The students all had varying levels of Spanish skills, and Neuenschwander says being a “runner” to direct people at the clinics required the most diverse set of Spanish words.

If patients had anemia or diabetes, runners would explain that, if diabetic, they needed to drink less soda and eat fewer sugary foods. If anemic, runners would send them to Ana María Rodriguez-Vivaldi, associate professor of Spanish, who would give detailed advice.

“There is nothing I can compare to being thrust into a situation where everybody around you speaks no English, and you have to communicate really refined instructions about their health,” Neuenschwander says.

Students also visited the nearby nutrition center for malnourished children, orphanage, and senior center built by the HIM program.

The seniors come in on Wednesdays, and the orphanage children serve them meals, says HIM founder Karen Scheeringa-Parra. What makes the program unique is that anyone at any age or ability can help change others’ lives, she says.

“This [program] is so broad that you can bring your grandma down and she can rock babies in the nutrition center while we go do surgery.”

Scheeringa-Parra always had a heart for helping others and went to school to be a social worker.

Her journey to creating this nonprofit was not a smooth one.

After suffering a fifth miscarriage, she adopted a little girl from South Korea. She had no idea how this would lead her to help hundreds of other children and eleven adopted children of her own. Eventually, she was able to conceive one child.

While in South Korea, she met a woman who was adopting six children with heart defects. She was doing this because the child she adopted a year prior had died due to a lack of timely medical attention.

“I was so impressed when I met her. She had turned her pain into something really incredible,” Scheeringa-Parra says.

Inspired, she brought home a little girl from Guatemala in 1983 to operate on her bilateral cleft palate. The next year, she brought 27 more children.

In 1990, HIM started sending university students as volunteers to make a larger impact. The program has been in Zacapa, the area with the most need, for 24 years.

WSU junior Auni Edwards arrived in Zacapa as a biology major and, after interacting with Guatemalans, left with the realization that she wants to become a physician’s assistant to have more direct personal contact with patients.

It was Edwards’s first study abroad experience, and she says she was shocked by how kind and grateful everyone was.

“They have so little but they are still just as happy, if not happier, overall,” Edwards says. “We were literally pulling teeth with just topical, and they were awake. They got up out of their chairs and hugged and thanked us.”

Edwards traveled to Ecuador in July to test anemia rates with Kathy Beerman, professor in the School of Biological Sciences. Beerman recognized that Guatemalans might have iron deficiency because of their high-starch diets when she first started going on the trip seven years ago.

The group rode buses on dirt roads in the sweltering heat to a new village each day, set up the clinic, and spent the day offering their services, including anemia testing. About 100 people were tested in each village. This year, the average anemia rates ranged from 20 to 25 percent, up to 35 percent.

When patients test positive for anemia, they are given the Lucky Iron Fish, a fish-shaped iron piece activated in boiling water and then cooked in meals such as rice to enrich the food with iron. It lasts five years for an entire family.

HIM has retested patients in later years to see the impact, and Guatemalans have reported feeling more energetic and having an increased ability to do activities such as walking their children to school.

HIM already offers a few services in Ecuador but founder Scheeringa-Parra wants to expand even more. Beerman’s goal is to start a second HIM program in Ecuador in May 2020, if there’s enough medical need.

Edwards says the HIM excursion gives students a cultural experience they couldn’t fully grasp sitting in a classroom, and Neuenschwander agrees.

“We complain about things like not having Wi-Fi,” Neuenschwander says. “But when you compare them to the things other people in the world live with—that really provides you with perspective of how privileged you actually are.”


Latisha Jensen (’19 Comm.) and photojournalist Matthew Winchell, part of the Murrow College Backpack Journalism program, accompanied the HIM volunteers in March.

Video by Matthew Winchell as part of the Murrow College Backpack Journalism program