Salvadoran families benefit from B.C. charity
By Laureen McMahon
The B.C. Catholic
VANCOUVER--Buying goats was not on Mike Rasmussen's agenda when he and his wife Angelique began volunteering in El Salvador in 2005 to help poor families have a better life.
Mike, a realtor, and Angelique, a learning-assistance teacher at St. Patrick's Elementary in Maple Ridge, were prompted to contact the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a religious order with missions in El Salvador, after their teenage son was successfully treated for cancer a decade ago.
"Central America seemed accessible, so we asked if we could come for a couple of weeks to help out," Mike explained.
Sister Gloria Petrone, ACJ, the mission director in El Salvador, invited the Coquitlam couple to the village of Las Delicias, where about 3,000 people live in abject poverty.
In the five years since that first trip, the Rasmussens and their volunteers have completed several projects, including building a children's health clinic staffed with doctors from the Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children.
They have incorporated a charity, Aura Humanitus (Heavenly Kindness), which is registered in B.C. to provide tax receipts to donors to continue the ongoing Salvadoran mission. Father Augustine Obiwumma, pastor of St. Matthew's Parish in Surrey, has come on board as a director.
Mike and Angelique's approach to being charitable has changed since their first visit to El Salvador.
"We began by sending a shipment of shoes to Las Delicias so children would no longer be exposed to diseases by running barefoot. It was a good idea, but shipping is costly and subject to delays even when the goods are donated. Buying livestock and other things locally is a better plan, so we now concentrate on raising funds to purchase things in the area."
Struck by the rampant malnutrition of the village children, Mike did some research and realized supplying goats to families would be a good idea because they are relatively easy to raise.
"A single female goat can produce about four litres of high-protein milk per day, which is significant for these extremely malnourished kids. If there is more milk than a family can consume, the excess can be sold for income."
Last fall, while on one of his twice-a-year trips to Las Delicias, Mike and a couple of volunteers drove to a livestock market about two hours from San Salvador in search of goats.
"They are a mystery to me, and I was out of my depth when we found ourselves in the middle of a chaotic marketplace trying to buy a herd of young, healthy, pregnant, females, and one male goat. I speak almost no Spanish and have no idea how to tell male goats from females, let alone how to figure out if they are pregnant!"
Every goat seller assured Mike that their goats fit the bill. They also tried to convince him to buy their horses and cows.
"I must have looked pretty desperate when a Salvadoran in pressed jeans and a white cowboy hat tapped me on the shoulder and asked in fluent English if he could help. He was obviously sent by divine providence!
"He said his name was Oscar, and when I explained my dilemma he said not to worry. Within a short time he had bought the right number and gender of goats for much less money than I was expecting. When he realized we had no truck to transport them, he found a driver who agreed to take them for a small cost."
By the time Mike jumped into the truck to ride with the goats, Oscar had disappeared.
"Once I was home I contacted people who knew him from a photo I had taken. Fortunately we were able to properly thank him on the trip just after Christmas," Mike said.
This year the charitable efforts have branched out to the nearby village of Zaragoza, where the Rasmussens oversaw the construction of a daycare facility, Angel Mia, named in memory of the 2-year-old daughter of Angie Nonis, a Vancouver mortgage broker who raised $40,000 to cover the project.
The construction, said Mike, encountered many delays, including a tropical storm named Agatha which caused massive mud slides and flooding of the site that set things back for many weeks.
"We are so thrilled that it is now open," he told The B.C. Catholic in early January.
"The need for a daycare is serious, because often families must choose to stay home to protect their children (and forego any income) or leave them alone for up to 14 hours a day while they work in the city.
There is a lot of violence in Salvadoran society, and the moms sometimes resort to tethering their children in the `house' (usually a tin-roof, dirt-floor ramshackle hut) to keep them safe while they are gone. It means so much for the moms to know their children are safe and cared for."
Last fall Mike took about 45 kilos of medical supplies to the clinic. Adults in the village are treated by a field nurse who does daily rounds to provide aid to the sick, elderly, and infirm, he explained.
"She is known as the `Angel-of-Las-Delicias' because of her kind heart and never ending energy. Her eyes lit up when she saw me unpack a supply of mosquito nets on the last trip because there is a lot of dengue fever in Central America, as well as the usual malaria and insect-borne and life-threatening illnesses."
Every time he arrives in the villages, Mike said, he is amazed at how much has been accomplished.
"We left Vancouver on Boxing Day, and when we opened the clinic door, we saw Dr. Tanya Lopez giving a power-point presentation on nutrition to the village mothers. The clinic, which didn't even exist a short time ago, is miraculously improving the health of the children and families."
Clinic staff, he explained, have established a micro-credit program where mothers who attend classes receive credits to exchange for medicine and emergency transportation to hospital, a sort of primitive health-care plan which "is turning out to be a massive success."
The charity recently helped a 10-year-old boy get open-heart surgery in Los Angeles. "I told the nuns we would pay his air fare. They were very grateful to our donors and supporters in Canada," Mike said.
A hot lunch program for youngsters also got a boost from Aura Humanitus when money was advanced to continue the progam after funding dried up.
"This meal," said Mike, "is cooked by moms and consists of rice, beans, some kind of meat, and a tortilla.
It is the only food some children get each day, and there are typically about 40-50 kids who receive it."
Information on the programs of Aura Humanitus and on becoming a contributor is available at http://www.aura-humanitus.com.