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Volunteers support Guatelmala's poor: Minnesota family overcomes obstacles for Godchild Project.

Minnesota family

overcomes obstacles

for Godchild Project

At the edge of Antigua, Guatemala the prosperity of a tourist town meet the destitute poverty in which descendants of a proud Mayan people live Therein dwells the Godchild Project.

It is a nexus of services to 875 families in 16 villages that fan out in a five mile circle. From education to commerce to health care, the project has linked volunteers and professionals from Guatemala and the United States in an expanding and ongoing work.

But the development of the Godchild Project hardly occurred in a straight line. It has been intimately linked to the fortunes and fate of the Huebsch family of Perham, Minn. The project has taken hold despite the vicissitudes of Guatemalan politics, the sudden death of one of its two founders and a decision by the other to study for the priesthood.

The project, an apolitical, nondenominational effort, began in Antigua in 1990. Its roots go back, however, to when Dave and Betty Huebsch watched their three children go off to college and decided in 1984 to volunteer for two years at San Lucas Toliman, the Guatemalan mission of the New Ulm, Minn., diocese.

Toward the end of their stint, while still living at the mission and supervising the vocational school they founded there to teach woodworking, the couple expanded their work to neighboring Santiago Atitlan, founding the Godchild Project in the village of 40,000 where Fr. Stanley Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, had been killed in 1981.

Today, a dozen Guatemalans and a dozen Americans, most of them volunteers, work full time among the people. Four more Americans in the United States raise funds, publish newsletters, solicit volunteers and manage the warehouse in St. Paul, Minn., that funnels medical and other supplies to Antigua.

One Friday in January 1988, armed men stopped Dave and Betty Huebsch as they traveled between San Lucas and Santiago. They had heard rumors before that their lives were in danger; now they were warned to leave the area. Recalling Rother's murder, they began packing at night and dividing the vocational school tools among the students. By the end of the weekend, their car was ready. They notified others and departed for Minnesota.

Dave and Betty Huebsch told Godchild sponsors the project had ended. They resumed their U.S. activities, he teaching English and both of them running a photography studio in Perham. They found none of it as satisfying as their Central American experience, so they decided to try again, to scout Guatemala and Nicaragua for a place they could find the improbable combination of personal safety and people living in degrading poverty. They were planning the new project when Betty died suddenly of a blood clot in the brain two days before Christmas 1989.

It was June 1990 before Dave and son John, who previously had visited his parents in Guatemala and helped the project from Minnesota, continued the quest. They found enthusiastic Guatemalans and a location meeting their criteria in Antigua, about 60 miles from Santiago Atitlan.

By November 1990, father and son had reactivated the sponsorship program. Soon, Guatemalan and American volunteers were joining in, children were going to schools and getting medical care, 18,000 newsletters at a time were being cranked out.

For Dave, living and working in Guatemala, founding and nurturing the Godchild Project led to another spiritual step. Before he married Betty, he had been a seminarian; after she died, his thoughts turned again to the priesthood. For two and a half years now, he has been studying at Sacred Heart Seminary, Hales Corners, Wis., in its special program of older men. Dave Huebsch does not plan to work in Guatemala as a priest but in his home diocese of St. Cloud, Minn. He may be ordained a deacon this year, then probably a priest in about a year and a half, John said, adding that his father continues to work for the Godchild Project and to visit it when he can.

One child from each of the 875 families involved in the program has an American sponsor, or "godparent," who regularly supplies financial support. The funding sends the child, and often his or her siblings, to school and buys shoes and clothing for them. All in the family receive social and medical services.

On site, staff members oversee another project that teaches widows to make a living growing chickens, and they help establish women's groups whose members support one another, especially in establishing small businesses.

Also available is vocational training such as typing or sewing classes and, in one case, medical school at the University of San Carlos for a young man intent on becoming a physician.

Twice a year for a week a volunteer medical team visits from the United States bringing hospital and surgical supplies. The team performs about 60 operations, usually fairly simple procedures such as repair of hernias and burns, club feet and cleft palates. Twice a month, a team of construction volunteers arrives from the United States to build houses or pour cement floors for the people's homes and to work on the dream of the Godchild Project: a $1.2 million, six-building Family Development Center.

Initially, the project found sponsoring godparents in Minnesota, and although, sponsors today live in perhaps 30 states and include a few in Europe, 80 percent are in Minnesota. Dave and Betty Huebsch, learning that the people's top priority was schools and that they did not want to wait two years until permanent ones could be built, created temporary ones, using the stone and cornstalk construction prevalent in the area.

Today, the project continues to percolate. About half the funds needed for the Family Development Center have been raised, and the first building, a vocational school, is nearly complete.

The foundation has been poured for a second building, living quarters for 24 long-term volunteers to share as a base community. The building also will house a dinning room for all workers and a kitchen and laundry that will serve the complex.

Next on the agenda is a building to contain offices for social workers, living space for short-term volunteers and a warehouse for receiving shipments from the United States.

More funds will be needed to finance the next three buildings: a clinic containing a dental office, laboratory, x-ray and examination rooms a building devoted to surgery that will enable the project to host a surgical teach every month, and a sixth building where patient beds will fill the first floor. The second floor will have rooms for patients' families.

"There will be no problem getting teams" for surgery, the younger Huebsch said. "People from California and New York, from Dartmouth and Virginia and all over want to come down."

Today John envisions a day when the Godchild Project might grow too much, might become impersonal and weaken. To avoid that, he is considering limiting the number of godchildren to 1,100. Once that number is reached, he speculated, maybe we'll work at that level until we really get established, then maybe consider some satellite project in nearby towns" or starting anew elsewhere.

Santiago Atitlan may provide a precedent for moving on. Although Dave and Betty Huebsch left the schools there sooner than they anticipated, "the plan always was to turn them over" eventually, John said. In Antigua, with the number of godchildren at 875 and plenty of construction remaining, his focus remains on finding fresh faces and funds to open avenues to health and self-sustenance for Guatemala's poorest families.
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Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 3, 1995
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