Guyana trip shifts Greenfield pastor's world viewBy RICHIE DAVIS , Associated Press
Dec. 21, 2013 12:46 AM ET
GREENFIELD, Mass. (AP) — When Dennis LeBlanc, a former minister who now directs Greenfield's Pastoral Counseling Center, was packing his bags in mid-October for three weeks in Guyana, with shorts, T-shirts and other gear for the South American country just north of the Equator, he had to remind himself that this trip wasn't a vacation.
The brief visit to the English-speaking tropical country was instead a chance to see firsthand what it would be like to volunteer in a Third World country, helping a longtime friend from seminary who has been traveling to the former British colony for the past nine years.
LeBlanc got a taste of the culture along with the strengths and failings of the country by joining his retired friend, who spends three months a year teaching psychology and related subjects to nursing students at Mercy Hospital in the capital, Georgetown, while also volunteering at an orphanage there.
For the 67-year-old LeBlanc, who had traveled to Egypt and Israel and had volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, what he described as his first experience in a true Third World country gave him a fresh perspective on the world.
Describing the hour-long taxi ride the first Sunday on his arrival, LeBlanc wrote in an email to friends, how the driver "warmly greeted me and talked the whole way ... only stopping, when he pulled over to a roadside fruit stand and told the owner something in the distance — the owner then pulling out a machete and proceeding to carve up a coconut from his stand. The driver put a straw in the hole and then handed it to me, saying, 'Welcome to Guyana my new friend. I hope your stay is a good one.' Trying to pay for his kindness, I quickly halted as he said, 'It's a gift — no pay for gift here.'"
LeBlanc, a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as pastoral counselor, led a "Relationship 101" workshop for the 17 young nursing students at the hospital, many of whom had already experienced abuse and bad romantic encounters.
During his visit, from Oct. 19 to Nov. 9, LeBlanc also volunteered at the St. John Bosco Orphanage for Boys just outside Georgetown, where he was one of few men and was known as "Father Dennis" by the boys, mostly 6- and 7-year-olds, he kept company playing board games and by being surprised by their creativity.
"I was really there kind of watching them play, as an observer," he says. "I didn't want to go as the American who knows all the rights and wrongs. The kids are the saddest of populations for me. It touched my heart to see what they don't have. But they're also the most resourceful," playing intricate running games and version of marbles played with far-flung bottlecaps.
"I let them be the teachers of me, following their leads, and they seemed to have pride and joy doing that," said LeBlanc, who found that the boys also had a fascination for his camera and photos he and they could take with it.
After playing games like "Snakes and Ladders" in an outdoor pavilion during a surprise torrential rainstorm, LeBlanc observed, "They wanted a hovering adult to say what rules are. They're craving structure, to not have to be in charge of their lives and having some adult saying, 'It's safe enough for you just to be a kid.'"
LeBlanc, who wasn't paid but got to share a simple apartment with his friend on the hospital grounds, described squalid conditions where no one dared drink the water and even hospital rest rooms lacked toilet paper or paper towels "because people would steal them."
In an email, he wrote, "There is NO RELIEF here — from the heat, humidity, torrential downpours ... or from the poverty, pain, unemployment, corruption, garbage, congestion, noise, danger, illness ... and on. Relief is a concept very few can afford. ... These are not temporary problems that come and go like our seasons. They are their perpetual state of affairs, that people today have inherited from their forebears, and now those children are also destined to have as the reality of their lives."
After a visit to Guyana's only "Mad House," as it is called by locals, LeBlanc lamented, "What we saw there defies description ... But I will say that the filth, squalor, poverty and disregard for human life, made me embarrassed to be part of the human race. That we can warehouse people in such a fashion, and hide them away so that who knows who they are, where they are, how they are doing, is a travesty. And to bring a smile to their face or show comfort and compassion for a few moments, does little to soothe my sadness."
And yet LeBlanc also shares glimpses of Guyananese hospitality, like the bus driver who responded, "Nonsense" to a request by Canadian and American visitors for a restaurant stop after he'd driven two hours to a hospital and back again. Instead, he pulled out his cell phone, called a Hindu friend, and had everyone invited to their home to share a celebration of the annual feast day, Puja.
"For the next hour and a half, we ate, visited, were shown their ducks, chickens, fruit trees, flower garden ... and left filled with so much more than food!"
Overall, LeBlanc says of his three-week visit, "It was a sad and depressing experience, but their sense of gratitude for what they have in life was a slap upside the head for me."
He's still weighing whether he would return.
"I can honestly say I don't know," he says, adding that he may be more inclined to help out from here, whether it's by sending needed things to the orphanage or making other kinds of contributions. "I'm thinking about it a lot. It's shifted something inside of me that wants me to pay attention to my life here differently and to some part of a pocket of my experience down there. I don't want to let either of those things go."