Breckenridge 6-year-old Tenley Viñas connects to her Guatemalan heritage through volunteer work
July 6, 2013
It's a typical day at the Viñas household in Breckenridge. Tenley, 6, runs around the house dressed in a brightly colored summer outfit and talks excitedly about her upcoming trip to the swimming pool. On the walls and nearby tables are photos of Tenley and her parents, Scott and Carmen Viñas. Some show Tenley as a baby; others, taken when she was older, show her dressed in traditional Guatemalan clothes.
Scott, a firefighter with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue, and his wife, Carmen, adopted Tenley from San Jose Sacatepequez, Guatemala, in 2007. They first met her when she was only 10 days old.
Toward the end of the 10-month adoption process, while Scott and Carmen were living in Guatemala, Scott went out for a stroll. Suddenly, "I saw a fellow firefighter from Eagle County walking down the street," he said, shaking his head at the coincidence.
When they spoke, she told Scott that she was there on a volunteer medical-outreach mission run by the Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine (RVUCOM).
Two months later, Scott and Carmen returned to Colorado with Tenley in tow. However, Scott found he couldn't get the idea of the medical volunteer mission out of his head, and in 2008 he raised the funds to go on the next trip. He's done it each year since then, but this year was special — he was joined by Tenley and Carmen. It was Tenley's first return visit to the country of her birth.
Connecting through service
"We wanted her to feel connected to her home country and have that sense of pride and belonging to that heritage," Scott said. "So I asked her this year, I said, 'I think you're probably old enough that if you want to do this, this is what it would take and here's how you can help.'"
Tenley wanted to go, so Scott spoke with Dr. Camille Bentley, organizer of the RVUCOM mission. They determined that not only would the mission be safe, but Tenley could do her part to help as well.
"So she raised the money and away we went," Scott said.
All volunteers on the RVUCOM mission pay for expenses — from airfare to food and lodging — out of their own pockets. Previously, Scott had relied on the generosity of friends and relatives, and this year Tenley and Carmen were thrown into the mix. The family sent out letters and emails and managed to come up with the funds in time for the trip. They left at the end of April.
The RVUCOM mission brings doctors, nurses, EMTs and medical students to villages in Guatemala for four intense days of diagnosing and treating medical conditions of people too poor or too far from medical facilities to get regular treatment of any sort. Scott and the other EMTs act as the first line of contact between the villagers and doctors, doing primary diagnoses and determining which type of doctor each patient needs to see.
As an American with a limited Spanish vocabulary, Scott found that one of the biggest challenges he faced was getting the people, particularly those of the indigenous tribes, to trust him. By going back year after year, he managed to build up a few relationships, but it wasn't until Tenley came along that he really broke through the barrier.
Tenley's primary job for the mission was to help comfort and distract the children, both healthy and sick. With Carmen's help, she went to the Walmart in Guatemala City and, "we completely wiped the shelf of coloring books, crayons and (other) stuff," Carmen said.
The children were instantly drawn to the books and crayons, considered luxury items. While Scott spoke with parents, Tenley enticed the children to the play area, making them feel comfortable and keeping them out from underfoot. Afterward, she would give each child several crayons as a gift.
"You would think that those colors were gold," Scott said, of the children's reactions.
Then, Tenley moved beyond coloring and began interacting with the patients alongside her father.
"Whenever I was doing triage and (the patient) was looking a little nervous, because here I am asking all these questions, sometimes Tenley would come over and soften that experience a little bit," Scott said.
In the clinic, he wears kneepads so he won't intimidate his patients by towering over them. He kneels with each one — and as he demonstrates this in his living room, Tenley moves right beside him to imitate — and speaks to them, asking questions about their medical issues. Having Tenley, whose ethnicity is Mayan Kaquikel, one of the largest of the indigenous Guatemalan tribes, beside him helped gain the patients' trust. The two even learned several phrases in the Kaquikel language to further connect with the patients.
If a patient was still nervous, Tenley would stand between her father and the patient, holding clipboard and pen. Sometimes she would even take over the stethoscope, putting it to the patient's chest herself, while Scott moved in from behind to listen.
Working like this, as a father-daughter team, not only impressed the patients at the clinic, but allowed Scott to bond with Tenley through the experience.
"As a parent, I really saw her make a connection … You could just see that she just fit, interacted, and I saw her comfort level of just moving in and out amongst the people," he said. "I was proud to see a real connection."
Scott and Carmen are glad that they have found a way to keep Tenley in touch with her heritage and make a positive impact at the same time. Their parental pride is obvious.
"She's perfect in every way," Scott said.
Tenley, meanwhile, has declared the trip a success and said she's looking forward to going back next year.