An interview with Mary Beth Volberding
Mary Beth Volberding has been active in the Mexico Medical Mission at Saint Barnabas for 17 years. Having always been an avid all-rounder volunteer – and despite “not being a medical person,” as she puts it – Mary Beth became plugged into the medical mission supporting the Mexican village of Ensenada in 2005. She explains to me that many indigenous workers in the region are strictly controlled by patróns (comparable in status to feudal lords of the manor). Workers live in mountain camps, lacking access to even basic medical care. The mission aims to be the hands and feet of Christ in service to Ensenada’s community. In addition to medicine, the team also distributes items such as rice and beans, clothing, hygiene products and more, providing a “one-stop shop” to address villagers’ basic needs.
Mary Beth describes the evolution of the Mexico Medical Mission over the years: from a group of four volunteers delivering care and supplies by car, to an annual operation involving (in pre-pandemic times) a busload of 70-plus volunteer doctors, nurses, translators and other medical specialists making the 800-mile round trip to Ensenada.
Having previously handled travel logistics, Mary Beth now manages the mission’s collection and distribution of medicines and other supplies. Whereas in previous years the team has brought all necessary medicines with them from the US, ever-evolving border regulations now necessitate the purchase of more items in Mexico. This, Mary Beth explains, has highlighted the inequality and poverty that the mission was founded to counteract. “Aspirin and Tylenol are 20 times the cost in Mexico,” she says, noting that in the US, “I can buy a bottle of 1,000 aspirin for, say, $25. [In Ensenada], they are sold in packages of 10.” Locally, something as simple as aspirin is seen as a brand-name luxury item.
When speaking of how she has witnessed the Holy Spirit at work in the Ensenada mission, Mary Beth shares moving, even miraculous stories from the optical department in particular. One young man seen by the volunteer optometrist had a rare optical prescription requiring a different strength of corrective lens for each eye. Having found one of the two required lenses in a donated pair of glasses, Mary Beth set about finding an appropriate second lens: something like finding a needle in a haystack. When she reached for one of the thousands of donated pairs, one lens seemed to pop right out of its frame into her hand. It fit the need exactly, and the man’s vision was restored.
Another time, the mission received a pair of expensive designer frames as a donation, which contained unusual prescription lenses that the team didn’t expect to be able to use. The spectacles, lenses and all, turned out to be a perfect match for an elderly Mexican patient. Restoring the gift of vision, Mary Beth says, has been one of the most impactful and gratefully received aspects of the mission’s work.
While such stories are memorable, it’s the remarkable generosity involved in keeping the mission going that really stands out. Donated items have included hundreds of pairs of glasses: a local Mexican optometrist stepped in to distribute these when 2021’s pandemic conditions saw the Saint Barnabas volunteers unable to make the trip in person. With a generous financial donation from parishioner Tom Baker, the team are poised to implement a new system for delivery and expert fitting of another 2,500 pairs of glasses, as soon as they are able to return in person.
The effects of the mission are far-reaching, for both the recipients of the care and for the volunteers. One Ensenada resident has been transported back to the US twice for life-saving open heart surgery, with a surgeon donating his time to perform the operation. The day after her surgery, on Christmas Eve, Mary Beth recalls that the woman came out of the hospital to attend a service at Saint Barnabas. It emerged that the woman had never even received a Christmas present before that day. The woman’s son was so impressed by the care his mother received that he went on to attend medical school in Mexico and eventually to become an MD. Throughout his training and residency, the son continued to volunteer with the mission.
When asked about the impact of volunteering on the volunteers themselves, Mary Beth mentions people who began participating in the project as children and thereafter have experienced a lifelong impact on their relationship with Christ. Several people, she shares, have even begun careers in medicine and pharmacy as a result of this experience of service.
Volunteers participate in various ways from all around the US. Medical practitioners, including dentists, physicians, optometrists, psychiatrists and other specialists, take time away from their regular practices to come to Ensenada and donate their services. Countless more people from all walks of life participate by donating funds, equipment and supplies.
With the pandemic still presenting many challenges, Saint Barnabas has had to get creative, with new directions unfolding for the mission program. This summer, for example, Saint Barnabas funded a one-day mission in Ensenada on August 18. For the second consecutive year, local doctors will be compensated for their time, seeing patients and distributing medicines in place of the annual weeklong mission trip. Another of the mission’s pandemic-era efforts is the “Pack The Backpacks” initiative. On past missions, volunteers had used a local school as their temporary base – but noted the lack of resources at the school. In response, “Pack The Backpacks” will fill 100 backpacks with school supplies, to be transported to Ensenada in order to improve the educational experience of the local children.
Something Mary Beth wishes everyone knew about the mission is the great impact of all the various donations on the function of the program: from the food items collected by the children’s summer camps and local food banks to the generous cash contributions to “Pack The Backpacks” just this summer. The local appreciation for and effectiveness of the congregation’s prayers for the people of Ensenada, she says, also can’t be overstated.
Mary Beth says it’s hard to describe the gratitude and appreciation of the local people for the help and support: “People get dressed up in their Sunday best to attend their appointment” – which may be the only medical care they receive all year – with one woman undertaking a three-day bus journey in order to attend. “They have nothing, yet they’re still willing to give from the nothing they have to somebody else.” The people of Ensenada work hard to smooth the way for volunteers’ passage in whatever ways they can, even arranging for a police escort to facilitate travel south of the border in years past. This, Mary Beth says, is emblematic of the enthusiasm and gratitude of the people of Ensenada for the work of the mission. “God finds a way,” she says, “and so will we!”
You are invited to learn more about all of our Missions Programs at our Missions Festival on October 20, 2022.
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