Local physician playing role in Guatemala during crisis

Published 6:00 pm Friday, May 22, 2020

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Dr. Jim Bruce, an orthopedic surgeon practicing in LaGrange for 36 years until his retirement in 2018, is a board member of Local Hope, also called Xela AID. This United States nonprofit organization provides education and healthcare in the Highlands of Guatemala, one of the poorest belts in Latin America.

Before the pandemic hit, Bruce was part of multiple medical missions each year.

Bruce said when COVID-19 reached Guatemala, his efforts and that of Local Hope pivoted to feeding the area that was already on the brink of starvation.

“Xela is the state in Guatemala that we work in,” Bruce said. “They picked this little village they work in, and it is mostly indigenous Mayan folks who live there, some Hispanics, but mostly indigenous people. It is a very poor area, and education had been their main focus.”

In Guatemala, there are 13 Xela AID staff members who run the day-to-day activities of Xela AID’s seven education programs serving 19 communities in the San Martin Chile Verde area of the Guatemalan highlands.

“Even though we can’t go down right now, we still talk to them on the phone and email,” Bruce said. “At this point, we’re just raising money so they can buy food for people. It is amazing. Forty dollars can feed a family for four months. That’s sort of unbelievable to think.”

Up until two months ago, Local Hope was working on education and helping the community make money through basket weaving.

“The government has been stricter than our government has been,” Bruce said. “They stopped all the flights, ordered folks to stay in place, you have to be in your home at a certain time and can’t leave until a certain time. You can only travel within a small radius of where you live. These folks only earn about $10 a week working in the field.”

Bruce said due to the regulations, they have not been able to go to work and, therefore, haven’t been able to get home.

“This made Local Hope switch gears,” Bruce said. “They shut down the schools and got the weavers to convert over to making masks. Now, they’re actually supplying face masks to the local government. They’ve also switched over to supplying food.”

The Guatemalan government put rules on the amount of food people could buy.

“Xela AID was able to get special permission from the government, once they explained what they were going to do with the food,” Bruce said. “They’re going straight to the distributors, buying the food and then distributing it to people.”

Bruce said they have been feeding more than 6,000 people within 27 villages scattered throughout the mountain.

Before Bruce retired, he was practicing at Southern Orthopedics in LaGrange. When going on medical missions, Bruce would utilize his medical talent to see the villages needing medical help. He said he also would help where he was needed, whether it was painting a church or performing orthopedic surgery.

Bruce said he had been impressed with how well Local Help has shifted from what they have been doing for more than 20 years, to focus on making sure the community is fed and safe during the pandemic.

“I’m really impressed with the local staff how efficiently they have changed over from all the different things they were doing and the different programs that they were running before, to now just strictly feeding people,” Bruce said. “None of our American staff have been able to go down there, so this is all of the Guatemalan staff that is actually doing this.”

To donate to the Emergency Food Security Operation, visit xelaaid.org/donation. For more information about Local Hope, visit xelaaid.org, call (714) 232-8669 or email info@xelaaid.org.