August 20, 2010

'There are so many ways to help': Two sisters share an amazing adventure of hope, faith and caring in a foreign land

As sisters who played together on numerous sports teams through the years, Megan, left, and Kelly Gardner teamed up again this summer to offer hope and health care at medical clinics in Peru. Here, they pose near a sign for one of the clinics. (Submitted photo)

As sisters who played together on numerous sports teams through the years, Megan, left, and Kelly Gardner teamed up again this summer to offer hope and health care at medical clinics in Peru. Here, they pose near a sign for one of the clinics. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: “Stewards Abroad” is an occasional series that reports on the efforts of Catholics from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis throughout the world.)

By John Shaughnessy

When the frightened father carried his newborn baby into the medical clinic in the remote region of Peru, he never imagined that the welfare of his first child would depend upon two volunteers who are college-aged sisters from Indianapolis.

He also never expected that his 10-hour walk carrying his two-day-old daughter from his home in the mountains would eventually lead him to name the baby after one of the sisters.

While that encounter became a life-altering moment for the father, it also was a defining experience for Kelly and Megan Gardner, members of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis and recent graduates of nearby Bishop Chatard High School.

From early June to mid-July, the sisters spent six weeks in Ollantaytambo, a breathtakingly beautiful community surrounded by mountains in the South American country of Peru.

With 21-year-old Kelly planning to become a physician’s assistant and 20-year-old Megan studying to become a nurse, they wanted the experience of providing hope, help and health care to people in need in a foreign country.

One of those experiences came as they witnessed the birth of a child at an outpost clinic. Yet even that remarkable moment wouldn’t compare to what happened the next day when the young father walked into the clinic looking fearful and frazzled.

Reaching out, connecting lives

“He was wearing a brightly colored poncho, and we hear this baby crying but we can’t see it,” Megan recalls. “He lifts up the poncho, and the baby is crying and screaming. He told the nurse, ‘My wife isn’t doing well. She was too tired to make the trip.’ The mother gave birth at their house, and he was bringing the baby to get vaccinations. He had walked about 10 hours. It was absolutely amazing the baby was alive.”

After a nurse fed the baby, the sisters helped her clean the infant. When the nurse left to get the vaccinations, the baby started crying. Megan picked up the tiny girl and tried to calm her as the father watched. When the nurse returned, she asked the father for the money to pay for the vaccinations. He said he didn’t have any money. The nurse told him she couldn’t give the baby the vaccinations unless he could pay.

Kelly and Megan watched the interaction in disbelief. They didn’t have any money with them, having left their cash at the home of their host family miles away. The father looked despondent, as if it had just struck him that he had to walk back up the mountain, carrying his infant daughter to their home. The staff at the clinic didn’t seem concerned about the man’s plight.

Kelly and Megan decided to intervene, following an approach that Kelly learned in the summer of 2009 when she was a medical volunteer helping HIV/AIDS patients in Africa.

“In Africa, I learned there are so many ways to help people without being a trained professional,” Kelly says. “In this situation, you didn’t need to be a doctor to know the baby needed to get back to her mother as soon as possible.”

So when the father left the clinic with the baby, Kelly and Megan went with them. The sisters hailed a passing vehicle, telling the driver about the father’s plight and asking for a ride to Ollantaytambo, the community where their host family lived. The driver agreed.

Once there, Kelly raced to the host family’s house to get money to buy food for the father and his wife, and milk for the baby. She also found and paid the driver of a van who agreed to transport the man and his daughter up the mountain to their home. All the while, Megan held and comforted the baby while trying to converse with the father in the basic Spanish she knows.

During that conversation, Megan asked the father some questions that reflect her irrepressible spirit.

“I’m talking to him, and I ask him, ‘What’s the baby’s name?’ ” she says. “He said, ‘She doesn’t have one yet.’ I said, ‘Well, what about Megan?’ He said, ‘Megan sounds good.’ ”

A short while later, Kelly came back to meet Megan and the father, returning with the woman who is the mother of their host family. Megan told both of them about the baby’s name. They both laughed. The mother of their host family then wrote down the spelling of “Megan” on a card for the father.

Through it all, the father kept thanking the two sisters. Before he climbed in the van with his daughter, photographs were taken and another round of smiles was shared.

“It was something so small,” Kelly says, trying to sum up what she and Megan did that day. “It was something we could do to help that baby. When we said goodbye to the baby, we prayed to God to look out for her.”

As faith deepens, so does the bond

That prayer revealed another impact of the sisters’ six-week stay in Peru—an even greater reliance on God in their lives.

“Every day, we would pray for God to look out for us,” Kelly says. “We had to have so much faith that nothing went wrong. I felt I definitely relied more on prayer while I was there.”

Megan adds, “Every day, there were moments when we would help someone, and we knew we probably wouldn’t see them again. We’d look at each other and say, ‘All we can do is pray.’ ”

That faith-sharing was part of the experience in Peru that helped to deepen an already close bond between Kelly and Megan. They grew up sharing a bedroom, wearing each other’s clothes and playing on the same sports teams at St. Thomas and Bishop Chatard schools.

Megan says that one of the toughest times of her life was when Kelly left their family’s Indianapolis home to attend Davidson College in North Carolina. After hearing about Kelly’s adventures in Africa last year, Megan wanted the opportunity to share a similar experience with Kelly this summer. So Kelly planned the trip.

“The first day we got to Peru, I don’t think either of us could have been more overwhelmed,” says Kelly, who is beginning her senior year at Davidson. “It was just a complete culture shock. I felt like I had to be the one to stay strong. That night, I said, ‘Megan, I’m so glad you’re here.’ A few days later, after things got better, she told me, ‘That first day, I just wanted to cry.’ We went on a walk every day together and just talked. She was there for me to help me get through everything.”

The feeling was mutual for Megan.

“Just to have her there with me in Peru was awesome,” says Megan, who will soon start her junior year at the University of Indianapolis. “After we came home, I said, ‘Kelly knows more about my life than she probably ever wanted to know.’ ”

Now, their bond includes wanting to make a difference in the lives of others.

“When I left Africa, I felt this calling to come back and serve underprivileged people,” Kelly says. “They have virtually nothing, and they’re very happy and faith-filled. We have a lot in America, and we don’t always appreciate what we have.

“I don’t know that I’ll practice outside the United States, but I’ll definitely give back in underprivileged areas outside the United States. There’s so much we can learn from other people.” †

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