“I was definitely nervous, but I was trying not to think about that. I was trying to think about how we were going to pick up this girl who needs medical attention," explained Lance Svendsen.
A youth ministry trip to Guatemala., starting out as a journey to build houses took on a new purpose, when the team rescued an 8-year-old girl from the mountains, ultimately saving her life.
It all began in late July when 24 teens from Stanwich Church in Greenwich traveled to Guatemala. Once there, they joined forces with an international Christian group known as Hope of Life. It’s headed by a man named Carlos Vargas, who has transformed the small village of Zacapa by building houses, seting up schools, and most notably – rescuing sick children in the mountains.
"So, they send people up into the mountains and they find these sick kids and they report back to Hope of Life and Hope of Life covers all the costs," he said.
But it’s not an easy trek. Hikers face extreme heat at a very high altitude, steep terraine and not to mention - armed bandits along the way. And, for that reason, Americans are typically not involved in this mission.
"So, he would tell us the stories about how he would go into the mountains and that would stir something in me. I am used to running in the mountains and I wanted that adventure. So, I was like listen - I can do this," explained Lance.
Well a few days later, Lance got his wish.
"We were at a construction site and Carlos rolled up and said, "baby rescues happen when they need to happen and this girl needs to be rescued right now". And, I was like "yes - we are ready"," explained Lance.
"I was excited I really wanted to go," said Patrick MacDonald.
One of the four hikers was Patrick Macdonald, who filmed throughout the entire rescue.
"It was definitely difficult. I was listening to my footage and you can hear my (heavy breathing)," continued Patrick.
"It's neat because you are walking through corns stalks and then it would open up and you would see this waterfall," said Lance.
But while the scene is beautiful, the trip was nerve wracking, not knowing who or what you’re going to run into.
"All of us called our loved ones - like just in case anything happens," said Lance.
"Like - "Hey Mom, just wanted to tell you I'm going into the mountains," added Patrick.
"Then we are walking and we see a man holding a machete," said Lance. "And I was nervous. A lot of people carry machetes in Guatemala, but we hadn't seen anyone for hours," said Lance.
That man ended up being more of a guardian than a terror. He plays a key role in Hope of life. He keeps an eye on the villages, locating the sick and guiding the rescuers throughout the mountains. And, that’s exactly what he did on this particular day, leading Lance and Patrick on a three mile hike to find a child, we would soon learn, needs help desperately.
"So, we walked in and the mom and the baby are in there. And, I say baby - but the girl is 8-years-old," said Lance.
8-year-old Norfa is suffering from severe form of malnutrition. She has a protruding stomach, almost appearing like she’s pregnant. It’s a symptom likely from a protein deficiency known as Kwashiorkor.
"I was definitely nervous. I didn't know how heavy the kids would be. Norfa had 30 pounds of just water weight," said Lance.
The group also stopped and rescued two twins along the way in nearby towns. showing the severity behind malnutrition in these areas.
"We saw their ribs. We saw how thin they were. And, it was heartbreaking. But, we had a good feeling they would be okay. Norfa was the one with 30 pounds of water weight - and you're like - oh man is this girl going to make it," described Patrick.
Meanwile, the dozens of teenagers from Greenwich were standing by.
"When we saw her everybody was like what is that - is she pregnant?" described Claire Blinten.
"It was cool. Everyone cheered when we got back, but then they saw Norfa and they immediately got quiet," described Lance.
"In the hospital, that's when the emotions started taking over. Eventually, they were like we have to get her to the hospital," said Patrick.
Norfa was able to be treated back to stable health at that hospital and the doctors say the timing was critical. She had less than 20 hours to live if she hadn’t received medical attention.
"The toughest thing is seeing these kids, seeing these families and how poor they are. Yet, they always have smiles on their faces," explained Lance.
"By the end of the trip I was thinking who was really benefitting on this trip - was it then or was it us," said Claire.
"I want to do more of this. Just go to a few different places a shine a light on it," said Patrick.
The crew returned from Guatemala safe and sound last week, but already many are talking about their return - and even saving another baby. But for now, they have their memories along with a new perspective and gratitude on life here in the States.
If you’re interested in learning more or how you can help: go to www.hopeoflifeintl.org