Diane Nesselhuf, Vikki Fix and Peggy Cooper, three women from the Vermillion community, have discovered their worst fears are true.

Hundreds of Guatemalan natives were killed earlier this month by mudslides.

Hurricane Stan, which hit Central America on Oct. 4, battered�Guatemala and neighboring countries with�heavy rains.�

These rains affected some remote areas of Guatemala the hardest, in some instances washing away whole communities and burying villages in mud. Altogether 1.5 million people in Guatemala were affected by Stan.

The official death toll�sits at 652 and 398 missing,�but emergency workers say the real number is in the range of 2,000. More than 100 others were killed in neighboring countries.

Thousands have been left homeless as their simple shelters were destroyed. Guatemala's geography, with millions living off subsistence farming in mountain hamlets, makes it prone to mudslides and recovery efforts are difficult.

Rescue teams and supplies of food and medicines took days to arrive to the hardest hit areas. Now, as the mud hardens, the possibility of recovering bodies has become more difficult.

Nesselhuf, Fix and Cooper had planned to travel to Guatemala this month to dedicate a school they had helped build in Panab�j.

They sadly have discovered that recent news reports are true. Panab�j no longer exists. The three women are now doing all they can to help assist thousands of Guatemalans who lost their homes.

Nesselhuf filed this e-mail report last Sunday.

"We are in Santiago Atitilan. We arrived on Friday (Oct. 21) How does one start? We had started an e-mail of what we have been doing but before we send that we want to send some pre-information.

How does one put into words total devastation: pain, heartache, loss. People who have lost families, homes and every possession. Whole families that don't exist anymore. There are no words …

The information that we have found out so far is that the mudslides affected mainly three communities.

Pachichaj � This community's people lost many homes with the death count listed at 4. Because this area has not been declared a cemetery, the government will not be providing land and new homes.

Panab�j � This community does not exist anymore. It has been declared a mass gravesite. The estimate is 600 families, perhaps as many as 1,000 or more people who died. Only 96 bodies have been found. The mud dries like cement so there is very little possibility of recovering the bodies, hence declaring it a cemetery.

Tzanchaj � There were not any deaths, but hundreds of families whose homes have

been partially or totally destroyed. These families will not receive government assistance to rebuild.

The necessities of existence have been provided, food, western clothes, and shelter. We believe there are close to 55,000 people who do not have homes. They are to be out of the provisional shelters this week and the government is to provide temporary housing. We will see.

It seems that traumatized is a good word to describe things here. People are going about their daily existence but it seems like there are still so many unknowns.

Please remember the people in this area. Diane, Vikki, and Peggy"

More problems await

In the meantime, the worst may yet to come�in the wake of this disaster. Doctors fear that overcrowding and septic water could lead to a rash of illness among survivors.

"The worst problem now is the risk of epidemics," Alfonso Verdu, coordinator of Doctors Without Borders in Guatemala, said in a recent news report. He said doctors have seen dozens of cases of diarrhea among survivors as well as dysentery, hepatitis A and chicken pox.

In terms of harvests, vegetable plantations and chicken farms were destroyed by floods and the land looks from the air like a patchwork quilt of cocoa-colored lakes. Farmers are hampered by a lack of heavy machinery to help them clear roads.

In El Salvador, about 32,000 people remain in shelters after flooding caused by Hurricane Stan. Adding to the disaster are volcanic eruptions in Santa Ana.

A local connection

Trinity Lutheran Church of Vermillion is a sister parish to El Bongo, a town of about 700 people�in the the jungle in the east central area of Guatemala.�

Diane has made several trips to Guatemala, and she and her husband, Ed, and their family of Burbank recently traveled there to help the Guatemalan people celebrate Christmas.

Other local residents have made several trips to Guatemala, doing what they can to help develop schools, clinics and orphanages.

For several months now, Sharing the Dream has been open on Vermillion's Main Street. The local business sells crafts, ranging from baskets to woven items, handmade by Guatemalan artisans.

The money raised by the sale of those crafts goes directly to the Guatemalan people, providing them new economic opportunities.

Shortly after the disaster, Diane spoke to a friend, Chonita, who lives in Santiago. Chonita reports that "people don't have anything and that schools and churches are crowded with with those who left their homes during the night with only the clothes on their back.

"They were the lucky ones." Chonita writes. "The others didn't make it out. There are reports of hundreds of people still buried in the mud and that the one town of Panab�j would be declared a cemetery. There is a little hospital there that had just gotten going again and now is buried with five feet of mud.

Latest report

In their latest e-mail report, filed Tuesday night, the three Vermillion women shared other news of their travels in Guatemala, and have discovered, despite the destruction, the landscape and people possess a unique charm.

Saturday, Oct. 22

"Diane woke us up early for a walk through Santiago.� Our walk took us to the lake where a man offered us a ride in his cayuco (handmade wooden canoe).�

Peggy and Vikki accepted the offer and had a spectacular ride along the shore.� Women were washing clothes and getting water and men were fishing.�

This was our opportunity to use our "un poco Espa�ol" since we had no interpreter with us. Luckily, our boatman had only slightly more Espa�ol than we did so with hand signals and our limited vocabulary we had quite an informative tour. The early morning scenery was beautiful and peaceful � it was a nice break from the realities of the disaster.�

The morning took us to the school in Tzanchaj which is almost completed. We were so glad to find that the school and all of the children had been spared from the mudslides.�However, 27 of the 90 families involved in the school lost relatives or homes.� Although the parent group is very proud of the school, their first concern was for the needs of the community.�

Thank goodness for Diana, Chonita's niece, who translated for us. She speaks Tz'utijil, Spanish, and English so she was able to eliminate one step of the usual process because she could speak in Tz'utijil to the men and English to us.�

� Sharing the Dream helped the parent group become a parent organization and purchased the land for the school. The government has provided the materials and some labor for this project.� The rest of the labor has been provided by the parents so after a full work-week, the men and children work at the school.

The result is impressive.� Pending any unforeseen circumstances, the children should be able to begin their new school year in the new school in January.

Chonita, Domingo, Dolores, and the children went with us to a lovely restaurant in San Lucas Toliman.� This provided a needed break from the stress of the past few weeks for the family.� From there we went to visit the spoon group. It was fun to meet the makers of the beautiful spoons we sell in the store and find out how the sales have helped their families. This community was not affected by the mudslide disaster so our visit was lighter than other visits.

We hurried back to meet with the school parent group again.�We had asked them to find out more about the needs of the school families affected by the mudslides.� The group had been able to contact some of the affected families but is unsure about how to help the families.�

For those families whose homes are still standing, the government has said it will help clean the homes but the people are concerned about moving back into homes that could be hit by mudslides again. However, the families do not have other land to build on.�

For now, it seems we need to wait to see what the government is able to do.

Sunday, Oct. 23

Once a month, Chonita has about 50 elders come to her home for a package of corn, rice, beans, coffee, and other staples. The packages are financed by sponsorships in the elder project. In the early morning we helped Chonita and her sisters put this month's packages together.�Later in the day, the elders gathered in Chonita's courtyard.�Both she and one of the men gave blessings and then all the elders joined together in their own separate prayers.�

Many of the elders had family members waiting to help them take their packages home, but several needed assistance carrying their 25-pound bag. Peggy, Vikki, Seth, and others helped carry the packages to the elders' homes. However, we were unable to carry the bags on our heads as some of the elders did. It was heartwarming to see how grateful they were for the food.�

We had heard previously that some of the elders had been killed in the mudslide, but thankfully that wasn't true. Three of them however, lost everything that they own.�

While we were waiting for the elders to arrive, we accompanied Chonita to Panab�j to see the place where the worst of the mudslides had occurred.�

Although the area was quarantined, Chonita urged us to follow her into the area where so many had lost family and homes. Holes where rescuers had searched for bodies, parts of destroyed homes, and mud many feet up the side of existing homes brought home to us the reality of the disaster.

The afternoon consisted of a visit to the internet caf�, purchasing wood products from Humberto, and a stroll though the market area devoid of tourists. On our stroll we met Amanda, a Peace Corps volunteer who works with ADISA, and arranged a visit with the directors.� ADISA is an organization whose goal is to help disabled children and adults become productive and respected members of the community.� Their organization also relies heavily on volunteers.� We discussed the possibility of a sponsorship program with them.

Our final meeting of the day was with Domingo, talking about what Sharing the Dream can do to help the beaders and scholarship students affected by the disaster.� Domingo is very concerned about the beaders whom he employs. The beaders live both in Pachichaj and Panab�j. Again, we're waiting on the government to determine what assistance they will provide in Panab�j.�

However, the government has said that in Pachichaj it will only provide a wall at the upper end of the valley to help stop another mudslide.� Because the morale of the Pachichaj beaders is so low, Domingo wants to do something to give theses women hope.�

Engineers have suggested building on top of the existing homes rather than cleaning the mud out so we discussed with Domingo the possibility of helping with the construction of homes for these beaders.

We are going over all the information we have gathered from all the different sources and put together a priority list of needs for many of the families."�

"The visit to Santiago Atitilan was heartbreaking as well as heartwarming," Diane writes in her latest correspondence.�"Sunday morning, Domingo showed me photos he had taken of the first day or so after the disaster. Delores, Domingo's wife, was with me as he was showing them.�

"As I saw the early photos of the disaster, tears were running down my face.� Domingo and Delores were crying and told me some of the things that had gone on during the first days and how everyone was running and trying to find relatives and friends.��� It was heartwarming to see how the community had come together and provided so much assistance. People who had little provided for those who lost everything."

How you can help

Individuals wishing to help monetarily may write checks to Friends of Sharing the Dream, a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization. Send the donation to: Diane Nesselhuf, 31612 471 Ave., Burbank, SD 57010. Donations are also being accepted at the Sharing the Dream store at 125 E. Main Vermillion, SD. 57069

"Please pray for our friends in Guatemala," Diane said. "I will update you as we know more."

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