DOWNERS GROVE – On his recent trip to volunteer in Belize, Mark Sleeper visited one hut across a swing bridge and surrounded by a trench to keep the endless rain at bay.
Inside was a 15-year-old girl who had never left the hut because of cerebral palsy.
“The only way I can express it is tragic,” said Sleeper, a Downers Grove resident and physical therapist. “The family either couldn’t get her out of the hut [because of the bridge], or they were embarrassed. The father believed that she was possessed by an evil spirit. He was waiting until the evil spirit left her and she could walk again.”
When Sleeper arrived, previous volunteers already had spent weeks attempting to warm the father to the idea of physical therapy. It took Sleeper and the other volunteers still more time. Eventually, they were able to convince the family that “we’re going to help until that spirit left,” he said.
Cerebral palsy prevented the girl from walking, but she was capable, mentally, he said.
“We taught her and her family how to stretch her limbs,” he said. “We gave her a wheelchair so she could more rapidly get around her hut.”
The girl was one of many people on the island Sleeper and his students at Northwestern University’s Feinberg Medical School treated for injuries from manual labor and disabilities.
He also was accompanied by his wife Debbie, a physician’s assistant, and his son, Jon, a Downers Grove South High School student. The Chicago-area volunteers were stationed in the Hillside Health Care International clinic in the Toledo district of Belize, a small and poor country in Central America.
“Typically, people go to the ocean towns that are in northern Belize,” he said. “And this clinic is located in and services the Toledo district, which is often referred to as the ‘forgotten district.’”
Sleeper has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in the Appalachians, but this was his first trip out of the country. Seeing the people of Belize, many of whom have nothing except their basic needs, put things in perspective, he said.
In many of the villages they visited, there was no electricity and no running water.
“I was just amazed at the lack of infrastructure in Toledo,” he said. “And the lack of healthcare resources.”
Despite having little, the people were positive and friendly, he said.
“There are a lot of people in the world that live a lot worse and with a lot less than we live,” he said. “What amazed me was how content and happy the people were. They had nothing, but they didn’t want anything. I’m sure they would want a better life, but I’m not sure they knew what was out there.”
The trip energized Sleeper, he said.
“I would encourage everybody, if they start to feel like they’re being complacent in life, to volunteer somewhere,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be in another country. Even work with Habitat for Humanity to put a shelter over the heads of those who can’t afford it. This was absolutely a life-changing experience.”