St. Cloud woman helping people of Guatemala through MESSAGE program.
“She went to Guatemala to volunteer for one year and she stayed for four years,” explained Connie Reichensperger, mother of Karin Reichensperger, founder and director of The MESSAGE program in St. Cloud. As a volunteer with Common Hope, Karin served as a laboratory coordinator and she went with medical teams into villages where she saw enormous need. People had little access to medical care. The clinics lacked basic equipment and medical supplies. Supply cabinets were nearly empty. While teaching CPR to local firefighters, she saw that they didn’t have firefighting gear. Before Karin returned to the United States in 2003, she spoke to a medical director at a hospital in Guatemala. “She asked him what was his greatest need. He said, ‘sutures’ and then he added, ‘a baby warmer,’” said Connie. “And that is how this all started—with sutures.” Karin came back to St. Cloud in August of that year and she began the process of founding the nonprofit organization, The MESSAGE (Medical/Dental—EMS/Fire—Supplies—Shared—Around—Globally with—Education.) Its vision is to share gifts with those in need. Karin’s mother has been involved with the program since its beginning. She was with her daughter on that fall afternoon when they went to Monticello to check out a warehouse full of medical equipment which had been donated to their program. When they first stepped inside the door, one of the first things Karin noticed were the three baby warmers. Only months later, in January 2004, the first shipments of medical and emergency equipment from The MESSAGE were sent to Guatemala. Connie remembers well that the weather was 5 degrees below zero when the volunteers loaded the first of three 40-foot containers. “The next week when we loaded the second container, it was 5 degrees above, and the following week, it was 20 degrees below zero.” It has been nearly 10 years since its beginning, and what an impact Karin Reichensperger, The MESSAGE program, and its many volunteers have made on the people of Guatemala and other developing countries. The MESSAGE receives donations of medical, dental, EMS, and firefighting materials and equipment from all over the United States. These include blankets, linens, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, hospital beds, firefighting gear, dressings, scrubs, IV supplies, breast pumps, nebulizers, braces and orthopedic supplies, dental chairs, exam tables, adult diapers, mattresses, clothing and so many other items/supplies necessary to provide basic medical care. Diane Cook, a volunteer with The MESSAGE for the past five years, said that many donations are usable goods which would, for various reasons, otherwise end up in our landfills. “It stuns me what a throw-away society we are,” she added. When hospitals, clinics and hotels have to turn their stock over, they will call and volunteers will pick up blankets, linens and some furniture. “There are a lot of places in third world countries where there are no beds or linens,” she said. The donations of clothing, supplies and equipment are in high demand, and it brings hope to people desperately in need. Earlier in 2012, The MESSAGE shipped two containers to Liberia and five to Guatemala. Cook is part of a core group of volunteers who work year round to collect donations, sort, pack and label them so that everything is organized and ready for shipping. Other volunteers use special skills to fix wheelchairs or stitch together torn exercise mats which can be used for multiple purposes. Donations also come from area groups who make toys, quilts and school supply kits. The MESSAGE relies on volunteers and donations, which are collected throughout the year. The program has some costs which include gas, insurance/liability coverage, food for volunteers, office supplies and security and port fees outside of the United States. The Department of Defense Funded Transportation Program covers all shipping. In early September, a couple of dozen volunteers gathered at a warehouse in St. Cloud which had donated space to The MESSAGE program. Volunteers were loading their seventh, of eight total, 40-foot containers in four days. Sunday was a day of rest, stressed one volunteer. People of all ages were sealing, wrapping, stacking and loading pallets of boxes and bins into the container. They worked quickly and with enthusiasm. The value of goods in this shipment to Guatemala was $2 million, about $250,000 a container. Rice bags filled with clothing donated by places such as Goodwill, Clothes Mentor and Once Upon a Child were used as fillers and were stuffed among other items so that nearly every inch of space of the container could be filled. Mark Kruger sat on top of the stacks inside the container helping other volunteers pack the goods in an efficient manner. Kruger is completing his Eagle Scout service project. He and his family, called Team Kruger, have been involved with the program since its founding in 2003. Karin Reichensperger was busy overseeing the massive project. “This truck will go to Chicago,” she said. “Then it will go by rail to Gulfport, Miss., and then it will go by sea for five days to Puerto Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala.” She had plans to leave for Guatemala the following week so that she can personally oversee the unloading, delivery and distribution of all eight containers to providers and volunteers. She has warehouse space in Guatemala and volunteers who help her with the distribution. “She has her contact people,” explained Cook, “and she gives them a date and a time for them to come and pick up their stuff.” It takes months for this work to be completed. Kruger will also travel to Guatemala and spend two weeks helping with the distribution. Karin said that he will accompany her on site visits to places where they have made or are currently making donations of aid. They will also evaluate other locations where help may be needed. These could include hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, orphanages and hearing programs. In the meantime, volunteers in St. Cloud will continue to pick up donations and sort and pack items for another shipment sometime in 2013. The warehouse space is nearly empty now but Connie Reichensperger has already been getting calls to pick up donations. Anyone interested in volunteering with the program or making donations to The MESSAGE, can call 320-290-0420.