Linda Johnson

University of Wyoming lecturer Linda Johnson stands next to a villager from Agua Salada, Honduras, during one of her recent trips to the region. She takes groups of students and community members twice a year to provide health care to the village locals.

Photo courtesy of Joanne Theobald

Health care is a luxury in the small village of Agua Salada — villagers lack many basic needs and got electricity just five years ago. But one University of Wyoming lecturer is working with teams of students and community members to remedy some of the village’s problems.

Linda Johnson, lecturer at the Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing, has spent nearly 10 years traveling to a small village in Honduras, providing health care to some of the poorest people in their country.

“These people are subsistence farmers,” she said. “They make less than a dollar a day.”

Johnson started the trips with several other UW professors, but she is the only original founder remaining at UW. She was awarded the UW Faculty Award for Internationalization for her 20 trips to Central America.

“I was very excited,” she said. “I’m excited because I’ve had the opportunity to present this program to many people in the community and be in some university presentations. It’s just, I’m so proud of this program, and I’m completely overwhelmed by how incredible it is and how we’ve been able to accomplish this as a group.

The project is being recognized by that award, and I think that’s really cool.”

Much of her time is spent on the program — the university allows her a slot to prepare the two trips a year and everything that it encompasses, said Joanne Theobald, social center counselor at Casper College.

While the project began as a way to show students other areas of the world and how to work in villages without basic medical equipment, it has turned into a much more personal endeavor, Johnson explained.

“We’ve truly formed enduring relationships with these people,” she said. “A villager just died — he fell out of a tree and broke his neck and died in the hospital a month later. Brigade members were sending me notes and cards to give to the family. We were invited to the novena prayer for him. We truly feel these losses.

“Linda runs the show,” she said. “So much of what she does is behind the scenes. She even does a lot of political things, communicating with the local community and the Honduras government.”

As part of a trip in 2011, the group built a clinic in the small village of Agua Salada, where Johnson and the group always visit.

“The building was designed by a UW engineering professor and two students,” she said. “We hired one man to drive from Laramie to the village. We bought an old church van and a horse trailer and filled it with donated medical equipment and he was off.”

One church and 26 houses make up Agua Salada, which means saltwater in Spanish. When UW first started working with Shoulder to Shoulder, an organization working in Honduras, it was assigned to the village.

“This is a very isolated community,” Johnson said. “When you go to this area, it takes 48 hours to get there from Houston. We go by plane, by bus, eventually by pickup truck fording rivers.”

The trips to Honduras are unique in that community members can accompany students on the voyage.

“We work very hard to make this an inter-professional and community trip,” Johnson said. “We try to draw resources from around the community, and that doesn’t mean they have to be professional healthcare givers. We’ve taken geologists, teachers, people who are housewives — a wide variety of people, and they all have something to offer the community.”

Engineers or carpenters come to inspect the clinic, and attorneys have gone to work with the Honduras government, Johnson said. While providing health care and checkups is the trip’s priority, it has branched out to include education.

“In Agua Salada, kids can go to school to sixth grade, and if they want to continue, they have to walk about an hour-and-a-half,” she said. “It’s free to go to school there, but they need to buy a uniform and school supplies, and these people have absolutely no money. What it costs is about $80.”

A scholarship program was created — local teachers suggested five children who should continue their education. Currently, 30 students are funded for about $3,000 a year.

The Honduras trips get most of their funding from the UW College of Health, College of Nursing and the UW Foundation, said Larry Foianini, a dentist who’s gone for the past six years.

“We’re averaging $8,000 for all the medication and dental supplies while also funding the children to get higher education,” he said. “We’re talking with the Foundation and hoping to get some sort of endowment.”

The UW students get support from various organizations, such as the Zimmerman Family Foundation or the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, but most still have to pay up to $1,800 to go on the trip, and the slots still fill up quickly — the next trip in November is already full, Johnson said.

“I make presentations in various departments so (the students) know there is an opportunity for them to come,” she said. “Our students come back and say, ‘This has changed my life.’”

However, the sustainability of the program is now in question.

“The problem is, we’re all getting older and hoping to find some younger people to continue these trips,” Foianini said. “We’re in our 60s, so we really need some young blood.”

The program’s leaders, including Johnson, will soon retire and leave a gap in the program.

“(Johnson) is very humble, but she’s the one that makes the trips run,” Foianini said. “Without her, there wouldn’t be any trips.”

This would leave the 300 people who visit the clinic every trip without dependable health care.

“The (Honduras government) is contracted with Shoulder to Shoulder, but their budget is small,” Foinini said. “Their health care is third world.”

Regardless, Johnson is continuing to work at keeping the clinic in Agua Salada open for future use.

“If we stopped our trips, the clinic would be closed,” she said. “But, ideally, with these communications we’ve had with the community — we’re really working with them to keep this building open not only as a clinic, but as a meeting place.”

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