April 2, 2008 Edition

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Oklahoma City University nursing student Ashley Little-Blackwell passes out pens and notepads to occupy children during a medical mission trip to Mexico in March. Participants included nursing students and faculty from OKCU, a team of physicians from Louisiana and individuals representing the "Volunteers In Mission."

WR native works in
medical mission in Mexico

Ashley Little-Blackwell, daughter of Gary and Rhonda Little of Walnut Ridge, along with Katie Blair of Kentucky, pose with a little girl who wanted her picture taken.

Ashley Little-Blackwell is photographed with a Mexican guard during the trip.
Lacy Mitchell
Staff Writer

It has been said that it is better to give than to receive. Oklahoma City University nursing student Ashley Little-Blackwell discovered that she received more than she could have given when she became a medical mission volunteer during a trip in March.

Blackwell, a 2001 graduate of Walnut Ridge High School and daughter of Gary and Rhonda Little of Walnut Ridge, traveled to Mexico with a group of 36 fellow OKCU nursing students and faculty to administer a medical mission that succeeded in helping hundreds of adults and children in two days.

Blackwell said she feels as though the people of the small Mexican community located outside of Rio Bravo helped her more than she could have ever helped them.

"It was a very humbling experience," she said.

Blackwell's group was joined by a team of physicians from Louisiana who provided basic exams, health education, as well as medications to residents, who are unable to readily receive medical care. Both teams partnered with "Volunteers in Mission," (VIM) a faith-based organization that networks across the country and world to provide help for people and communities in need.

The teams opened a medical mission in an area meant to be a temporary community for Mexican residents in financial struggle. However, what is supposed to be transitional is slowly becoming more of a permanent way of life, Blackwell said.

She said her group was told that a factory worker may earn $80 a week, but after $30 is taken out for benefits, take-home pay is only $50. It is not uncommon for factory workers to relocate to be closer to the border where farmhands can earn $100 a week. However, when $50 is taken out for benefits, they are left with the same take-home amount as before, so they are in no better situation than when they began, she said.

Blackwell, who will graduate in May with a nursing degree, said that OKCU hopes to make the mission trip an annual event, so the community can remain transitional ~ not something permanent.

Blackwell said houses in these temporary communities were either constructed from particleboard type material or concrete blocks. Fences were made from old mattress box springs. She said it was hard to tell when one house ended and the next began.

Her first thought was of "disbelief" that people could live in such conditions, which included dirt floors, unhealthy drinking water, litter and stray dogs that are treated more like guard dogs ~ not pets.

Despite having so little, it was each resident's sense of pride that struck Blackwell the most when she visited each house to survey residents about their medical standings during the mission's second day.

"They were very open and spoke about their situations," Blackwell said. "For people who have nothing, they are the proudest people you'd ever meet. They were proud of what they did have."

Blackwell's responsibility during the mission's first 12- to 13-hour day was transcribing prescription labels from English to Spanish.

"I don't think I had time to look up once," she said. Although translators helped the mission teams interact with residents, Blackwell said she did learn a lot of Spanish.

Blackwell said their mission was housed in a one-room church that was nothing more than four walls when they arrived. The teams set up exam tables, made cubicle areas and created a waiting room with chairs. More than 100 children also had to be occupied while the mission teams worked with parents.

Young girl shows thanks

It was ordinary pens and notepads that Blackwell brought from OKCU's nursing program that occupied the children, who rarely have such items. It was a little girl and her gift that showed Blackwell how much we sometimes take for granted the little things in life.

The little girl drew a picture of Oklahoma and a star to represent Oklahoma City on a notepad and wrote "...Thank you so much, you're from the United States." Blackwell said it was the sweetest thing she has ever received and will keep it as a reminder of how something we sometimes see as insignificant ~ like a pen and piece of paper ~ made these children very happy.

"I thought, you know, she doesn't know who I am ... what I have, what I don't have; yet, she's thankful for a pen and piece of paper that she can take home," Blackwell said. "Really, we would have just thrown something like that away ...."

Not only does Blackwell think the mission trip will make her a better person, but she thinks it will make her a better nurse because she is able to truly appreciate the medical equipment and technology available in the United States.

"Sometimes all we had to work with was a stethoscope, and you can't do a full examination with just a stethoscope," she said.

Blackwell said her mission group might have never known the impact they had on this community if it had not been for the many "thank yous" they received. Tears were shed from people who said it was the mission that made it possible for their child to get much-needed medication or to be treated for an infection.

Although there is a "VIM" doctor stationed in Mexico, he has a large coverage area. Most residents told Blackwell that they only seek medical attention if a mission is in town.

Blackwell, who received her bachelor's degree in marketing from Arkansas State University in 2004, said the mission experience is something she would do again.

Blackwell's husband, Derek, said he is very proud of his wife for volunteering, but is quick to add that he is glad that she is home. "She's going to be a good nurse. She's big-hearted and generous. She's one-of-a-kind," he said.

Blackwell's mother, Rhonda Little, said she knew the trip would take her daughter away from her comfort zone, but it offered her an excellent opportunity to broaden her overall appreciation of life in general. "To help others in need, that are afforded so little, is the ultimate experience," she said.

Little said that she is blessed that her daughter has focused on the positive issues in life.

"I have always encouraged my children to follow their dreams and their heart," she said. "Listen to what the Lord is telling you, and you can't go wrong."

Trip affirms career choice

Blackwell said the residents were so trusting and so thankful.

"I don't ever want to lose sight of that," she said. "I don't want to take for-granted what I have. It made me proud of the things I do have and it made me quit looking at what I don't have because these people had nothing and they were proud."

Blackwell said that if there are any doubts about your career choice when you leave ~ there are definitely none when you come back from a trip like hers.

"When you have the experience of giving someone $5 worth of medication and their face lights up ~ that is enough right there to let you know why you chose to go into the medical field," she said.

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