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Nutrition is the mission at Casa Jackson: Guatemala hospital for malnourished children started by a couple from North Dakota

Sue and Gene Jackson of Dickinson, N.D., hold three of the children who are recovering from malnutrition at Casa Jackson in Antigua, Guatemala. Submitted photo

DICKINSON, N.D. — Sue and Gene Jackson of Dickinson were surrounded by babies when they visited the Casa Jackson malnutrition hospital in Antigua, Guatemala, but Gene was drawn to 2-year-old Rudy.

The child was listless and weighed 13 pounds when he arrived. Gene encouraged him to eat, changed his diapers, rocked him and taught him to play “patty cakes.”

“After a week, Rudy was smiling, he could sit up and he was much more responsive to human stimulation,” Gene said.

Casa Jackson is a part of the God’s Child Project in Antigua that was started in 1991 by Patrick Atkinson of Bismarck. Its mission is to break the chains of poverty through nutrition and education. The Jacksons started it in October 2008 when they realized the need to rescue children at risk of dying from malnutrition.

They visited the hospital March 6-13 to serve as volunteers — feeding, holding, changing diapers and playing with the children. It was also an opportunity to visit with their son and daughter-in-law, Jeff and Kaylen Jackson, who are spending three months there as volunteers.

Children often are referred to Casa Jackson by the staff of the God’s Child Project.

“The kids are really in tough shape, but the neat thing is workers insist on education of the mothers so as not to repeat the cycle,” Gene Jackson said.

Seventeen children were staying at the hospital when the Jacksons visited. The enrollment fluctuates from 12 to 20. There are four rooms with four cribs in each room. Additional children sleep in cribs in a large closet area until a bedroom becomes available.

While the Jacksons visited, the staff gave a monthly nutrition presentation. Mothers were enticed to attend because the government was handing out sacks of flour, sugar, rice and beans.

“The government is interested in Casa Jackson because, otherwise, the babies end up in the hospital or die — it saves the government a lot of money,” Sue Jackson said.

Mothers were taught common-sense nutritional lessons such as serving black beans on tortillas. The children’s diets often include sodas instead of milk and other high-protein foods, she said.

“When babies first come, they may push the food away or throw it up,” Sue said. “The mothers need to be taught to add protein instead of sodas and candy.”

Receiving                                   nutritious meals

More than 400 children have gone through the program since 2009. They receive three meals each day, as well as four bottles of supplemental nutrition. The children must be at 100 percent of their weight goal before they are discharged. The success rate is about 75 percent, as some of the babies leave earlier.

“Sometimes the mothers don’t want to stay because they have other kids at home or they might work,” Sue said.

Casa Jackson operates with a full-time staff and volunteers, including Jeff and Kaylen.

Also serving on the God’s Child Project board in Bismarck is Jeff’s older brother, Thomas Jackson.

“My wife, Kaylen and I decided to come to Guatemala to do this humanitarian work last fall and have been talking about it for quite a few years,” Jeff said. “Both of us have been so blessed and we wanted to give something back, to experience a different country and to learn Spanish.”

The couple have supported the God’s Child Project in the past, and Jeff visited six years ago, so it was a natural fit. They arrived Feb. 5 and will leave Thursday for their home in Denver.

The staff of Casa Jackson includes a director named Marleny, a head nurse, a cook and eight to 20 other nurses. There is also a part-time pediatrician and dietitian.

“I am a registered dietitian at home in the United States and really feel that the staff at Casa Jackson do a wonderful job caring for the children and improving their levels of nutrition,” Kaylen said. “The nurses are responsible for feeding and caring for the babies on a daily basis and also helping to supervise the volunteers.”

Preventing relapse

“The amazing aspect of the malnutrition center is that while the mothers are caring for their children, they are educated by the staff about how to prevent them from having a relapse of malnutrition once they leave,” Kaylen said.

Parents unable to stay with their child visit twice a week on “parent days.”

Casa Jackson sees a constant stream of volunteers from all over the world.

“Every day, the volunteers change, bath, feed, stimulate and share their love with the babies,” Jeff said. “They are also required to clean the floors, do laundry, disinfect toys, clean the cribs, change the bedding and generally keep the place clean.”

The biggest challenges are finances and education, he said.

“Although critical items are usually available, such as medicine, they certainly go without common luxuries that we take for granted — air conditioning, washing clothes in hot water and therapy for children with disabilities,” he said.

The staff constantly asks for donations of baby formula, diapers and nutritional supplements. To prevent relapses in malnutrition, the center also would like to hire a social worker to follow up with the families after they leave the clinic.

“Many of these families come from quite far away to bring their children to the clinic,” Jeff said. “It is very difficult to convince these families to spend the money on a bus ticket to return to Casa Jackson for follow-up assessments.”

Rewards and support

The rewards are seeing the children’s improvements in just a few short weeks, Jeff said.

“Many times, the babies arrive at Casa Jackson thin, frail, listless, missing hair on the back of their heads from lying down so much,” he said. “Smiles are extremely rare or nonexistent. After a while, they are chubby-cheeked, pudgy-legged, smiling and excited to play.”

For Kaylen, it’s the reward of seeing a child smile or laugh for the first time.

“It’s when they are able to wave ‘hola’ or ‘adios’ to you in greeting or clap their hands. Or when they give a big hug,” she said. “Once you gain their trust and they get some nutrients in their systems, they are so happy.”

The Jacksons credit their family and friends for support in their work.

“Whenever we get annoyed with minor inconveniences here, it’s usually a good reminder of how good we have it in the United States and that we need to show gratitude for all our blessings,” Kaylen said. “We really do feel very blessed to have been able to come here for 2 1/2 months to help improve the lives of people living in much worse situations than many of us live in the United States.”

Families can support the mission of Casa Jackson by visiting the website gods and making a donation.