Company emerges from altruistic act

Charity: An Oella nurse turns her volunteer trips into an import venture to help Guatemala's poor.

October 14, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Kristin VanZandt has found a way to bring home all the color she experiences in Guatemala.

The 33-year-old registered nurse imports Guatemalan handicrafts, using the proceeds to fund trips there to assist aid workers in clinics in the impoverished nation.

Since her first trip in 2001, she has stuffed her suitcases with prenatal and children's vitamins, clothing and other supplies to give away.

And since starting her company, Vida Dulce Imports, a year ago, VanZandt regularly brings back luggage loaded with beaded purses, jewelry and pillows that she sells in shops in Glenelg and on Ellicott City's Main Street, as well as at fairs and festivals.

The company's name, which means "sweet life," probably makes more sense in English than in Spanish, she said. But VanZandt chose it based on a revelation she made while visiting Guatemala and witnessing how the people lived.

"It's a sweet life, actually, when you get down to it," she said.

The native of Middletown, Pa., said she has traveled most of her life, starting as an exchange student in Australia during high school.

She fit in working adventures throughout the Caribbean, Europe and Japan between years spent earning her nursing degree. VanZandt differentiates between travelers and tourists, saying she has experienced more while working.

"The tourist is the person looking out of the bus," she explained. "The traveler is out there living with everyone else."

After working in emergency rooms, including those at Maryland Shock Trauma Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital, VanZandt became an agency nurse. The flexible scheduling allows her the freedom to travel, she said.

When VanZandt wanted to travel in 2001, a doctor suggested she accompany a group of doctors performing emergency surgeries in Guatemala. For the first time, VanZandt went to a place that she consistently wanted to revisit.

Guatemala "looks like Sherman-Williams [paint] went splat, all over the country," she said. Everything -- including houses, clothes and buses -- is brightly colored, she said.

VanZandt then learned about a Swiss organization called Vivamos Mejor, or "Let's Live Better." The group supports cooperative living and reforestation projects in several Central American countries.

Initially, staff members were skeptical about her volunteering. But when VanZandt arrived in the organization's offices with a suitcase full of supplies, they agreed to let her accompany Dr. Louis W. De Pena on his trips to the 13 clinics he runs, serving 12,000 people. Now she goes back every three to four months, she said.

About 75 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, according to the CIA World Fact Book. Many suffer the effects of 36 years of civil war. In 2001, Guatemala had the world's fourth-highest mortality rate for children younger than age 5, according to the World Health Organization.

Many of the people in the area she visits, Solola, speak one of 20 indigenous Mayan languages. Only a few speak Spanish.

Often, poor living conditions cause health problems. Families live in homes with dirt walls and roofs, VanZandt said. Clean drinking water is hard to find. Dehydration because of diarrhea and pneumonia is a common ailment, as well as malnutrition and difficulty with pregnancy and birth, De Pena said.

A lack of transportation prevents people from seeking medical care. The closest hospital can be up to 2 1/2 hours away, De Pena said.

"They have to wait until a pickup passes by" to bring them to a city, he said.

But in addition to life-threatening needs, volunteers can help ease simpler troubles. In her brick Oella rowhouse, VanZandt held a photo of herself standing with a young woman. The girl had a rash on her cheek caused by a combination of irritation from a caustic detergent and sunburn from the high altitude.

"All she needed was a bar of Ivory or Dove soap and hydrocortisone cream," VanZandt said -- supplies that she brings with her.

VanZandt noted that she did not intend to start a business. It was a moment's indecision that prompted her to begin selling crafts. She ended up buying about 10 beaded purses to give as gifts because she couldn't make up her mind. With a few left over, she decided to put them out on a table at work.

"By the end of the shift, it was all gone," VanZandt said.

The purses, bracelets and other items that she laid out on a table were decorated with flowers and geometric patterns such as diamonds or starbursts. She said she carefully chooses her suppliers to ensure that the people who make the items are treated well.

"Weaving is a huge part of life," she said. Many of the textile items are based on the wide embroidered necklines of huipiles, a type of blouse. Each town or village has its own design, VanZandt said.

"The patterns haven't changed since before Christopher Columbus discovered America," she said.

Her enthusiasm for the country has been infectious. Ingrid Melber, owner of Westwood Antiques & Unique Furnishings in Glenelg, which carries some of her items, went with VanZandt to see Guatemala for herself.

"It's a lush part of the country," Melber said. "The colors are so vibrant, it's unbelievable."

VanZandt said she is unsure how much she has earned overall, but estimated more than $13,000, not counting start-up costs.

De Pena said her business returns multiple benefits to Guatemala.

"That is a double-edged sword," De Pena said. "She helps the economy by buying the textiles and at the same time brings stuff to give away."

VanZandt said she often receives praise -- even hugs -- from people she meets when they learn about what she does, but she doesn't think her actions are remarkable.

"I can't take all these compliments because it's fun," she said.

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