Local cookbook brings hope and beauty to South America

Peace Corps workers and some of Operation Esperanza's young patients in Ecuador. Contributed Photo

Grant County has done it again. Giving time, expertise and resources away for free - all to help someone. Well, four nurses from Grant County at any rate.

Nancy Crisler, Barb Northington, Bonnie Hilliard and Sandy Bowen all travel to Ecuador at their own expense to help with a project called Operation Esperanza, or Operation of Hope. The project provides specialized surgical treatment to children with cleft lips, cleft palates and facial deformities in Ecuador, Columbia and the Amazon basin.

These four women leave their families and jobs and personal responsibilities, empty a chunk of change from their bank accounts, and devote two weeks of work to Operation Esperanza in January. But last fall they decided to publish a cookbook to help the cause.

"It seemed like a good idea," muses Crisler, searching for a reason why they chose to do a cookbook rather than a straightforward fund-raising project.

So last November, 200 copies of "Operacion Esperanza: A Collection of Recipes by Friends of Operacion Esperanza Helping Children in Need" were printed and promptly sold out. The four nurses ordered 200 more, which should be available by the end of April or the beginning of May.

"There are a variety of American and Ecuadorian recipes - from starters to main courses, to desserts, and even a few vegetarian plates.

"After paying for the printing, we raised about $2,100 - or just enough for three plane tickets there. We had a chili feed last fall as well, and a yard sale last summer, which helped. And we'll try to be selling food items at the larger events in the area this year, and will probably have another yard sale,. Sometime soon we'll also raffle a quilt as a fund-raiser," Crisler explains.

Barb Northington was the one who put it all together, with the aid of a computer program she found on the Internet and "lots of help from friends," according to Crisler. It took them about two months to complete the book.

"We thought we could get some recipes from people in Ecuador, but most of the recipes came from local people - it was just easier."

But doing what these nurses do in January is not easy. Crisler explains it is a burden for the hospital for three or four nurses to take off work all at the same time. "The director of nursing and the hospital work very hard to accommodate us, and they've been wonderful."

Nancy Crisler and Sandy Bowen have both made two journeys down to Ecuador with Operation Esperanza. Barb Northington has four trips to her credit. And Bonnie Hilliard has been working with the project for more than 10 years.

"To be honest, Bonnie was very quiet about this [the project]. They needed surgery and the door just opened for the rest of us from there," Crisler explains.

Crisler works as a recovery nurse with the team, Hilliard as a nurse anesthetist, Northington is the "Jack of all trades" according to Crisler, and Bowen is the scrub nurse.

They spend approximately two weeks at a hospital in Riobamba south of Quito. They work with a team of doctors, other nurses, orthodontists and area Peace Corps workers, who are instrumental in spreading the word about the surgical program.

The patients come from all over the region and the team helps correct the congenital anomalies, which essentially are separations in the lips or upper palate in the mouth, which prevent proper speech and nutrition.

"Kids with cleft lips and palates can't suck or place their tongues in the right position to produce the correct sounds," Crisler explains. She adds poor speech and nutrition, in addition to the physical appearance, often result in the child being stigmatized. "Life is just more difficult for these people," Crisler interjects.

Project Esperanza, started by Dr. Joseph Clawson of Longview, Wash. in 1990, helps approximately 70 people every year, most of whom are between the ages of 1 and 8. Their youngest patient was 10 months old, and their oldest was 23.

"It's very humbling to do this," Crisler remarks. "To do this and play a role that helps change their lives so radically has its rewards. It's gratifying. And the people are so grateful, so gracious."

The cookbooks, proceeds from which help four local nurses travel to Ecuador to work with a team correcting cleft palates, will be available at the Blue Mountain Hospital for $10.50 beginning in early May.

For more information on Operation Esperanza, or to make a tax-deductible donation, go to www.operacionesperanza.org.

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