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03/07/1999
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Couple provides dental care in Guatemala
By Loretta Shea Kline
Catholic Key Reporter

spilitto2.JPG
photo courtesy of Joe and Liz
Dr. Jo Spalitto, a member of St. Thomas More Parish's Guatemala Action Group, poses with two Mayan girls on the street near their home in the central highlands of Guatemala.
KANSAS CITY - When Dr. Joe and Liz Spalitto began organizing a fund-raiser for St. Thomas More's sister parish in Guatemala, they hoped to raise $5,000 to help with educational, spiritual, medical and dental needs of the parish community in San Andres Itzapa.

The couple was gratified when the Latin American dinner they hosted in January at More Hall resulted in donations of more than $12,000, and said it was an example of the way Kansas Citians respond generously when they learn of a need.

"By word of mouth and talking ministry, things happen," Joe Spalitto said. "People here are so generous when asked to step up to the plate."

More than 250 people attended the fiesta, which featured entertainment by Laura Cotter on the piano, the St. Louis Parish Outreach Choir, and guitarists from Manny's Restaurant. Brancato Robinson Catering lent support by putting together a variety of Latin American foods and desserts donated by area restaurants.

The Spalittos, who over the years have been involved with various groups in mission work in Guatemala, have traveled to the Central American country with a group from St. Thomas More annually since 1997. Joe, a dentist, and Liz, a hygienist who works with her husband in his south Kansas City practice, helped provide dental services to rural, indigenous populations of the central highlands region as part of a parish team.

"The people who came down from the mountain to see us had a two-hour walk," Liz Spalitto said, adding that they formed an initial line of about 150 people. Over three days last summer, the group of St. Thomas More volunteers assisted more than 200 people of all ages with dental care. For most of the people, it was the only opportunity they would have to see a dentist for an entire year.

The list of parishes, schools, religious orders and Catholic organizations in the Diocese with involvement in Latin America is long. For years parishes have formed "sister" relationships with communities in other nations.

Last fall about 70 representatives gathered to share experiences at an event sponsored by the Diocesan Commission on Mutual Mission. The commission formed last year to provide a way for those active in mission activities to band together and share the joys of being involved with others, and to encourage new parishes to join.

Dee Fitzgibbons, who is active in the St. Thomas More Guatemala Action Group, said the parish's involvement has a two-fold purpose: to help with educational and medical needs of the community, and raise awareness and understanding of the Guatemalan people and their culture.

"Mostly we do it to raise an awareness in our people, not just of the needs, but of the gifts (of the Guatemalan people)," Fitzgibbons said. "The trips that we make are life-changing for our people," she added.

Fitzgibbons is among a half dozen St. Thomas More parishioners scheduled to return March 8 from a trip to San Andres Itzapa. The parish provided translators and arranged for food and lodging for a group of Kansas optometrists volunteering their services for the community. Arrangements were made for the group to stay at the Carmelo de Nazareth convent, Fitzgibbons said.

The contingent - which also included a surgeon from Salina, Kan., who was scheduled to perform cataract surgery at the Hermano Pedro Hospital in nearby Antigua - planned to spend a day working in nearby Parramos, two days in the village of Yepocapa, which is served by Father Michael Walker, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and one day in Santa Maria de Jesus near Antigua, she said.

In all, about 60 parishioners will travel to Guatemala on parish-sponsored trips this year, said Fran Koehler, president of the Guatemala Action Group. The trips are made possible largely through parishioners' support of an annual collection for the sister parish and through other donations, she said.

The group keeps parishioners informed of its activities primarily through videos and travelers speaking about their experiences, Koehler said.

"We show them and witness to them what has been done and continues to be done through their help financially and spiritually," she said.

Liz Spalitto noted that a trip scheduled in June would include an electrician and a teacher, who will share their expertise for the benefit of the sister parish community.

The Spalittos, who returned Feb. 24 from a trip to Santa Maria de Jesus where they worked with the DOCARE Team, a group spearheaded by osteopathic physicians from the University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City, said they have reaped spiritual benefits from their involvement with the people of Guatemala.

"It's the most rewarding thing you can do," Liz Spalitto said. "The people are so appreciative and so in need."

Joe Spalitto urged Catholics to support mission programs in their parishes. He and his wife joined the St. Thomas More effort as a result of their experiences helping their friend and fellow parishioner, Dr. Tony Racela, raise money for the non-profit Medical Missions Foundation.

"We felt we wanted to do more than raise money, we wanted to physically give of ourselves," Joe Spalitto said.

The Spalittos' children are also getting involved in Guatemala. Their daughter, Gina, helped out on the parish trip last June, and their son, Pete, a dental student, is planning to go this summer.

In their travels to Guatemala, the Spalittos have met and been inspired by missionaries from Quaker, Nazarene, Baptist, Amish and other Christian denominations. And, they have come in contact with medical groups from the United States and several other countries.

"We met people from all over the world - medical groups from Italy, from France, from Canada," Joe Spalitto said.

The Spalittos are also inspired by the generosity of people from Kansas City who know of their missionary activities and offer to help.

While the Spalittos talked with The Catholic Key, a dentist in their office building stopped by with donations of supplies including toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss for the couple to take to Guatemala in June when they travel there as part of the St. Thomas More group. In another example, a patient once arranged for medical and dental supplies to be flown into Guatemala.

"The ministry, by talking about it, has enlisted other groups to join in," Joe Spalitto said. "A lot of people like to show their support."


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