© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Families Struggle To Bring Home Parkville Teens Stuck In Guatemala Due To COVID-19

Brandi Molina
Missouri teen Coleman Reese helped build and paint a new kitchen for Escuela Flavio Rodas in Chichicastanengo, Guatemala. He says the kids welcomed the kids in his mission group as though they were 'rock stars.'

Fourteen metro teens on a spring break mission organized by Platte Woods United Methodist Church are currently stranded, with non-parent chaperones, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Parents, church leaders, and state representatives are working to bring them home, all without a clear sense of when that will be possible.

The teens were supposed to fly into KCI on Friday, March 20. Just days before, Guatemala closed its borders to foreign travel to prevent the arrival of COVID-19.

"We will be cut off from the rest of the world," said President Alejandro Giammattei in a televised address on Monday, March 16.

Parkville teen Coleman Reese was having breakfast with his friends in the remote city of Chichicastenango when he learned that instead of another day painting the kitchen they'd built for a school, the group would be high-tailing it for Guatemala City to catch a plane.

By the time their bus made it five hours through mountainous terrain, the airport had shut down. The land border had closed.

Reese, the oldest kid on the trip, says he tried to stay calm for the others in the group, stuck indefinitely in a foreign country without their parents in the midst of a global pandemic. He's seventeen.

"To be honest with you," he says from a hotel room in Guatemala City, "at first, I thought it was interesting and it would be fun to be stuck in Guatemala an extra two weeks. To any teenager that's like, 'Oh, let's go, we're gonna miss school.' But you know, as it became a reality, I want to be back with my family and friends."

He says it's scary to be "in a situation that has never happened before in a place I don't know like the back of my hand."

Credit Brandi Molina
Teens from Platte Woods United Methodist Church built a kitchen for a school that had been feeding a thousand kids a day with one small oven. They selected this shade of yellow for the walls because it was cheerful.

Parents back home feel the same way, and they're trying to guide their not-quite-grown children through an unprecedented situation from afar. 

Susan Mason's 16-year-old son, Mark, has asthma. She has been trying to help him get medication in case his current supply runs out. She's reminding him of good hand-washing protocol in hopes he doesn't get sick. She's working with the hotel to track down a laptop so he might be able to telecommute to school next week, with his peers, when spring break ends. 

"He's a great kid, he's a smart kid, he's a resourceful kid," Mason says. "He's got great leaders that are very capable. They're fluent and they've all been in the area before."

But she worries about what happens if those leaders get sick. "Then who's there to make medical decisions for our kids and get them on a plane?"

Mason had concerns, leading up to the trip, about what was beginning to happen with the coronavirus. But she'd received assurances there would be no difficulty getting the group home based on the church's 20-year history with the community and strong working relationships with the local government. But everywhere, things changed quickly.  

Brandi Molina, the director of missions at Platte Woods United Methodist Church, is on the trip and she, too, is stranded. Molina says that in the weeks leading up to the trip, as news about COVID-19 ramped up, she contacted the mission strategist of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to get a sense of how the larger organization was handling missions in light of the spread of the virus. 

At that time, missions were planned for Haiti, Mozambique and Guatemala. The virus appeared to be spreading mostly in Europe and Asia.

Credit Brandi Molina
Fourteen teens and their chaperones went from a church mission in the remote city of Chichicastanengo to hotel seclusion amid COVID-19 in Guatemala City. They are unable to leave the country.

"It was pretty much ... business as usual, everything's fine," Molina says. She checked back a week later and got the same message.

Now, the group is staying inside the hotel except for necessary errands.

"Public transportation's shut down, the hotel restaurant's shut down, we're eating in our rooms," Molina says. Her most important job, she says, is to put on a brave face for the young people in her charge, despite her own fears. 

"As a leader you just have to be proactive and try your best to kind of stay calm and exhaust all options and just keep everyone's spirits up," she says. "All the things that I'm feeling, nervousness and anxiety, I can manage that when I get home and I'm with my family."

A statement from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley on Thursday announced that his office is working with the State Department to bring home stranded Missouri travelers in at least six countries .

Meanwhile, Coleman Reese says he and the other kids are bonding despite their homesickness, and fighting back fears for grandparents back home. They play cards, and when someone starts to cry, they take a break.

"We all need to be here for each other right now," he says.

For Susan Mason, the hardest part of being a parent separated from her child is that there's nothing she can do.

"I've always felt pretty empowered, like I've got a good grasp on how things work in the world. This has shown me that, really, we're all learning as we go," Mason says.

She knows her son and the rest of the teens will come home eventually. "It's just a matter of what the world will look like when they get back," she says.

Gina Kaufmannis the host of KCUR's Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter, @GinaKCUR.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.