BUENOS AIRES – A train that has been winding its way through poor villages in Northern Argentina for 30 years is running full steam ahead to try and heal the poor.
The Alma Train, which goes to poor Argentine provinces, provides free medical assistance and dental care to impoverished children from birth to 14 years old.
“We are not going to save the world, but we are trying to make it a bit better,” said Silvia Barrios, a radiology technician for Fundación Alma, a non-profit Argentine NGO that operates the train to provide health care and social assistance services to children.
Families show up early in the morning with sometimes five or six children in tow, some of whom are seeing a doctor for the first time, she said.
“Some of them took many hours to arrive because they come walking,” Barrios said. “Perhaps they don’t eat (during) the whole day.”
The staff of the Alma Train – pediatricians, dentists, social workers, radiology technicians and even biochemists – are all volunteers. Funds for the organization come from private donations.
The staff begins their mission every year in April and finishes in November, working every day from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Every month, they choose two villages in Northern Argentina, where poverty and isolation is a problem, and stay for three to four days.
Each child admitted receives a check-up and gets laboratory tests, dental work and X-rays performed.
“Children are very grateful and they give us what they have: an old toy, home-made bread or a drawing,” Barrios said.
Workers at the makeshift hospital also try to educate people about living healthy lives and about disease prevention. They hold workshops to teach the community how to take care of themselves. And they make sure to leave a legacy – they find a person who will preserve and maintain the important mission every day.
The train has three wagons but no traction; it’s pulled by a cargo train. In one wagon they have a laboratory, X-Ray equipment, a nursery and a basic-care room. In a second, there is a cabin and meeting room, while the third has a kitchen and maintenance shop.
“We must treat cavities, malformations and, in many cases, we have to do extractions to save their healthy teeth,” said Jessica Mongelos, 29, a dentist. “We have excellent equipment in the train that allows us to do those procedures.”
Since it was created in 1976, the Alma Train has made 176 overnight trips and assisted more than 80,000 children. In the case of highly complex diseases, the patients are transferred to regional hospitals, and all their expenses are paid by the foundation.
“They wait for us every year with a nice welcome,” Mongelos said. “We love to do this work. Although it is difficult sometimes because we have to leave our jobs and we don’t (get paid) for this, their gratitude and the results of our visit are the best thing I have ever experienced as a professional.”
In April 2011, the Alma Train will begin a new healthy mission. Lots of kids are waiting for it, and a new generation will be looked after.
The world may not change, but some children will feel better.