Kids Are Missionaries Too

May 30, 2019 • El Salvador
The Eliason family serves at Shalom Family Medical Center in El Salvador.

With their toddlers leading the way, the Eliason family brings the joy of Jesus to children in El Salvador.

Three-year-old Josh* could not contain his excitement when he found out he was going on his first mission trip.

“We are going to El Salvador,” he announced at his church in British Columbia, Canada. “Daddy is going to work on teeth and we’re going to tell people about Jesus!”

Josh has made friends with neighbors and people in the community.

The Eliason family—Garth and LeeAnne, Josh, and 18-month-old Jimmy*—were embarking on a 17-day trip to Shalom Family Medical Center, where Garth would provide dental care to children in a poor, suburban area.

The young couple, both of whom are medical professionals, has previously served on the mission field. During his fourth year of dental school, Garth spent a few weeks working in a First Nations community in northern Canada. He also provided care during short-term trips to Nicaragua and Belize.

LeeAnne, a physician specializing in infectious diseases, had a heart for Africa. In 2014 the couple served with World Medical Mission for three weeks at Mbingo Baptist Hospital in Cameroon. They went back the next year, when LeeAnne was expecting their first child.

“We had kids and put our plans for more missions work on hold,” explained LeeAnne. “Recently we felt God nudging us to go again and we started praying about it. We looked for child-friendly locations where we could serve together as a family.”

The Eliasons contacted World Medical Mission for guidance. “The staff understood our concerns about traveling with a one-year-old and a 3-year-old. They narrowed down some options for us to take our kids and where our skills were needed,” Garth said. “Then everything fell into place. They gave us the encouragement we needed to give this a try.”

“We looked for locations where we could serve as a family.”

For the Eliason’s two little boys, the adventure awaiting them was just as cool as going on a summer camping trip. Maybe better.

Removing Barriers

Leaving the snowy February landscape of home behind, the family traveled over 4,000 miles to Santiago Texacuangos, a small city in southern El Salvador. It was a trek offering many firsts—the longest airplane ride for Josh and Jimmy, the first trip to Central America for the Eliasons as a family, and an introduction to a different language and culture for the toddlers who quickly embraced their new environment.

The Eliasons stayed in a two-bedroom apartment at the children’s home, just a few blocks away from the Shalom Family Medical Center. While Garth worked in the dental clinic, LeeAnne and the boys spent the day interacting with kids in the home.

Jimmy and a family friend.

Some of the children had been residents of the home since birth. Their circumstances varied from youngsters with no disabilities to others who had Down syndrome or were visually or hearing impaired.

“One day Josh said to me, ‘Mommy, some of my friends here don’t speak English or Spanish.’ He didn’t care that they had a different way of communicating. He didn’t define them as different or less than. They were his friends—equals,” said LeeAnne. “As a parent, that’s something you try to instill in your children. That was such a blessing to me.”

From the garbage truck driver to the kitchen staff at the dining hall, Josh and Jimmy seemed to make friends effortlessly. Seeing the garbage truck rumble by was a thrill for them. They welcomed the driver as if he were the grand marshal of a street parade. The driver responded by flashing a big smile and waving back.

As for the kitchen staff, they simply couldn’t resist when the boys complimented the food and politely pleaded for more—in Spanish. Pupusa, a thick flatbread stuffed with beans and cheese, was their favorite dish.

“The boys didn’t have to do anything special to bless people. They were just being themselves. I felt like I was mostly a facilitator of their ministry,” LeeAnne said.

Garth cares for a patient at Shalom.

One frightening event during their stay illustrated the genuine love the Shalom staff had for the Eliason children. Jimmy had pressed the push-lock in their apartment door and locked himself inside. With no key, his mom and dad could not get him out, despite his cries for help.

“I ran to get help. Both the center director and a maintenance man with a tool belt came charging up the stairs. The maintenance man took the door off its frame and scooped Jimmy up into his arms as if he were his own child,” said LeeAnne. “That left an impression on us. They treated us like family.”

Although the boys did not spend much time in the dental clinic, Garth did give his sons a brief tour when they first arrived at Shalom. “They took turns going for a ride in the chair. Up and down, up and down,” he chuckled.

Most of Garth’s patients were children from the orphanage or local schools. Their care ranged from basic exams and cleanings to inserting fillings for some kids who had cavities in as much as 80 percent of their teeth.

Garth said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the relatively new facilities. “It was the most modern clinic I have worked in given the setting. We could take X-rays and we had standard dental chairs. We were limited in some tools, but most of time we had all that we needed. It was a very comfortable work environment.”

He was especially grateful for his Spanish translator, who also helped him in performing suctioning and handed him instruments. It was a bit of a challenge, however, to not have a trained dental assistant working alongside him.

That may change next year when the Eliasons hope to return short term to the mission field. Some of his office staff in Canada has already expressed interest in joining them.

Perhaps those staff will take their children too.

“When Garth and I were at Mbingo, I asked a missionary couple how they felt about bringing their children with them. I will never forget what the mother told me. She said ‘God called us here, and if He called us, He is also calling our children.’”

“Pray, pray, pray about it,” was LeeAnne’s advice to medical professionals who want their kids to experience overseas mission opportunities. “Then do what you can to minimize the risks, and go in faith.”

*Name changed for privacy.

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World Medical Mission World Medical Mission was established in 1977 to assist general surgeons who wanted to volunteer for short-term mission trips. Today, hundreds of volunteer Christian physicians, dentists, and other medical personnel work in mission hospitals and clinics around the world. We also staff a biomedical department and warehouse that provides critically needed equipment and supplies to these medical facilities.

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