Dr. Ela Castro always knew she wanted to spend her life serving those in need. By all outward appearances, this is what she was doing. She’d studied for years to earn her medical degree. She was working at a health-care clinic. She was helping people—but something was missing. She felt her heart calling her to serve, not just to work for a steady paycheque.

Dr. Ela Castro (left), a 2019–2020 YAMEN participant, works as a doctor at Casa del Migrante (Migrant House) in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in January 2020. The client's name is withheld for security.Casa del Migrante photo/Samuel Gaitan

But it wasn’t until she took a step of faith that she truly felt like she’d found her purpose. Through a connection at her home church, Iglesia Menonita Central in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Castro heard about and decided to try a one-year term of service with YAMEN (Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network). YAMEN offers young adults from outside Canada and the U.S. an opportunity to leave what they know for a year to serve, grow and learn in an international placement. YAMEN is a joint program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite World Conference (MWC).

Castro’s education and experience made her a perfect candidate for a placement providing medical care to migrants being supported by an MCC partner in Guatemala City, Guatemala. And she says the experience was confirmation that she was moving in the direction for God’s call on her life.

“YAMEN is a great place for people to confirm their gift and their call, and for me it was proof that I can do something different than other doctors are called to do,” said Castro, 30.

The Migrant House (Casa del Migrante) provides shelter, food and medical care to thousands of migrants passing through Guatemala as well as deported Guatemalans. Providing care to people on the move is challenging and incredibly rewarding, said Castro, but there’s one story about a young girl that she carries deep in her heart.

“There was a nine-year-old girl who was a migrant and she was vomiting—she was not doing well. We didn't have all the medicine we needed at the shelter to treat her well,” she said. 

Castro wanted to bring the girl to a hospital, but the girl’s parents pleaded with her not to because they’d been treated very poorly by other doctors in the past. After a few hours of Castro’s care, the young girl recovered.

“They really thanked me more than I expected and needed because it wasn't me, it was God working. That same day was a celebration at the Migrant House and the girl was hanging around with me until she was ready to go to bed. I told her I was going to keep her in my prayers all my life and through her life and I've continued praying for her even after I left.”

Castro looks back at her time with YAMEN as a pivotal time in her life, and one that prepared her for one the most challenging years she’d ever faced. When she finished her YAMEN term in June 2020, she returned home to find her parents both sick with COVID-19. Her father passed away from the disease just weeks after her return.

Dr. Ela Castro and her mother, Domicila Castro, prepare to distribute medication in December 2020 to people who were injured or ill following Hurricane Iota and Eta. Castro and her mother were part of a group through Iglesia Vida in Abundacia, a Mennonite Church in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, that distributed medicine provided by MCC and administered medical care to those affected by the hurricanes.Photo courtesy of Adalina Castro

While caring for her mother at home before deciding what her next step was, Castro, her boyfriend and her sister also contracted COVID-19. They all recovered, but it was only months later that Hurricanes Iota and Eta struck Central America. Castro and her mother joined a group run by a local Mennonite church to offer medical attention and relief to those suffering from the impact of the storms. Her time in YAMEN providing medical care in challenging environments had prepared her perfectly for such a time as this.

She also says her time in YAMEN also played a pivotal role in her faith formation and in planning what is next for her life.

“It was my Gethsemane,” said Castro. “It was an opportunity for me to experience my faith by myself without the support of my mom and dad and closer family. I didn't know that after I came back from Guatemala that I wouldn't have my dad with me.”

Castro recently got married and is providing medical care locally through home visits or phone calls as she determines the next step for her path to helping people who need it most.

The Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) program is a joint program between Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee. It places emphasis on expanding the fellowship between churches in the Anabaptist tradition and developing young leaders around the globe. Participants spend one year in a cross-cultural assignment starting in August and ending the following July.

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