How Leelanau locals equipped Guatemalan first responders


By Norm Wheeler

Sun editor

It all started for Burdickville’s Mike Binsfeld when he got involved with local musician and third world crusader Chris Skellenger’s food security nonprofit Buckets of Rain. After introducing drip irrigation techniques to poor Africans in Lesotho almost two decades ago, Skellenger went to Guatemala and met Fredy Maldonado, who had started his nonprofit Educación mas Desarrollo to help the impoverished in villages around Antigua. Maldonado was helping Maine native Hanley Denning start a school called Safe Passage in Guatemala City to get the children of the guajeros (garbage pickers) into classrooms and out of the garbage dump.

In 2006, Skellenger huddled with them about growing food in a La Granja mini-farm where the Safe Passage students could learn to grow their own food. When Safe Passage finished a new daycare center near the lip of the garbage dump, Skellenger worked with the mothers of students on how to grow vegetables there in one of the poorest barrios in the world.

Buckets of Rain was established in 2012 as a result of Skellenger’s work in the third world, and ultimately the mostly-volunteer nonprofit came home to Michigan to create urban gardens to feed poor folks in the blighted areas of Detroit. But the work in Guatemala with Maldonado continues. Many volunteers from the Leelanau County area, including students from the Leelanau School, have joined Skellenger and Maldonado to plant gardens in Guatemala, to pour cement floors for poor families living in dirt-floored shacks, to build a brick oven in a mountain village for baking bread and pizzas, and in recent years, thanks to the commitment of Binsfeld, to help the Bomberos, the fire-fighters and ambulance drivers around Antigua.

There is no real government support for Guatemala’s first responders. When they’re not on a fire or ambulance call, they are out in the streets getting donations in coffee cans from passing drivers to fund their meager salaries and minimal equipment. Most of them have to fight fires in jeans and t-shirts. Serious injuries are endemic to their work. When Maldonado showed Binsfeld the situation, Binsfeld stepped up the Buckets of Rain commitment to include money for fixing fire station roofs and ambulances, and to provide medicine for the community. Through his efforts and those of Leelanau County resident Kathy Fordyce and her outreach to local firefighters at the Cedar Fire Dept., desperately needed gear is now making its way to Guatemala.

Mike Binsfeld detailed what he just accomplished in January 2022: “I am off to Guatemala after a year and a half delay due to COVID-19. With this trip I am completing a project I took on two years ago to deliver donated equipment to the Bomberos, emergency responders of Antigua, Guatemala.

“I’ve been doing charitable project work in Guatemala for 10 years under the umbrella of Buckets of Rain, a 501c3 nonprofit of Northern Michigan where I serve on the Board. Our good friend Fredy Maldonado and his Guatemalan nonprofit Educación mas Desarrollo (EyD) directs us to projects there.

“I first learned of the plight of Guatemala’s “Bomberos” while visiting after the devastating June 2018 eruption of Vulcan de Fuego. Fredy took me to meet the Bomberos Voluntarios from Parramos, the nearest village with emergency responders. They had minimal equipment and ran on money raised by shaking donation cans along the road, so I saw ways that we could support them. A generous donor in the U.S. purchased an electric generator so they could run donated ‘jaws of life’ when they were unable to get their fire truck close enough to an accident. 

“Back in Michigan, I reached out to our friend Kathy Fordyce, Plan Review Fire Inspector for Grand Traverse County. With 36 years in her career, she has many contacts in the fire and safety community. She sourced expired turn-out gear from local fire departments, and we began bringing these suits and helmets down to Guatemala. Then Kathy collected some Scott Air-Park systems for working inside smoke-filled areas from the Cedar Fire Department, so we ended up with quite a collection of gear to slowly move to Guatemala. My business, Binsfeld Engineering, offered to ship some of the gear down. The shipping was expensive and then the crate sat for months in Guatemala City. Finally, the crate made it into the hands of the Bomberos. We decided not to ship the gear this way again.

“In January 2022, along with good friends Norm and Mimi Wheeler, we made the commitment to travel to Guatemala again. We packed the gear in large duffles labeled by Burdickville Boys bandmate Jeff Richard to say “FIREFIGHTER” on one side and “BOMBEROS” on the other. Each of the five duffles contained firefighter pants with a fiberglass air tank in each leg (with valves removed); a firefighter jacket with a backpack/regulator wrapped inside; a face mask, a helmet, and a late addition box of N95 masks.  Each duffle weighed 50 pounds.

“We took a typical bag into the Traverse City Airport for a pre-inspection meeting with Dan Sal (with TVC Airport), Brad Mullet (with TSA), and Ron Shutler (with American Airlines). They confirmed the bags would be accepted as international baggage. Ron Shutler offered to waive all baggage fees on American Airlines. (Thanks to Chuck O’Connor for helping us arrange this meeting!)

“Finally, I had 10 air tanks with the valves removed, the valves packed into bubble wrap, five sets of turnout gear, five face masks, and five helmets filling up the floor in our kitchen and living room. I took photos of the gear and labeled the items in the photos. I took another photo and added text explaining how to re-install the valves into the tanks. I created a combination packing list/zero-dollar invoice for the gear in both English and Spanish stating that the gear was being donated by Buckets of Rain free of charge.

“Armed with vaccination cards, negative COVID tests, and 250 pounds of gear, we arrived at the Traverse City airport. The counter agents were friendly and supportive and the bags were checked in free of charge. We had a short delay in TC, then a second minor delay in Chicago, but the nonstop flight to Guatemala was mostly empty.

“Upon arrival, the lines through customs were noticeably short. All the bags made it! When we rolled the cart out of the airport we were met at the curb by our friends Fredy and Flor, and suddenly an ambulance pulled up to the curb. It was the Bomberos from Antigua! They lined up to thank us, to load the duffles into the ambulance, and to give us all a ride. We arrived in Antigua around 1 a.m. A few days later we were honored to be publicly thanked by the vice mayor of Antigua, Diego Arriola, and by the Bomberos fire chief, Nur Arevalo, in a ceremony attended by several local dignitaries and most of the Bomberos. Thanks to everyone who helped us bring this project to a successful completion. The first responders in Leelanau County are helping the first responders in Antigua, Guatemala in a big way!”