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Helping out

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Area residents honor their mother by building medical clinic

HARTINGTON — A Hartington family decided recently to turn a sad memory into a gift of loving remembrance.

Mary Lou Noecker passed away within the past year and her family had a medical clinic built in her name in the northern part of Chimaltenango, Guatemala.

“My brothers and sisters asked people around the community for the funds to help build the clinic,” Ron Noecker said.

His sister, Rose Koch, was one of a number of locals that made the trip from Feb. 1-8 to finish the clinic in Mary Lou’s memory.

“It unfolded into something totally amazing that none of us realized,” Koch said. “What good had been accomplished, and Ron introduced us to other organizations that are doing good there.

“I would love to go back and be a part of another project in a couple of years. We realized how privileged we are to live in the U.S., and being a part of that in helping their place to be a better place.”

Ron Noecker’s journey from a Bow Valley farm to Guatemala followed a long, winding road, filled with faith, fulfillment and varying career decisions

After serving as a Catholic priest in Northeast Nebraska for several years, he decided it was time for a new direction in putting together good works for people.

So, just over 15 years ago, he left the Omaha ArchDiocese to move to Baltimore and enter nursing school at Johns Hopkins University following a sabbatical a year earlier in Guatemala.

“I fell in love with the country even though it has such great needs,” Noecker said.

He was working at the Rainbow Café during his sabbatical and admits he had thought about serving the world at large. Following a casual meeting with peace corps workers at the café, he was encouraged to consider Johns Hopkins when he mentioned he was thinking about getting into nursing.

“I did feel this larger call and the needs to the poor,” Noecker said. “I really feel that nursing care can bring some help, especially to these small communities. It’s a little bit easier to find nurses than to find doctors.”

After working in oncology while in Baltimore, Noecker relocated back to Guatemala and eventually founded Nursing Hearts Inc. ( in 2012, with the stated mission, “to improve the health of underserved communities in Guatemala and develop nurses to face global public health challenges by personalizing programs through trusted partnerships.”

At that time, no organizations sponsored nursing in Guatemala.

“I wasn’t understanding how much it was going to take, and things have worked out,” Noecker said. “Someone helped us from the States early on – an anonymous donor. Now we get 50 percent from the groups that come through a program fee and the rest we try to raise.”

Ultimately, a Florida Atlantic University representative called and asked if they could send some nursing students to Latin America to get some experience in the field abroad. Guatemala was the perfect fit.

“We have steadily, organically grown,” Noecker said. “We started in little communities. The first year I was here, we built three of four clinics – they were simple structures. It’s important how we get them built in a community – they need to have skin in the game. We work with an organization and they work with communities that approach them about getting one built.”