February 2016… As the wheels touched down on our Boeing 737 in San Pedro Sula, I started an adventure with no idea what an incredible experience it would be. I had flown from Seattle with fellow members of the Rotary Club of San Juan Island, Bill Hancock, and Paul Mayer, on a service trip to Copán, Honduras. On the plane with me were Rotarians I had yet to meet, from the Fidalgo Island, Burlington, Stanwood/Camano and Sedro-Woolley clubs. Roger Kelley, of the Burlington club, was there to greet us, and after money exchanged and bags loaded, led us on a delightfully grueling 3 1/2 hour bus ride to Copán Ruinas. Waiting at Hotel Don Udo’s were Peter and Carolyn Martin, in charge of the International Project Alliance (IPA), made up of clubs in our region, ready to put us to work.
A joint project between the Rotary Club of Copán and the IPA, we had come to Honduras to deliver school supplies and set up a mobile library for 18 schools in remote Mayan villages. Some Rotarians would help with the construction of classrooms at the 400 student school in Cabañas (pop. 2,500), and others would attend planning meetings and visit project sites for a wide variety of IPA projects. A full and busy week ahead of us.
On the plane were five large Tupperware totes full of Spanish language children’s books, that IPA member clubs had purchased and assembled, to be used in the mobile library. The Copán Club provided a book rack for each school, and plans were to rotate the books from village to village every three months. The amazement and excitement of not only the kids but their parents, when they saw those books was worth the price of the trip. Can you imagine seeing a Dr. Seuss or Dora the Explorer, or any book for that matter, for the first time? The Copán Rotarians had prepared pink and blue backpacks filled with notebooks, pencils, other school supplies, and most importantly… a school uniform, consisting of a white shirt and blue skirt or trousers. Those kids would be ready to start school. Without what was in those backpacks, the child would not be able to attend school, a requirement. A student must have notebooks and a uniform, and that is up to the parents to provide… or a Rotarian. In these remote villages, it is a challenge sometimes to put food on the table, much less buy school supplies. I went on two trips into the ‘outback’ to deliver school supplies, in a caravan of pickup trucks filled with whiteboards, bookracks, desks, tools… and the backpacks and totes of books. The villagers were all waiting at the schools. It was something to see the grateful and proud faces of the parents as they helped their kids on with their uniforms. I got the feeling that they were experiencing hope for their child’s future that they may have not had. These people were farmers and field workers, and I saw many kids heading to the fields with a machete instead of being at the school getting a backpack. So, when I return to my ‘land of plenty’ I will carry that memory of those boys and girls trying on their first uniform. In addition to delivering the goods, each school was inspected to see what some of their needs were. We talked to the teachers, and drawing paper was a big item. Many schools had latrine issues as Bill, Paul and I discovered at the school our club sponsors. So wish lists were made.
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Riding in the back of a pickup truck is the way you get to work around Copán, and I imagine much of the countries south of the Rio Grande, with sometimes as many as 20 people standing up, rain or shine. I had my turn in the back over those rough Honduran roads a few times when we went to Cabañas, about a half hour away from Copán Ruinas, to work on the school. I had signed up as I thought that my years in construction might be useful… until I saw the cement blocks. I knew how to cut wood and pound nails, and a lot of the finer things, but I was no bricklayer. And, those damn things are heavy. As was the cement, the stones we used to fill holes and the dirt and gravel we shoveled. We attempted to build a wall. It was quickly decided our talents were better put to use as laborers. I think we were a great help when not in the way of the Honduran crew.
When we arrived at Dionisio De Herrera, we found a two-story school built around a courtyard. At the back was the construction site. They were adding the classrooms to where once houses or shops stood. The school term was starting the next week, and the children were there, in their uniforms, helping to clean the grounds and setting up the classrooms. I noticed a boy shoveling gravel and wondered why he wasn’t in a uniform with the other kids. As I watched him during the day, I saw a fun loving and hard working boy. I asked our Copán guide why he was not in school, and she told me his name was Jesus, and he could not afford to go to school because his family had to pay for school supplies, the uniform and in the case of this school, he would need dress shoes. He was twelve years old and would have been in the seventh grade, but his parents had died the year before, his mother of cancer and his father had been a police officer and was shot and killed. He was living with his seven siblings, with no money for school, and working as an alternative. One of his older brothers worked on the construction crew as well. I decided to sponsor Jesus, purchasing the notebooks and other supplies, a backpack and uniform and the black shoes. It was fun because I got to shop with him and take him for his official school photo… not just send a check. Peter Martin enrolled him in the Rotary system, and I paid the fee for that and the school, which I will renew each year till he graduates, hopefully to a better world.
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My Rotary club sponsors a kindergarten and an elementary school through our membership in the IPA program, and many Rotarians sponsor individual kids who cannot afford to attend school. So, I left Honduras with more than just memories, but an adopted son. A few weeks after I got home, his brother posted a photo on Facebook for me of Jesus in his new uniform at the school. No shovel in sight.