Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Being Called?

There is an interesting story in the Old Testament Book of Samuel where Samuel, a boy helping an elderly priest, is awakened at night by a voice calling his name. Because the only other person around is the man down the hall, Samuel runs to see what the old priest wants. The old man is irritated because he did not call the boy and tells the boy to go back to bed. When the situation repeats two more times, the priest realizes that Samuel IS being called, not for work but for LIFE, and Samuel's life changes forever. The lesson I take from this story is that our true calling often is not obvious to us.

I thought of this story on Saturday night when we attended the Santa Barbara Rotaract Club meeting. Allison Radke, a youth minister who is part of our group and who is fluent in Spanish, served as interpretor. Rotaract members are people ranging from college age to less than thirty years old. This club inlcudes college students, an auto mechanic, attorneys, teachers, government administrators and others. As the meeting was about to start, Allison said in English "I just had an idea." Then she asked a question in Spanish that she told us was "How many people here use Whatsapp?" Almost all the Rotaractors raised their hands. After a brief explanation, the club members said that they would help us to effect our hope to establish internet communications between elementary kids in Las Brisas del Pinal and kids in the Chequamegon Bay area. When Allison explained the frustration that the teachers in Las Brisas had trying to project a Facebook video through their LCD projector, the Rotaractors pulled out their LCD projector and said "Here's how you do this . . .We will help." They responded immediately to our call for help. When my wife Becky quietly asked me, "who in the Ashland area is going to work with this vibrant group of young professionals," I replied, "They have not yet been called."

Earlier on Saturday morning, I wondered if I was hearing "a call" or just another solicitation when the leaders of the Santa Barbara Rotary Club met with our small group. They explained that the international Rotary Foundation and UNICEF (the United Nations International Child and Education Fund) had selected Honduras as one of five countries in the world for a pilot project promoting clean water and sanitary practices to reduce widespread diarrheal illness in children and communities and to help girls to stay in school past sixth grade. The local Rotarians asked if we would be the international sponsors for their projecct for the Department of Santa Barbara (about the area of Ashland and Bayfield counties in Wisconsin). The minimum contribution for us to be a sponsor is $30,000, including a matching contribution from the Rotary Foundation. In any case, we would need to raise at least $10,000 in order to be a WASH-in-Schools sponsor.

It seems like a risky proposition. The Santa Barbara Rotarians said that the project for Honduras is organized by their Rotary District to include all the Rotary Clubs in Honduras. The pilot project for the Department of Santa Barbara involves selecting at least five schools, and requires installing any necessary infrastructire, curriulum adoption, teacher training, and implementation within one year. The project requires before and after testing for measureable improvements and documentation that the pilot projects will continue after the international funding runs out.

Steve Rith-Najarian is a physician on our LARA team who is a national leader in helping Native Americans reduce the incidence of diabetes-related illness on reservations. He said there is no doubt about the serious need to improve access to clean water and to adopt better sanitation in schools and communities, but to expect a measurable change by the end of 2018 is unrealistic. I agreed that the project expectations are unrealistic, but it is appropriate to start small in these ambitious initiatives so that future projects can improve on the lessons learned from the preliminary projects. After all, there are many more than five countries plagued by contaminated water supplies and diarrheal illness.

Allison Radke facilitated a conversation about the project with the kindergarten teachers in Las Brisas del Pinal. This barrio on the outskirts of Santa Barbara has experienced rapid growth as families from small mountain villages come to the city in hopes of finding employment. These teachers know how little most children and their families understand the need for sanitary practices. They told us that there is no question about the huge scope of the problem, but added "You have to start somewhere, and Honduras is a good place to start." They said that the parents association in Las Brisas has become well aware of the problem, and they make sure that the bathrooms at the kindergarten are well supplied with soap and toilet paper. Even so, water runs into the community water supply only two days per week, and they have to ration use so that their stored supply does not run out.

Is a request of this scope just another of many solicitations for a hopeless cause, or is this our calling to take small, deliberate steps to improve children's and communities' access to clean water and adequate sanitation? Is it just coincidence that we are faced with a decision on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Can our small steps lead to a change of the scope of Rotary's commitment decades ago to eliminate polio from the world? Some of our group tired of the long discussion we had after dinner to determine whether we can commit to be a sponsor. One member said, "I just want to do the work. I can't deal with writing proposals or deciding who is responsible for documenting how every penny is spent. There is a great need. Let's not hesitate to do something about it." Even so, he recognized that someone needs to design projects, write proposals, and track progress. He said, "I want to help, but not with the bureaucracy.

In the end, we decided that we will raise $35,000, which we hope we can achieve by raising $10,000 from clubs and our communities and multiply with matching contributions from our Rotary District and the Rotary Foundation. Even if we cannot get matching contributions, $35,000 may not be enough for five separate, pilot projects. All of our clubs in the northern USA take pride in our abundant, clean water. People in the poor communities in Honduras did not consciously decide to contaminate their water supplies any more than the people of Ashland and Barksdale chose to contaminate theirs. Finding sustainable solutions to provide clean water "has to start somewhere."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Seeking Sustainable Projects

Our work in Honduras was reduced by a day because our flight from Duluth to Chicago was cancelled when a wet snow and fog prevented landings. Instead, we drove an icy highway to Minneapolis and flew directly from there to Houston. When we arrived in Santa Barbara, the local Rotarians were eager to put us to work on the project in Aridita that we planned last year: installing a roof on an expanded multipurpose building in the mountain community of Aridita (14.98037°, -88.30410°) northwest of Santa Barbara in the municipality (like counties in the USA) of Nuevo Celiac. Members of the community and the parents' assocation already had installed new cconcrete block walls and new metal beams when we arrived to assist in putting on new sheets of metal on the roof.

There always are interesting "synchronicities" on mission trips. The same day we arrived in San Pedro Sula, two missionaries supported by the United Church of Christ's One Great Hour of Sharing also were returning from a trip to Panama and Columbia. Don and Maryjane Westra are natives of Fergus Falls, MN who have been working to make a vocational school program more sustainable in Yoro, Honduras. In rural Honduras, fifty perent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Access to education beyond the elementary grades is very limited, and, therefore, most people lack the skills required for good-paying jobs. Last year one of the Santa Barbara Rotarians asked our group to assist with improving a vocational school in Santa Barbara, and the Westra's have the knowledge and experience to help us understand what approaches might be successful.

Another Santa Barbara Rotarian met with us during our first evening in the city and asked our group to be a partner in attracting funding from the Rotary Foundation to implement a multi-faceted program to improve rural sanitation and to reduce water-borne disease by enhancing sanitary facilities and practices in area schools. We also came this year with the intention to develop a program of enhanced communications between children in the community of Las Brisas del Pinal (14.94582°, -88.23488°) and children in the Chequamegon Bay area. When we attended the Santa Barbara Rotary Club meeting on Friday evening, a young woman, who is president of the Santa Barbara Rotaract club (young professionals engaged in community service), said that their club would like to collaborate with us in developing this project.

There is no shortage of important projects where help is needed. One person who is a great help in all these endeavors this year is Allison Radke, the youth minister at the United Presbyterian-Congregational Church in Ashland. Allison's fluency in Spanish and good humor have made her a hit with every group we encounter and a real benefit in our communications.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Building Bridges Through The Internet

One of Rotary's four main objectives is "the advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional people united in the ideal of service." This goal underlies more than twenty years of collaboration between the north country Rotary clubs and the Santa Barbara Rotary Club. The perspective of Rotarians from the north is that the professionals in the Santa Barbara Rotary Club are much more capable than we to identify critical needs in their home territory. Our tasks in the north are to help people in our area to develop a compassionate understanding of our connections to Honduras and to determine which of the critical needs we are best able to serve.

The Internet and digital technology are effecting dramatic changes in the ways we collaborate. Traditionally, communications between Santa Barbara and the north needed to occur face-to-face. Even then, we could understand a need only by sending an advance team of northerners along with local Rotarians to a place to prepare a plan of action. Now people in remote villages have cell phones with cameras and email -- even when there is not electrical utility service in the village. Before the north country Rotarians arrive, it is possible to have satellite images of a project site and instant photos of the inside of buildings and the conditions of the local population. Even better, communications no longer need to be limited to the annual mission trip.

I know only a few words of Spanish. This year I could send an email from Honduras to my wife Becky in Wisconsin (who is fluent in Spanish) and ask her to let the teachers in a village down the road know that i will bring them some instructional equipment at 8:30 A.M. the next day. The teachers sent Becky photos of the donation event before I returned to my hotel. There is nothing better than face-to-face communication, but today's technology allows us to stay in touch year-round.

Before Steve and i came to Santa Barbara, Becky sent an email to the teachers in that village (Colonia Las Brisas del Pinal; N14.94619, W088.23431), where we built a two-room kindergarten two years ago. A number of people from the United Presbyterian-Congregational Church in Ashland, Wisconsin assisted Rotary in building that kindergarten. Becky has stayed in touch with those teachers ever since, especially with Lily May Oliver-Urbina. Becky asked Lily May if her students needed notebooks, pencils, and crayons that our church had collected for me to take to Honduras. Lily May replied that the school really needed a digital projector so that whole classrooms of students could see a computer screen.

Our church provided me with a projector to give to the school. Our hope is that communications among the people in our communities no longer need be limited to annual trips. Kids in Honduras can watch kids up north sail-skiing on an ice-covered lake, and kids in Ashland can watch barefoot kids in Honduras adeptly passing soccer balls in the shadow of verdant mountain peaks.

When I was in elementary school, my teachers arranged for me to write "pen pals" at far-away schools. That entire process has been replaced by Facebook pages and instant messages. It is even more important in this age of instant messages that people have a more sensitive understanding of other people's cultures. We hope that, by sharing this technology, we can build digital bridges between our communities to enhance international understanding united in the ideal of service.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Serving Needs, Assessing Needs

On Friday we went to another small village in the mountains: El Guineal (N15.15172, W088.28310) in the municipalidad of Trinidad (like an unincorporated village in a rural town in Wisconsin). As we did on Thursday, we helped the villagers to replace a leaky roof on their school with a new one, and we painted the concrete block structure inside and out. In this season of Lent, there is a certain value in simply picking up a broom or a paintbrush and working alongside a new acquaintance on a community project. This practice reflects Rotary's Motto "Service Above Self." Even though neither of us speaks a common language, we each share a common sense that we are doing something that, in a small way, will enhance the educational experience of a child.

Does a classroom that is a little brighter and no longer has paint peeling from the concrete block walls make a math lesson more engaging? The teacher standing in front of 45 students in this tiny mountain village tells us that the quality of the classroom affects the quality of learning. So we quietly scrape, sweep, and paint side-by-sde. Neither of us is earning a wage today. We smile at each other and hope that we will help in a small way to enhance opportunties for another generation. Our sweat mixes with the paint in this remote village where families grow and pick cofffee for their livelihoods. The discipline of quietly serving a need without asking questions calms my soul.
The view from El Guineal.

But as I track my progress to check whether today's project will be complete when it is time to pack up the tools and head back to Santa Barbara, I start to ask questions. Why am I painting a little schoolhouse on a Honduran mountainside? There is a part of me that wants to know about my daily cup of coffee. If I drink coffee, shouldn't I know something about what goes into getting it to my cup? I take pleasure in knowing the Tetzner family and their farm from which I buy my milk. It seems appropriate that I should learn about the people who provide me with coffee beans. Do these coffee farmers have a similar sense about the people who consume their produce as the Tetzners do about me? It is clear that there are far fewer community resources available for the education of the coffee farmers' children than there are for the Tetzner kids. Is that fair? How much of the market price of coffee goes back to the coffee farmers who produce it?
The mayor of Nuevo Celilac and the community
of La Aradita show us their old center.

When we returned to Santa Barbara at the end of the day, several people made a point of crossing paths with Steve and me. It is good that Steve speaks some Spanish because I would have no idea what to say, even if they succeeded in getting me to understand what they were asking us. Two teachers from one of the Santa Barbara technical schools asked us to take a tour of their facility. It, too, has leaky roofs and inadequate instructional equipment. Then a teacher from the nearby city of Ilama (N15.05882, W088.23267) told us that there are not enough desks for all the students at her school. Then the owner of a coffee farm told us that the community near his farm needs a kindergarten. He said that his family would like to cost-share with us in building a structure. On Friday evening, we joined the meeting of the Santa Barbara Rotarians. They asked us to go to the village of La Aradita (N14.98037, W088.30410) on Saturday morning and meet with the Mayor of the municipalidad of Neuvo Celilac and the village people to discuss what it would take to rebuild their one-room community center, which currently has a ceramic tile roof that leaks badly and which they say is now too small for their needs.

How should we Rotarians and community members in the north country respond to all these needs? We hear some political leaders say "build a bigger wall on the border and send all these needy people away. Their needs should not be our worry." The fact is that the militarization of the US/Mexico border actually has INCREASED the number of undocumented workers in the US since the late 1980's. US tax dollars now fund a $74 billion private prison industry that employs 800,000 people and locks up migrants, most of who are not violent criminals. The US Border Patrol employs an additional 21,000 workers, and 63,000 undoumented people are imprisoned while awaiting trial. Each person held in detention costs US taxpayers $55,000 per year. It appears to be in the USA's own interest to consider the needs of the people who live south of the border. What needs of the people who grow and pick my coffee, bananas, and palms and who sew my clothes might be served in a way that enhances their lives in their own country?

All the requests that the Santa Barbara people laid before us are legitimate needs, but the needs are greater than the limited resources that the Latin America Rotary Aid (LARA) program has. At the end of the afternoon, LARA held its annual meeting at our hotel. The participants agreed that we need to set priorities. Somehow, we should look for synergies among projects, and we should explore if there are matching grants that might expand the amount of resources available for a project. That will be part of our homework as we plan next year's service. One LARA member asked if we could enhance the welding program and the wood shop program at the technical college and provide funds for the students to make desks for the students at Ilama. Another asked if we could obtain matching grants through the Rotary Foundation's Vocational Training Team program. The Rotary Foundation will not provide funds to repair leaky roofs, however. We have lots of questions to answer before we can assure donors that their funds will best serve the needs this area faces.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Very Long Day - Monte Cristo

We worked in a remote mountain village -- Monte Cristo (N 15.12654, W088.301259). We travelled for about 10k on a winding, narrow dirt road up and down hillsides. The community people were already at work when we arrived. The old roof was off, and men were welding metal braces to the angle-iron rafters. 45 school kids were crammed into a tiny school room. We passed out school supplies and then started to work. I'll give more details later.

When we returned to Santa Barbara, two men were waiting to ask Steve and me to go on a tour of one of the public high schools "collegio technico" in Santa Barbara. It was late when we returned, and I fell into bed. I will have to download photos and write more details after the work in El Guineal today and the Santa Barbara Rotary meeting tonight.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Returning After Missing 2015

The Latin America Rotary Aid (LARA) board of directors suspended its 2015 Honduras mission trip when we received word of gang violence in Santa Barbara late in 2014. A gang kidnapped a passenger from a taxi cab. There was a shoot-out with a rival gang. The driver was injured and taken to the hospital. The rival gang broke into the hospital and dragged the driver out and killed him. One of the shooting victims was a half-brother of one of our LARA Rotarians, and the incident left her feeling less secure about traveling on remote roads. He had always assured her that, when our team traveled on back roads, he had friends who would watch to assure that we were safe. Even when local Rotarians acccompanied us, she felt more secure because of her half-brother's promise.

Yesterday I returned with LARA direcctor Steve Rith-Najarian and will meet Mel and Lourdes Tangen tomorrow to start one of two school projects. On this trip we are assessing security and determining what risk management measures we should follow for future trips.

When we arrived in Santa Barbara yesterday. Rene Vazquez, a local Rotarian, met us at our hotel. He asked why we have such a small group this year. We explained that we were concerned about bringing a larger group until we understand what risks there are to traveling to remote villages. Rene was surprised. He said that conditions in this area are little different from those during our past trips. He said that we need to be concerned about conditions in the large city of San Pedro Sula, but we can continue to be active in the Santa Barbara area. As in the past, we will always have a local Rotarian with us when we travel to the remote villages.
Some of my clothes made in Honduras.

It seems as important as ever to maintain our connections with Hondurans. American companies continue to rely on Honduran labor for manufacturing and for agricultural produce. US citizens should be aware of the conditions in the places where we do business. When I packed for this trip, I quickly saw how many of my clothes were made here.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Family United

This year’s LARA activities included a special dimension.  One of the members of our group is a twenty-one year old man Yester Voss from Hamilton, Ohio.  Yester was born in Honduras near Santa Barbara with a severe cleft lip and cleft palate.  When he was a baby, Yester’s condition could readily be repaired in the United States, but his family could not afford to get the required series of surgeries.  Nineteen years ago, Delores Williams of Casa Rosa arranged for him to be adopted by a family in the USA who agreed to see him through the surgeries and to give him a future that he could not have in Honduras.  Today, Yester has no facial deformity and no speech impediment.

As a teenager, Yester began to wonder about his family roots.  Did they care about what happened to him?  Did they miss him?  Did he have Honduran brothers and sisters?  His uncle in his adopted family, as a frequent LARA participant, was a friend of Lourdes Tangen.  Lourdes is a Honduran woman from Santa Barbara who fell in love with and married Mel Tangen when he came to Santa Barbara on a LARA trip about fifteen years ago.  Lourdes moved to Minnesota with Mel and taught in a public school. Mel and Lourdes visit Santa Barbara every year, including the LARA mission.  They already have built a house in Santa Barbara, which they plan to use much more frequently after Mel retires.  Yester made contact with Lourdes two years ago and asked her to track down his sister when she next came to Honduras.

That year was my first time serving in LARA, and several of the people in this year’s group were here when we went with Lourdes into the mountains to find Yester’s mother and to give her Yester’s picture.  It took all day to drive into the higher mountains where the coffee harvest was still under way.  Every few miles Alejandro stopped and asked if anyone new where we could find her.  Each time they would reply something like, “just take this road across the next stream and over the mountain to the next valley.  About four times of crossing the “next mountain,” we found her.  She was expecting us because word went out to the local radio station that a group of Americanos were looking for Yester’s mother.

The response from Yester’s mother and his sister led Yester to decide to visit his birth family.  Lourdes arranged for him to participate in this year’s LARA program and for him to have as much contact with his birth family as he could manage personally.  He had continued the contact with his younger sister in San Pedro Sula during the two years since his initial contact.  During the flights to San Pedro Sula, Yester told us that he was excited, nervous, and afraid all at the same time.  He made a scrap book of his life during the last nineteen years to facilitate a “conversation” between him (who speaks no Spanish) and her (who speaks no English).

Throughout our nine days in Honduras, Yester’s awareness of his birth family grew.  His nineteen year-old sister Breci hoped to meet him at the airport, but she was not able to get off work before we left for Santa Barbara.  They sent text messages to each other using translation software.  She told him that he had four brothers and four sisters.
Yester meets his birth mother for the first time.

Yester’s mom, two sisters and a brother rode the bus from her village high in the mountains to San Nicholas (N 14⁰ 56.472’, W 088⁰ 19.555’) on Wednesday morning and traveled to San Jeronimo with us.  He learned that she and Yester’s father divorced shortly after Yester was adopted, and she is planning a third marriage later this year.  Breci actually is his half-sister.  There were many hugs and tears on Tuesday, but Yester arranged for his mom, his little brother, and Breci to visit us again on Saturday.  His mom and brother accompanied our group to a school restoration project in Santa Rosita (N 15⁰ 11.119’, W 088⁰ 18.205’) in the northeastern part of the department.  Breci  sent a message that she would take a bus from San Pedro Sula to Santa Barbara after work on Saturday afternoon and meet our group upon our return.

Friday afternoon yielded an unexpected surprise when we returned from Los Anices.  Seven more of Yester’s family were waiting for us in the lobby of our hotel.  Yester’s father heard a radio broadcast announcing that a Honduran-born man named Yester was in Santa Barbara with a Rotary International group from the United States .  He thought this must be his son.  Yester’s dad picks coffee beans in a village that is a two hour drive from Santa Barbara.  He loaded as many of his family as possible in a truck and drove to the city in hopes of seeing his son again.  With his Honduran father was Yester’s twenty-three year-old full sister Wendy.  Wendy was four when her very special little brother was sent away to the USA.

Yester asked my wife Becky and LARA leader Chris Keenan to help with translation while he and his newly found family visited at a nearby restaurant. In spite of my lack of Spanish, Becky asked me to come and help her be more aware of the group dynamics.  Chris asked Yester’s roommate Kade to join us, too, while the rest of our group went off for dinner elsewhere.  Yester’s dad and his family had waited all afternoon for his return to Santa Barbara, but they needed to return home in the evening because the winding dirt roads are such a challenge to navigate at night, and everyone had responsibilities back home on Saturday morning.

Yester’s father clearly was nervous about how Yester would perceive him.  Yester’s stepmother is thoughtful and sensitive and helped to assure a positive reunion.  But Wendy’s love and joy about finding her special little brother after nineteen years was palpable.  She did not need to speak English to show him how happy she was to know that he is well and that he sincerely wanted to find them.

Yester with his dad (center), Wendy (left), stepmom (right),
and nieces.
Yester and Wendy share the same mother and father, but a birth defect separated them and led them on two very different paths for nineteen years.  Yester’s curiosity brought them together again.  He did not know about his big sister, but she had never forgotten him.  As a child Wendy learned that adoption gave Yester an opportunity for healing that was not available to him in Honduras.  She understood that he might embrace his new family in the USA and never want to see his birth family again.  But she never stopped caring about her little brother.

Breci is another amazing sister.  She arrived in Santa Barbara on Saturday night and stayed with our group all day Sunday.  Pretty, vivacious, and talkative, Breci exudes a confidence and determination that anything is possible if one cares and keeps trying.  I introduced myself to her on Sunday morning at the fiesta that the community of Las Brisas del Pinal organized to celebrate the grand opening of their kindergarten.  As salsa music blared through the sound system, Breci’s first question of me was, “Do you want to dance?”  I replied, “Mas tarde (later).”

Yester and Breci
Breci kept all the Spanish speakers in our group very busy throughout Saturday night and Sunday because she had so much to tell her big brother about each of his family members and because she wanted to know so much about Yester.  On Sunday night Becky was worn out from laughing so much and from non-stop translation in the truck with Yester, Breci, and Kade.  If ever Yester needed motivation to learn Spanish, Breci provided it.  I won’t be surprised if Breci learns English by next year because she wants so much to be aware of what the Americans around Yester are saying.

A high point in the reunion took place on Sunday morning at the fiesta in Las Brisas del Pinal.  With his mom, little brother, and Breci in the audience, Yester stood at the microphone before the crowd and announced what a pleasure it is to meet his Honduran family and how proud he is to be Honduran.  He presented the school with a Honduran flag for its new flag pole.  His family and all the community are proud of their homeland, and they welcomed his efforts to reconnect with them.

San Pedro Sula Airport donation
box for helping babies with cleft lip.
As Yester spoke with a newly found confidence before the crowd gathered outside the kindergarten, I wondered about the difference between him and me.  Was it just a fluke of genetics?  He was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, just as I was born with hernia.  Both required surgery early on that we hardly remember.  For Yester the surgery was not accessible to his birth family.  Like me Yester received the required surgery from loving parents who raised him in the United States.  Yester was overwhelmed by the joyous welcome and loving embraces he received from his Honduran family, people of very limited means who always wanted nothing more for him than the best future possible.  Now Yester feels a deep gratitude for a caring presence he did not recognize before his journey with our LARA group.  Everyone in our group has been touched by Yester’s reunion.

Like Yester, all of our LARA team are returning home with a broader understanding of who our “family” is.  Simply by inviting Yester to join our LARA team, we shared a life-changing experience with him that brought each of us closer to mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers in Honduras.  We, too, feel like part of Yester’s family.  We are reminded of the One who said, “Whoever joins together in serving the greater Good is my brother and my sister and my mother.” At the gate at the Houston International Airport as we prepared to journey to our respective homes, Yester hugged each of his LARA family members, and we wished each other well.  We all are eager to know how Yester’s reunion will play out, and we are pleased to be part of it.