Sunday, February 17, 2013

Down In The Valley

On Friday morning our group split into two teams so that we can achieve our goals for the week.  One team headed up the road to the northwest above San Nicholas to the city of Tierra Blanca (N 14⁰57.496’ W088⁰19.437’).  Their job was to replace a leaky roof over one of the classrooms of the elementary school there.  Our local guide Alejandro took Becky and me down from our hotel to the northern outskirts of the City of Santa Barbara.  Here, in the barrio (neighborhood) of Colonia Las Brisas del Pinal (N14⁰56.749’ W088⁰14.093’), is the proposed site of a kindergarten for the community.  Our team’s task was to assess the situation in the community and to evaluate how their needs may have changed subsequent to the closing of the maquiladora (T-shirt factory) last year.

Our hearts sank when we arrived at the elementary school.  The doors were locked, and no children were present.  Alejandro said that, on one Friday each month, the teachers from schools around the area gather in Santa Barbara for a meeting with the district administration.  This must be the teacher meeting day.
When our LARA group drove by this school a year ago, we met briefly with Ulices Bonegos, president of the neighborhood parents association.  In spite of a disability with his eyesight, Ulices is a local community leader who appears to be well known around Santa Barbara.  I asked Alejandro if we might find Ulices and ask him to help us with our task.  Alejandro called to a child who was watching us on the street and asked him to find Ulices.  In a few minutes the child returned with Ulices, a kind hearted, middle-aged man who was carrying his three year-old daughter in one arm.

“I heard that you would be here on February 15,” Ulices said as Becky translated.  “I am very pleased to see you again.”

Becky and I wondered how HE knew we would be coming today because we did not even discuss our visit until after we learned that the project funds had successfully transferred to the bank in Santa Barbara two days ago. It’s clear that Ulices has a very effective, informal network for gathering news.  Maybe he knows the one person who is reading our blog this week.  We told him that we hoped to meet the kindergarten teacher, but we did not realize that today is the teacher meeting day.
Ulices (right), teacher (center) with moms & kids
“It’s no problem,” he said. “Only the elementary teachers are meeting today.  Kindergarten is still in session.  I’ll take you down the street to see the classes and to meet the teacher.”

Clean Water and Sanitation
As we walked down the dirt street to the two rented rooms used for the kindergarten, Ulices pointed to the ditch that runs between the road and the building and to the plastic 4-inch pipe that opens into the ditch next to the entrance to the kindergarten.

“This is the discharge (“agua negro”) from the toilet,” he said.  “It is unsanitary.”
Toilet discharge to ditch by the kindergarten

UNICEF reports that 80 percent of urban dwellers in Honduras and 62 percent of rural residents have access to improved sanitation facilities.  These kindergarteners are clearly in the minority. Less than half of the county’s children under five years-old with diarrhea receive rehydration and continued feeding.  Honduras’ schools provide children a free, mid-morning meal, but this kindergarten has no food preparation area and one toilet for 60 four and five year-olds.  Some neighborhood mothers prepare the children’s food at home and bring it to the rented rooms.

Ulices introduced us to Lily May Oliver Urbina the kindergarten teacher as several neighborhood mothers took the children outside to play.  Lily May has been a teacher in Santa Barbara for twenty-five years.  She said that there are 395 families in this neighborhood, and most of them have children.  Most have experienced great hardship since the factory closed.  Typically, the men of the household leave during the day to find work picking coffee beans, and the women stay home to care for their children.  Lily does her best to make the dark apartment rooms inviting for her students, but there is little ventilation and crowded conditions for so many people.  Because there are too few desks and chairs, she has the older students sit on a board supported by two concrete blocks along one wall.  It was clear to us that the need for classrooms and safe, sanitary facilities was as great as ever.
Kindergarten teacher Lily May (left) with several of her students
and a mother helper.

Our team headed off to join the others at Tierra Blanca.  René, president-elect of the Santa Barbara Rotary Club, Chris Keenan, one of the leaders of the Latin American Rotary Aid program, Becky, and I sat around a first grade desk in the elementary school where the group was working.  We went line-by-line through the construction plans and materials needed to construct a two-classroom kindergarten with toilets connected to the city sanitary sewer and with a food preparation area connected to the city water line.  René said that he would serve as the local leader for the project and that club members would supply all the unskilled labor as well as the construction engineering needed to complete the project by August of this year.  Our group and our USA/Canada Rotary District will purchase the materials.
Celebrating the Start of Construction

Friday evening the Santa Barbara Rotarians invited Lily May, Ulices, and the new president of the Colonia Brisas del Pinal Parents Association to the Rotary meeting.  The evening was a celebration of the projects we had completed this week, and a commitment to a big construction project about to be launched in support of the community’s next generation of leaders.
The Santa Barbara Roatary Club's celebration to start building a kindergarten for Colonia Las Brisas del Pinal.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mountaintop Experiences

Solving Local Problems

On Wednesday and Thursday, February 13‑14, we worked side-by-side with parents and teachers in the mountain villages of Pueblo Nuevo and Las Quebradas to make their local schools more rain resistant and inviting.  In Pueblo Nuevo we replaced a leaky metal roof and painted the one-room school inside and out.  The school district in Las Quebradas had purchased a house adjacent to its existing elementary school for a kindergarten.  The community had knocked out an interior wall of the concrete block house to create a decent area for teaching, but the interior walls were grey unpainted blocks; the old metal roof leaked, and the rafters were rotted.
Installing new rafters for the new roof

What is the real value of replacing a roof and painting a school?  Is helping these villages with these projects creating a cycle of dependency?  Do villagers simply say, “It’s too expensive; let the gringos do it for us” instead of solving their own problems and providing for their own needs?  Dr. Steve Rith‑Najarian, a member of our team who has been coming here for more than twenty years, told us of past experiences where team members came to solve a community’s problems and only created more unintended problems.  He told about a community garbage dump that also served as a treasure trove for little kids who picked through the rat-infested debris to find things that wealthier families had discarded.  The dump was an obvious source of disease.  The group decided that the solution was to build a high fence around the dump and to set hours when the dump would be open and supervised.  The result was that people started leaving their garbage at the gate when the dump was closed. Soon there were two dumps: one inside the fence and one outside.  The poor children still combed through a filthy mess in hopes of finding treasures.

Steve’s point was that “solving” problems for other people is doomed to failure if the community members themselves have not participated in developing the solution.  It takes a lot of time and local leadership development for a community to sift through the mountain of challenges it faces and to set priorities for the needs that most villagers believe will make the greatest difference.  This is where our partnership with the Santa Barbara Rotary Club is critical to the success of the few projects we support each year.  The local Rotarians take much personal time throughout the year meeting with communities spread throughout the department, assessing their needs, and identifying the communities who are committed to implementing changes that our group simply facilitates.  Providing materials and a little extra labor is valuable to a community in extreme poverty, but, more than that, it is an affirmation from outside of long, tireless effort inside the community to make lives of everyone a little better.
 Students paint their school for class tomorrow

In many ways, the men and women we meet as we lift a sheet of steel roofing or paint a wall are models for us.  When we fret about the gridlock we face in dealing with problems in our own communities, we can look to these local leaders who struggle daily to find food for their families or to get healthcare for a sick child.  What they give out of so little for their village makes us almost feel ashamed of the things we complain about in our home towns.

We Are Connected to Each Other

It is hard for us to see the impact of our own decisions at home on the lives of the people in Honduras:  when we buy Central American fruit or coffee in the grocery store, when we buy a T-shirt, or buy a car or truck “made in America.”  It is very easy for us to complain that illegal Honduran immigrants are simply trying to take resources from us in the USA when we do not see the harsh consequences of our own purchasing decisions on them.  When we compare products in a store, we usually limit our choices to quality, price, and brand recognition.  How often do we look at what it took to get that price and to make that product?

By visiting Honduras we see the effects of the economic power we wield on families outside our borders.  Would people in our country tolerate having people in another country do to us what we do to them with our economic and military power?  The OPEC nations give us a small taste of our own medicine when they manipulate the world supply of oil.  Hondurans are in no position to strike back when the US intervenes in their country to protect the control of US fruit companies over the best agricultural land.  Do we ever hear about sending US Marines to Honduras to favor the control of private US interests over the interests of Honduran citizens?  It is news we choose not to hear and history we choose not to learn.

Education Is a Key to Improvement

The villagers in Pueblo Nuevo and Las Quebradas know that they cannot break their cycle of poverty without educated children.  About 75% of Honduran children get through sixth grade. Less than a third of high school age kids go to high school.  Even fewer rural youth go to high school.  It is not simply because a family needs teenagers to contribute to its survival, but also because there are no high schools in rural areas.  A teenager has to leave home and live in a city where there is a high school. Sometimes this happens when a family has relatives in the city who are able to take in the teenager while they attend school.  The teenager may have to combine work and school in order to provide room and board, school uniforms, and school supplies.  One teacher we met planned to leave his job near the City of Santa Barbara so that his daughter could attend collegio (grades 10‑12) in the City of Tegucigalpa.  The parents did not want their teenage daughter to fend for herself in the big city, but they were committed to her educational achievement.
The Pueblo Nuevo teacher with his students

Our work down here is largely aimed at the other end of the educational spectrum: kids entering school.  The kindergarten teachers we met are trying to make their classrooms inviting.  They want children to love learning and to be excited about going to school.  If a five-year-old prefers helping her parents to pick coffee beans to attending school, it’s difficult for them to assure that she will stay in school while they are working on a mountainside far from their village during the day.  It was obvious that the kindergarteners we met adored their teachers.    I do not know how the teachers do it when they have so little materials in their classrooms, but the teachers were the Pied Pipers of their communities.

Striving Toward Sustainability
A worker earns 15 lempira (75 cents) per
3-gallon basket of berries picked.

What are solutions to the economic hardships Hondurans face?  The country created economic incentives for foreign companies to establish maquiladoras here.  Maquiladoras are factories operated by foreign companies.  The maquiladora near Santa Barbara was owned by a South Korean company.  The firm imported cotton cloth and hired Honduran workers (mostly women) to make T-shirts and shipped the finished product for sale in the United States.  Laborers who faced high levels of unemployment in the rural villages were pleased to find employment at the factory, but there were stories of worker abuse.  Workers complained that they were forced to work overtime rather than be allowed to go home to prepare meals for their children.  There were reports of company officials giving women free “vitamin supplements” that actually were morning-after pills that employers used to prevent women workers from becoming pregnant.  The neighborhood Colonia Las Brisas del Pinal is now reeling in economic hardship because the nearby maquiladora closed.  Many of the families that moved here for jobs are now returning to coffee fincas during the daytime to pick coffee.

Brayan, the Santa Barbara Rotarian who worked with us at Pueblo Nuevo, owns three parcels of land nearby totaling about sixty acres where he was growing coffee.  He has a vision for how to achieve sustainable development, and he was eager to show us efforts. He and his wife Miriam are in their late twenties and have a six year-old daughter Sharon. They own a building supply store in Santa Barbara. After we finished repairing the school, Brayan took a group of us for a walk farther up the mountain to his coffee finca.  He showed us a row of small ceiba trees he planted among his coffee plants.

“Everyone here says I’m crazy to put so much effort into planting these trees,” he said as Becky translated.  “It will be twenty years before they are ready for harvest, but, in twenty years, each tree will yield 200 board feet of lumber at $2 per board foot.  Maybe it will be too late to provide for my wife and me, but it will be valuable for our children.”
Separating the beans from the fruit

Brayan said that the finca workers did not realize that he did not want the tall shade trees cut when they planted the coffee plants in this area.  The tradition in the area was to thin the forest before planting the new coffee plants.  Brayan wants to manage his land for both the overstory trees and the understory coffee.  He showed us how the fleshy fruit of the coffee berry is separated from the beans.

Making corn tortillas from scratch
“Most people here let the fruit of the berries wash down the hillside,” he said.  “I save the organic matter and compost it to enhance the soil.  It is a valuable resource.”

Cooking on a wood burning stove
He went on to explain that he is making changes to the traditional ways coffee is produced and harvested in order to have his operation certified by the Rainforest Alliance.  He said he currently is in the early stage of certification, but he is upgrading living quarters for coffee pickers, improving forest cover over the plants, and reducing his use of industrial chemicals in order to be fully certified.  He expects certification to improve the quality of the coffee he produces, to increase the price he can get for his product, and to increase the income of the families who work on the finca.

Brayan took us to the century-old building where his coffee pickers live during the harvest and to the kitchen where their meals are prepared.  A woman in the kitchen showed how she makes sixty tortillas per meal twice a day from dried kernels of corn on a wood-fired stove.  The old building had rows of triple decker bunk beds for twenty-four workers.  He said that, even though this is a long-time tradition in this area, he will be building smaller, more family-friendly quarters with better sanitation for the workers.

Workers' bunk beds
At the dinner meeting of the Santa Barbara Rotarians last night, Brayan and Miriam gave each of us two pounds of coffee from their finca as a sign of thanks for the help we provided during our stay.  Each bag had a label expressing thanks for the partnership we maintain.  I think coffee also expresses a hope for the future.  When an agricultural product is produced by local people on relatively small plots in ways that maintain or enhance the productivity of the land, there is hope for the future of these little villages on the mountaintop.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dia De Amor: February 14

Valentine’s Day is a big deal in Honduras.  The town square is busier.  The daily newspaper is heavy with additional ads.  People, especially young men and women, are more dressed up.  This morning, as Becky, Darrel, and I were walking across the square with Dana and Jenna, a mother and daughter from Bemidji, we passed a stand where two women were selling red roses.

“If my wife were here with me this morning,” Darrel announced loudly enough for everyone on the entire square to hear, “I would definitely buy her a rose.”

“That was good!” Dana and Jenna both commented.

It took me a moment to get the message, but I eventually turned around and bought Becky a Valentine rose.
A Valentine Rose for Becky

“You see,” Darrel boasted to the two women, “I’m a pro at making people feel guilty.”

Darrel is a pro, and the Ashland Rotary Club looks forward to the results of his practiced skills when we have our annual Rotary Rose Sale next fall.  He probably could “persuade” thirty husbands or wives each to buy a dozen roses in one morning’s walk down Main Street.

In the evening the town square was packed.  A DJ had a sound system and LCD projector and screen set up in the center of the square, and about sixty residents sitting in rows of plastic lawn chairs were watching a Hispanic version of Barry Manilow on the screen singing a love song before a huge audience.  As our group started to cross the square on our way from dinner to our hotel, two men jumped up and brought back additional chairs for us.  It was a very gracious gesture for a group of obvious strangers in town.  I hope we would be as welcoming if eleven Hondurans happened to walk by a concert at the Band Shell next summer.

We soon discovered that the music was simply a prelude to the main event: a showing of a Honduran-made movie about the rich Mayan culture that preceded the European conquest of this area.  The movie took place among the nearby Mayan ruins at Copán.  The event was not simply for Valentine’s Day but also was to commemorate the grand opening of the recently completed space for the “Farmer’s Market” on Friday.

The Kindergarten Construction Funds Arrived!

We learned on Wednesday afternoon that the wire transfer of funds from our LARA account in the USA to the LARA account in Santa Barbara had come through.  This process reflects an interesting clash of technologies.  It took nearly a week to transfer funds between banks successfully, and we learned of the transfer by a cell phone call to us while we were working in a remote mountain village with no electricity and no running water.  With two, day-long projects now in the works and three days left in our time here, we are working with the Santa Barbara Rotarians to get the construction project lined up.  We decided that we will divide our group on Friday morning.  Some will go to the Colonia Las Brisas del Pinal to meet with community members.  Others will head up to start replacing a roof on a little school near San Nicholas northwest of Santa Barbara. We hope to have a plan in place by the time we join the Santa Barbara Rotarians for their weekly dinner meeting on Friday evening.

Santa Barbara Rotarians
Brayan, a Santa Barbara Rotarian, assists with
repairing the school at Pueblo Nuevo.

The Santa Barbara Rotary Club has about the same number of members as the Ashland Rotary Club.  Like the Ashland club each of the members brings his or her expertise to serve the community.  Their level of commitment is admirable.  Every day of our time here at least one club member has taken a day from their normal work to guide us and assist us on the projects.  Of course, they also had already taken the time to scope out the needs of the Departmento de Santa Barbara in identifying projects where our assistance would do the most good.  Their club will provide the bulk of the labor for the kindergarten construction project.  I had hoped that our group would at least be able to start construction alongside their members, but the time remaining in our time here is too short relative to ordering the necessary materials and getting them to the project site.  Even without our labor in construction, the local Rotarians are thrilled that this ambitious project can get underway.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Other Side of the Mountain

On our second full day we drove to the other side of the mountain from Santa Barbara to the little village of Las Quebradas (N 14⁰56.209’, W 088⁰04.780’).  The mountain is another national park: Parque Nacional Santa Barbara, which protects Mt. Santa Barbara.

Each day since Monday we have been checking with our bank in Santa Barbara to see if the funds we wired from our bank in the USA last week have been deposited to the Latin American Rotary Aid (LARA) account here.  As of Wednesday they had not yet arrived, and we have been trying to track down the source of the problem.  Our LARA directors Chris and Steve, anticipating the inevitable challenges of banking in Honduras, held some Honduran lempiras from last year’s contributions so that we could buy some materials for projects as soon as we arrived.  We hope that this year’s funds will arrive soon.

The financial problems we experience in getting funds from the USA to the western mountains of Honduras are miniscule in comparison to the financial challenges of the families with whom we work.  Of Honduras’ 8 million people, half live in rural areas.  Approximately 2.7 million of the rural population live in poverty, and  2 million of these are “extremely poor.”

Most rural families are subsistence farmers who grow corn and coffee on small plots of highly erodible soil on steep hillsides.  They feed their families the corn and use the income from selling coffee to buy  such other basic necessities as rice and beans.  Usually the family plot is not sufficient to support an entire family, and farmers are forced to seek employment elsewhere to survive.  That lack of income-producing work in rural Honduras is a driving force behind the country’s high level of emigration.
Lake Yojoa seen from the road to Las Quebradas 

In order to get to Las Quebradas, we drove south from Santa Barbara to the southern tip of Lake Yojoa a large (32 square miles) lake on the east side of Mt. Santa Barbara.  Then we drove north along the eastern shore to the city of Peña Blanca.  From there we drove up the eastern face of Mt. Santa Barbara on winding dirt roads to the village.

The relatively short drive from Peña Blanca to Las Quebradas provided a stark contrast between mountain and lowland farms.  Farmers in the lowlands grew dense crops of sugar, yuca, bananas, and other fruits, while the highland farms produced mostly corn and coffee.  On Thursday we will return to Las Quebradas to assist is families in repairing their kindergarten.
Students visit with us during recess
Parents show us needed school repairs

Leaks in the rusty corrugated steel roof are a big problem

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Today was our third full day in Honduras. After visiting two more schools yesterday that are in serious need of repair, we came up with a plan --- to replace the roofs on four schools by the end of the week, as well as paint each of these schools inside and out. With eleven in our Rotary group, plus the help of the teachers, community members, and Santa Barbara Rotary Club members, we are very optimistic that we can reach this goal. This morning we drove two hours up a narrow, winding dirt road into the mountains south of Santa Barbara, to the village of San Antonio de Malera (N1440.570' W08815 591'). When we arrived, the aging, leaky tile roof on the two-room kindergarten building had already been removed by the village residents, and materials for the new metal roof had been delivered. The two kindergarten teachers, Lesly Sabillon and Nohemy Guardado, greeted us with smiles and freshly brewed Honduran coffee. Out came the ladders, the power drills, work gloves, paint brushes, water bottles, and sunscreen. Five hours later, the little school had a new roof and a new paint job. It was a great team effort. When we visited this school on Sunday, we saw that the teachers had almost no books or teaching materials. The teachers told us that the government does not supply them with any teaching materials, and they use their own personal money to purchase supplies. Sadly, there were only three items on the shelf designated for hands-on learning about natural resources: a rubber ducky, a bowl of sea shells, and some egg shells. There were only coloring books on the library shelf. Because of all your generous donations to this project, we were able to give them a suitcase packed full of school supplies, books, and other materials. Thanks to all of you for your donations. I can assure you that the teachers were very, very appreciative. 



Monday, February 11, 2013

Sunday: Our First Day

Sunday was our first full day in Honduras.  We arrived from the USA yesterday afternoon and drove from San Pedro Sula, a city of 710,000 people to Santa Barbara (N1455.094' W08814.209'). Santa Barbara with 15,000 people is the capital of the Department of Santa Barbara.  A department is equivalent to a state in the USA.  As we passed a T-shirt factory along the highway, our local driver Alejandro told us that this factory, as well as the factory near the City of Santa Barbara had closed and moved to Nicaragua, where labor is cheaper.  I am eager to find how the loss of factory employment has affected the Colonia Brisas del Pinal where our kindergarten project is located.  Our first step for that project is to see if the funds we collected from the project in the USA were successfully transferred to our bank account in Honduras.  We will not be able to check until the bank is open tomorrow.

Pueblo Nuevo

Meanwhile, our Santa Barbara Rotary Club partners wanted our group of eleven Americans to see the needs of some more remote mountain villages.  We took a day to visit a kindergarten and an elementary school in the southern-most area of the department.  The one-room elementary school of about 25 students was in the little village of Pueblo Nuevo (N 14 40.226’ W 088 17.522’).
The finca owner's home looks toward the national park.

Like the village of Cornucopia, Wisconsin, Pueblo Nuevo is adjacent to a national Park.  Unlike Cornucopia, the Parque Nacional Montaña Verde (Green Mountain National Park) is almost inaccessible.  It is in a high coffee-growing region.  We saw a toucan (related to the Fruit Loops bird) flying among the trees under the tall pines on a mountain ridge.  There is no electricity in this remote village.

Finca: A Coffee Plantation
Coffee shrubs grown on the hillside by the road.

It is coffee harvesting time here.  We saw pick-up trucks with 10-15 men and women standing in back driving up the narrow, rocky dirt road that winds up the mountainside.  They were being transported to the fincas (coffee plantations) to pick coffee beans.  Coming down the road were pick-up piled high with large bags of coffee beans.  Sitting on top of these bags were four to six men whose job it is to assure that none of the heavy bags fall off as the pick-up bounces around the narrow, hairpin curves and crosses fast flowing streams.  Only the larger rivers have bridges.  In most places, trucks drive through a stream to get across it.

Workers pick the red berries.
Workers earn 15 lempiras (75) for each 3-gallon basket of coffee berries they pick.  An experienced worker picks 15 to 20 baskets per day.  The berries are the size of choke cherries.  At the finca the workers fill a 100-gallon trough with berries.  Using a wooden paddle, a worker pushes the berries to a hole in the bottom of the trough to a machine that separates the fleshy fruit from the beans.  They then rinse the beans in a large tub with water that they carry from a nearby stream.  They stir the mixture with a board that looks like a canoe paddle.  Then they spread the wet beans on plastic tarps in the sun to dry.

The dry beans are the size and color of navy beans.  The workers use their hands to scoop the dry beans into large bags that appear to weigh about 100 pounds each.  These bags are piled in the back of pick-up trucks and carried to a coffee buyer in a city in the valley below.  The buyer pays the owner of the finca according to the grade, i.e., quality, of the coffee in each bag. A typical price is 20 lempiras ($1) per pound, but green (unroasted) coffee beans of high quality sell for quality as much as 80 lempiras per pound.
Coffee beans dray in the sun.

Coffee is an important export crop in Honduras even though it does not compete very well for quality with other Central American countries.  Coffee yields in Honduras are not as high as those in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica because Honduras does not have the rich volcanic soils that are in those countries.  The majority of the good agricultural lands in Honduras were appropriated, often by force, from local Hondurans by US fruit companies (now Dole and Chiquita brands).  Local Hondurans have to rely on marginal lands for their own crops.  Coffee, grown on steep mountainsides, is an export crop on which Hondurans often rely for added family income.

We visited a family who are caretakers of a finca in Pueblo Nuevo: a father, and mother, and ten children.  Their house is made of adobe clay brick walls and a corrugated steel roof.  There were two bedrooms of about 8’ x 10’ each and a 4’ x 15’ kitchen with a clay cook stove heated by burning wooden sticks.  The indoor stove was for cooking.  There was another clay stove/oven outdoors for roasting coffee beans.

A One-Room School

The village elementary school is one room with a roof of rusty corrugated steel attached to wooden trusses.  From inside we could see daylight through many small holes where the steel rusted all the way through.  Approximately 25 students go to this school, but we met only a few who happened to be nearby on a Sunday afternoon.  The community asked us if we would purchase them new metal for a roof and help them to replace the old rusty one.  We decided that we could come back on Wednesday.  The local Rotarian with us said he would arrange to get the materials from a building supply store in a city in the valley below.  The local families said they would remove the old roof.  We will return in a few days with tools to help them put on a new roof.

It was getting dark as we headed back to Santa Barbara.  At one point, we spotted a pick-up truck pulled half way across the road in front of us with a man signaling us to pull over to help.  Rather than stopping, Alejandro swung around their truck and sped ahead.  He said that there recently have been people who are stopping and robbing coffee pickers who drive down the mountain with the money they just earned from the fincas.  Alejandro  said the men in the pick-up looked like they had been drinking and were up to no good.  In all we learned a lot on our first day, and we appreciated having the local Rotarians and Alejandro to guide us to an area where they felt we could be most helpful. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Kindergarten Project

We are getting ready to leave for Honduras.  This is as description of the primary purpose of our work there.

The Latin America Rotary Aid (LARA) project has collaborated with the Rotary Club of Santa Barbara, Honduras for twenty years on a wide range of projects addressing the health, social, and educational needs of communities in the Department of Santa Barbara, a 5,000 square kilometer area in the rural northwestern mountains of Honduras. The City of Santa Barbara, with a population of only 15,000, is the largest municipality in the department and is the primary service center for the department of 400,000 people, most of whom live in small mountain villages. The Rotary Club of Santa Barbara is a full partner with LARA, and the club members provide a key role in identifying critical needs, working side-by-side in LARA projects, and assuring the success of each project. The Rotary Clubs of Ashland, Wisconsin and Santa Barbara, Honduras have much in common, in spite of differences in climate and social wellbeing, because both clubs consist of professionals committed to the quality of life in a largely rural region.

To address the massive unemployment of 24% of its working age population, Honduras has promoted the establishment of maquiladoras, mostly foreign-owned garment factories, as a path out of poverty.  The factories are attracting unemployed workers from villages to areas surrounding the maquilas. This has been the case with a T-shirt factory on the outskirts of the City of Santa Barbara.  Families with young children are moving into the Colonia Brisas del Pinal, a neighborhood near the factory.  The local elementary school has become overwhelmed with the influx of children.  A key to the long-term success of the young families in this neighborhood is a positive, healthy introduction to primary school for children and a reliable, stimulating, and safe environment for children of parents who are eager to hold a steady job in the local factory.

The national education system in Honduras does not provide adequate support for its schools.  Rather, since 2008, the City of Santa Barbara has rented two small rooms in a private home where two teachers attempt to educate sixty children in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.  The school provides lunches for the children but lacks a kitchen for food preparation.  Bathroom space in the rented house is so limited that children have to go home when they need to use the bathroom.

Neighborhood parents requested assistance from the City of Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara Rotary Club to construct a two-room kindergarten adjacent to the existing elementary school (pictured here).  City staff prepared detailed construction drawings and cost estimates for the materials.  The proposed kindergarten is not extravagant.  Each room is 6 x 8 meters, with a masonry foundation, concrete block walls, brick floors, and a metal roof.  Each room has built-in bookshelves and a blackboard.  Included in the project is a kitchen to assure that children receive safe, nutritious meals and bathrooms connected to the city’s sanitation system.