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.

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