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.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Hope For The Future

Comment About Communication 

It has been difficult for me to find time to write a blog on this trip.  Our hotel has wireless Internet access, but the signal does not reach Becky’s and my room.  The system is slow in the afternoon and the evening, apparently because so many people are using the system.  Last year there were two in the group who had notebook computers.  This year everyone has a smartphone or a tablet with wireless capability.  When I go the lobby in the morning before breakfast, I now get updates on the weather conditions in Ashland, and the latest news about spouses and children.  It used to be that we all were eager to check-in on family as soon as we landed back in the USA.  Now there are on-going conversations.  There are now multiple ways to follow our group.  Not only is there Chris Lindsey’s school blog (http://ChrisLindseyInHonduras.blogspot.com), but there also are Mary Hymans’ and Bill Holzhaeuser’s Facebook pages.

That also is increasingly the situation in the remote mountain villages.  People may not have electrical power and certainly do not have landline telephones, but there appear to be several households in every village with cell phones.  When we ask people how we best can check back with them after we return home, they all reply that there is no reliable mail delivery, but we can post a message on their Facebook page.  Cell phones with data plans are much more common than running water, and there is nowhere that flowing potable water is available.

Las Brisas del Pinal

On Tuesday morning we were greeted at Las Brisas del Pinal (N 14⁰56.749’, W 088⁰14.093’) just north of Santa Barbara by volunteers from the community who already were busy at work putting screen grates in the windows of the new building.  One benefit of working in collaboration with the local community and the local Rotary club is that things that seem impossible to us with our way of doing things are readily accomplished by our local partners.  For example, the steel grates for the windows needed to be welded to re-bar running through the concrete blocks in the walls.  Doing so required electricity.  But the electric meter for the school has not yet been installed.  The community member with welding skills simply climbed up the nearest power pole, spliced in an electrical connection, and unwound a coil of two strand wire with an outlet box on the end.  He grounded the system with a jumper cable clipped to a long piece of re-bar leaning against the building (note to Mike Sherry:  I do not think this guy has bought professional insurance yet.  Here is a potential client who really could use it).

Two trucks from our team were tasked with picking up paint and painting supplies for the new building.  While we waited from the supplies to arrive, our group of fifteen walked a half block down the street to the apartment building where the kindergarten classes were meeting.  Several mothers (one with a baby in her arms) were there helping the teacher with the classes.  Several of the moms of the five-year-olds in class appeared to be teenagers.  They all were excited that real classrooms would soon be available for their children.

Right before our eyes was a vision of the change our group was trying to facilitate.  Only about sixty percent of the kids in Honduras who start elementary school persist through sixth grade.  The average per capita income is less than $1,900 US per year.  Fifty percent of the population in rural areas live in extreme poverty.  Twenty percent of the girls from ages 15 through 19 years are married or in marriage-like unions.  Twenty-six percent of women from ages 20 through 24 years gave birth before they were 18 years old.

The clearest path out of a cycle of poverty for Hondurans, and for Honduran girls in particular, is education that leads them to seeing a different path for themselves.  The young mothers helping with the kindergarten classes clearly could see this for their children.  They want their kids to like going to school.  They want their kids to like reading and writing and learning science and math skills.  If your five-year old has to leave school simply to use a toilet, what are the chances that he or she will want to come back to class?

The president of the local parents association is a woman in her thirties.  She welcomed our group and then pulled Becky aside.  “We very much appreciate that you are building a kindergarten with functioning toilets,” Becky translated, “but do you know that, while our elementary school has a toilet building, there are no toilets inside and no connection to the sewer line.  Could you possibly help to assure that there are functional toilets in both schools so that our children will stay in school when they have to use a toilet?”

It’s difficult to imagine that any of my kids would have persisted through kindergarten if they had to run home every time they needed to use the toilet.  Having a classrooms, dedicated teachers, functional facilities, and books all are challenges here, but the parents we met are sincerely intent on seeing their kids find a better future.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Across the Rio Grande

Almost all of our group arrived in Honduras on Sunday as planned.  Twenty-three of the twenty-five in our group were present and accounted for in Houston on Saturday night.  The only problem was that Larry’s and Phyllis’s flight from Denver was cancelled.  They were delayed one day.  We tasked our guide Alejandro to go to San Pedro Sula to get them on Monday while the rest of us scoped the schools and communities that the Santa Barbara Rotarians wanted us to consider in addition to completing the kindergarten in Las Brisas del Pinal. RenĂ© Vazquez, who was re elected president of the Santa Barbara Rotary Club met with our group at dinner on Sunday night to discuss the potential projects and the communities the club recommended for us.  We also discussed our preliminary schedule for the week ahead.

Steve Rith-Najarian, a Bemidji Rotarian and one of our LARA leaders, arranged with Avis to rent five, four-wheel drive, extended cab pick-up trucks from their San Pedro Sula lot upon our arrival on Sunday. and 24 people (our group and RenĂ©) to visit three remote villages.  Without Alejandro and his Land Cruiser on Monday, there was not room for everyone inside the trucks.  Some people needed to ride in the backs of the trucks.  Kade Platta and Yester Voss hopped in back of one truck, and Dan and Mary Hymans climbed in back of another. The ride did not seem that bad at first, but it did not take long before we were off of the paved road and climbing up and down steep hillsides on deeply-rutted, dusty, dirt roads.  After the first stop, most of those in back were ready to switch.

The only one who stayed in back for the entire day was Kade, the high school senior.  He wanted to experience as much of every scene as he possibly could: men carrying loads of firewood on the backs of horses, little 3-wheeled taxis (a driver in front and room for two in back) zipping by us at hair-pin turns, bright yellow flowers on trees without leaves (characteristic of tropical dry-season conditions), young women carrying babies on their hips as youngsters ran ahead, men wearing high rubber boots (as snake protection) and carrying machetes on their way to work in small fields on the steep slopes, skinny cattle foraging on roadside vegetation, chickens dashing from side-to-side across the road, and toothless, elderly women waving “adios” from the doorways of small, brightly-colored one-room houses.  This is Kade’s first time outside of the USA.  All the reading he has done at home does not compare with the power of each new, first-hand encounter.

We crossed one of several Honduran rivers called “Rio Grande.”  This one was the Rio Grande de Otoro.  There was a long narrow bridge across the wide river and a sign warning that no more than one vehicle should be one the bridge at any time.  We needed the four-wheel drive capability in several places along the way.  Our most distant school is only about thirty kilometers (18 miles) southwest of Santa Barbara, but it was a 90 minute journey.

The little village of Teocinte (N 14⁰45.705’, W 088⁰17.242’) sat on a steep hillside.  Part of a group followed a woman up the road to her bright pink house, where she showed the group her pig and chickens.  She lamented the educational challenges that kids face in her village:  forty elementary kids and one teacher.  How can they learn?  Our Santa Barbara Rotarian said that, if we replace the roof, the kids at least will have a functional school house.  Without that much, the kids spend more time dodging the water falling on their desks than they do listening to the teacher.

The largest school we visited has seventy-five students and three teachers in the village of San Jeronimo (N 14⁰59.460’, W 088⁰17.660’), about 15 km northwest of Santa Barbara.  The teachers eagerly embraced Chris Lindsey’s proposal to establish communications between their students and Chris’s students at the charter school in Ashland.  They did not want just one age-group to participate.  All three teachers wanted all of their students involved in the project.

By the time we returned to Santa Barbara and dropped off Chris Keenan to order materials for the first two projects, it was getting late.  Our last potential project is only about 6 km north of Santa Barbara in the village of Los Anices (N 14⁰56.893’, W 088⁰12.591’), near the Santa Barbara Mountain National Forest Reserve.  By the time we arrived, the teachers had taken their bus rides home.  They asked representatives of the local Parents’ Association to meet us and show us the problem with their school house.  Rotarians had replaced the roof at this little two-room school several years ago, but now the wooden trusses are riddled with termite holes.  Unless the trusses are replaced, the roof will soon collapse.

We returned to our base in Santa Barbara without visiting the day care center that the Rotarians want us also to consider.  It is in the city.  If we have sufficient funds and time by the end of the week, we may be able to assist with it.  For now, we needed to debrief about what we had seen and how we wanted to serve.  Each community had high hopes for our help.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kindergarten Construction Progress

Because we were not able to transfer the project funds to our account in Honduras before our Latin America Rotary Aid (LARA) team departed last February, the Santa Barbara Rotarians led the construction work in our absence.  As of November 2013, the concrete block walls and the roof were completed (see the picture).  We hope to have a community celebration for the project when we return to Las Brisas del Pinal next week.

Enthusiasm has grown within our Rotary district for the work we are doing.  Our team this year includes twice as many participants as we have had on the past two trips.  One could ask whether the airlines are the real beneficiaries of our service rather than needy people in Honduras.  What is the real benefit of our traveling to Honduras to provide service?  If our goal were simply to improve health and educational opportunities, we would be more effective simply by sending money to local aid organizations.  Part of the object of Rotary to build an international FELLOWSHIP of people united in service to advance understanding, goodwill, and world peace.  The emphasis is on the importance of PERSONAL acquaintance.  Our service will have greater impact  if we develop on-going relationships within our group, with Santa Barbara Rotarians, and with families in the communities we assist. With a group of 25, it will be a challenge to reach beyond our familiar acquiantances, but I think doing so will enhance the value of the trip for all of us.

Kids' Future Success Grows From Long-Term Partnerships

I am a newcomer to LARA.  This year will be Becky's and my third trip.  Much of our effectiveness during our brief visits is a result of on-going relationships that started more than twenty years ago, largely through the joint efforts of Delores Williams, a Santa Barbara Rotarian, and Ted Will, a Bemidji Rotarian.  Delores was a former Peace Corps volunteer who stayed in Honduras and established an aid center called Casa Rosa, which means "pink house" in Spanish.  She operated out of a pink-colored house that was well known in the community.  For many years, Delores operated as the commanding general for Rotary aid in Santa Barbara.  She passed away before Becky and I joined a LARA team, but her spirit continues in many efforts.  I met Ted Will at the Rotary district conference in Bemidji last spring, and his continuing enthusiasm for the mission might explain why our team is twice as large this year.  He could not be more excited to see new participants on LARA teams as our service continues.

For many of us, our knowledge of Honduras is simply that it is a source of illegal immigrants.  Many Hondurans do depend on income from abroad.  A sixth of Honduras' gross national income is from money sent by family members working largely in North America.  It is harder for us to see how our own personal actions contribute to a cycle of poverty in Honduras.  Often the last thing we consider when we purchase bananas, T-shirts, coffee, or items containing palm oil is the history, policies, or working conditions that brought these items to our store shelves.  One of the most obvious indications of North American influence in Honduras is what we see before we land in San Pedro Sula.  The flat, fertile land surrounding the airport is dominated by banana and oil palm plantations for export crops.  We will not see local food crops until we drive to the steep, rocky hillsides on our way to Santa Barbara.  As we visit with Honduran families, we can ask what conditions promote kids' staying in school and girls' delaying raising families unitl after they develop the knowledge and skills needed for occupations supporting a sustainable lifestyle.  Those are the conditions we hope to support through Latin America Rotary Aid.