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.