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.

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