On The Move Again

We’ve moved. We’d give you our forwarding address, but it wouldn’t do you any good. We live in Camasca now. Camasca is the quaintest of towns on the Frontera (the southern area of the department of Intibucá, bordering El Salvador). The streets are paved with cobblestone, as are all the towns in the Frontera, but here they seem much better kept. Camasca is European like, very noble with lots of character. The cool mountain air, as compared to the oppressive heat of Concepción just five miles north and 1500 feet down, gives the area an alpine feel. They’ve made a great effort at keeping their town clean, and unlike almost everywhere else in Honduras, there isn’t piles of plastic and paper strewn along roads and pathways. Even with the old country milieu, there are many modern conveniences that are simply not present in the other smaller towns. There are a decent number of restaurants, and one of them, really nice with free WiFi, is a favorite haunt. In Concepción we only had the pseudo- Chinese restaurant. There is a gym – yes, really, a gym – that is certainly the only one within 40 miles and a two-hour drive. There are two hardware stores and they actually have materials in them.

Front of the house

We live in a very big house. Actually, it is bigger than our last house in East Longmeadow sans a basement. There are two tenants, however, high school students. One is the daughter of the house’s owner whose parents live in Virginia, and the other is from Colomoncagua, here because this high school offers Information and Technology. Our privacy is a little challenged by adolescent socialization norms that are culturally universal. Although it is big and furnished (I finally have an actual sofa to stretch out on), there are a few drawbacks. In Concepción we had running water almost 24/7. Here it dripples out of our pipes every other day between 5 and 7 am, back to cold water bucket showers. When it is raining, most of the time now during the rainy season, we get water in the house, just not through the pipes. The terra cotta roof looks nice, but is not always the most efficient, and leaks are legion. The electricity is off here more frequently, the internet is less reliable, and we’re right on the town’s main street. On this last issue, Laura finally has a full porch that sits on the street side of the house, a bucket list cross off for her, but it’s literally only about ten feet from the street. I guess you just have to take the good with the bad.

“But why did we move?”, you ask. There are the emotional reasons and the practical reasons.  When we first came to the Frontera, committed to work with Shoulder to Shoulder, Camasca was the first town we visited and we were enamored. We asked about staying in Camasca, but the center for our work would be at the clinic in Concepción, and even though it is only about five miles away, commuting was not an option. Now, things have changed and Shoulder to Shoulder’s mission is expanding. Whereas we had been dedicating our time to operational needs of our two major clinics and the supervision of a few employees who did not fall under our government contract for providing health care, those parts of Shoulder to Shoulder are envisioned to become self-sustaining by way of our government contract. Other Shoulder to Shoulder missions, particularly education, service trips, and the development of new projects, are demanding more sustained attention as they grow. Our bilingual school is in Camasca, and thus Camasca has become our center for mission enhancement and development. So here we have landed.

When Laura and I first came to Honduras, we committed ourselves to a year, maybe two, of volunteer service with an agency focused on the enrichment and development of the underserved. Everywhere we have gone, from Montaña de Luz to Maestro en Casa to Shoulder to Shoulder, we have felt gratitude for the ability to offer ourselves according to empowerment of the underserved. Still, we had not considered that our time in Honduras would become a career path. Yet, here we are moving toward our third anniversary and it does not seem that we will be leaving anytime soon. It has not always been a picnic. We have had our share of disagreements and struggles. But we are content. We wake up every morning knowing that what we do during the course of the day is meaningfully discerned and supports the dignity of those we work with. What more could anyone want from life?

Laura in Dining Room (office)

It looks like we’re here for an indefinite period of time. The bilingual school will consume a great deal of our time. We are building something unique in all of Honduras. It’s very exciting. What we’re also about to be building is three additional classrooms and some modest office space. That is the most immediate hurdle. It will cost about $65,000 when all is said and done. We don’t have that on hand, of course, and we’ll be starting a pretty ambitious campaign. We haven’t asked too much from our friends and family, although those of you who have supported us have been extremely generous. Laura and I have talked about it and we’ve decided that the cause is very just and we will be asking you. Of course, if you want to get out in front of our pitch, we won’t complain.

We appreciate your support, your kind thoughts and wishes, and your prayers if you are so inclined. Whenever you’re in the area of Camasca, don’t feel as if you need an invitation to stop in and say hi.

 

Boy reading book

Just click the photo above to make a donation to the Campaign.

Just Below The Surface

I almost don’t want to write this. I feel really guilty. My last post was December 20, 2015. I’m sure that you all thought I was done. It isn’t that I haven’t been writing. It seems that every moment that has not been dedicated to other parts of our job, has been consumed by writing. It’s only that I haven’t been writing in this blog. Our job, and my writing of blogs, newsletters, and specific requests for volunteers and funds, has been consuming. Laura and I are watching “Suits” on Netflex (this is an incredible treat for us when we have electricity and internet). On the episode we watched last night, the grandmother of the main character is stood up by her grandson for a scheduled dinner. His only excuse was that his work was so consuming that he forgot what day it was. His grandmother looks at him, as only a grandmother can, and says with a wide, sincere smile, “Your work is important to you.” This, of course, is often a bad thing; to become so defined by your work as to dishonor relationships of love. Still, in this case, the grandmother understood that his work was defining for him in a positive way. Such is the case here in Honduras for Laura and me. We have the best jobs in the world. They pay us pretty much nothing. We are met with frustration almost every day. There is no water. There is no electricity. The car has broken down. Not to mention (I mean seriously don’t mention) scorpions. Ah, the good life. But, I get to meet people everyday who are committed to doing their part to make the world a better place. I get to go to bed every night knowing that I was part of trying to make the world a better place. In light of that, not having a lot of money, or not being able to cook dinner because the lights have gone out, seem like very small prices to pay for the sense of integrity I gain. So that is why I haven’t been as faithful to this blog as I would have liked.

dentalbrigadeselfie

Selfie Taking with the Dental Brigade Team

Some of the incredible things we’ve been involved in since January have been service trips. We’ve had eleven of them since the year began and seven in the month of February. We had a first time ever surgical brigade. We had over thirty persons come to Camasca on a single trip. I’ve seen amazing things. I’ve heard inspiring stories. I’ve met people with multiple PhD’s who have traveled the world. I’ve met young medical students who have so much energy and desire to change the world. I believe they will. I’ve also met simple people who have found some relief from tremendous suffering because they and we are with them. And at very particular moments I’ve been humbly grateful that I had something to offer.

atmariasgeneral

In Las Marias

In a very isolated village called Las Marias in the southernmost territory we cover, Laura and I visited one of the teams holding a field medical clinic. We mostly just take pictures or stay out of the way. But on this occasion, I did have opportunity to sit down with a grandmother who had brought her two grandchildren for care. The grandmother was not there for herself, but rather to try to get some medical and dental care for the children. She did mention, however, that she was having trouble sleeping and asked if she could have some sleep medication. When the team member went off to find her some sleep medication, I took the opportunity to sit down with her. Good social worker that I am, I asked her about her sleeping problems. Her insomnia had begun two months ago. I questioned, “Was there anything extraordinary that happened two months ago around the same time you began having difficulty sleeping?” “Why yes,” she said in an almost surprised way, “it was right after my son and daughter were killed.” I spent a good deal of time with her. I think I gave her a little insight into what was going on. I offered a few relaxation techniques. I found out who her supports were in her community. In the States I could have referred her for some counseling. But, here, well suffice it to say, we do the best that we can. In any case, I think I might have helped and I felt extremely grateful that I would be returning to my home where I may, or may not, have electricity and water.

Laura in roatan

Laura on vacation in Roatan

So this is our work.  Pretty awesome, right? Of course we don’t always work. We have friends and we go on vacation. We spent a few days in March in Roatan for a planning retreat with our leadership team and the President of our Board, Wayne, and his wife, Christina. We had a great time. Wayne had opportunity to do some scuba diving. Laura and I were not quite as adventurous. We did get to experience the undersea coral, however, taking an hour cruise in a glass bottom boat. What incredible beauty lies hidden only a few feet beneath what we can see from the surface. Laura managed to spot three sea turtles. It was a great treat to see something so extraordinary and for a few moments Laura and the rest of us rediscovered the joy of youth when all things are new.

seatutle

Well, I’ll go back to work now. I wonder what breath-taking beauty I will find today just below the surface.

Celebrations Familiar and Exotic

As a child, there was great importance associated with celebrations at this time of year. They seemed to mark a sense of profound security in life’s goodness.  The celebrations were special, extraordinary in how they knocked us out the routine, but also comforting in familiar symbology. The scent of pine from the Christmas tree, the glow of colored lights against the cold and the snow, the fantasies of elves and flying reindeer, and so many other icons touched upon the exotic and the familiar at the same time. As a child, I most certainly believed that these celebrations and their cultural expressions were timeless and immutable. I guess I assumed that the expressions were the celebrations. But now I know this isn’t so.  Living in Honduras, the familiarity of the symbols is lost, yet the extraordinary character remains. Now that these expressions are so different, what exactly are we celebrating?

Turkey

Obviously there is no such thing as Thanksgiving here because the pilgrims took a more northern route. There are a sufficient number of US citizens living in Honduras that the holiday does not go completely unnoticed. In Tegucigalpa at the US Ambassador’s compound, they have a big celebration.  But we are as far away from Tegucigalpa as from Plymouth Rock so that doesn’t help us any. It is kind of difficult that the special Thursday is just an ordinary Thursday here. Because of that, we decided against celebrating it on the actual day. With a group of folks from Colorado State University doing a cook stove study, we celebrated Thanksgiving on the following Sunday. We had turkey. The Colorado people picked him out of a rafter (incorrectly called a gobble or flock), and he was summarily sacrificed for our culinary pleasure. We did have all the right fixings, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie, but nothing ever quite tastes like it tastes back home. It was a nice day. We sincerely gave thanks. But, there wasn’t any football, and the Frosty the Snowman Special did not air.

Fernanda Graduation

It is school graduation season here because the school year runs from February through November. This is probably a more reasonable schedule; no splitting calendar years.  Still, it seems weird to be celebrating academic milestones when the hint of Christmas is already in the air. Because the great majority of children don’t even get to high school, the graduation celebrations even at the youngest levels are filled with as much pomp and circumstance as you’d expect at a university commencement. Our bilingual school kindergarten graduation was such an experience. In full cap and gown, each graduate’s name is called. The graduate, the graduates’ parents and witnesses (godparents if you will), approach the honored guest table and sign their names into the official record book. Imagine how long it takes a five-year-old to sign his or her name. It is interminable. There are hundreds of these celebrations throughout the Frontier Region of Intibucá where we live. Unfortunately, for many of these children, it will be their only graduation. We are working to change that, at our bilingual school as well as at the others.

Then there was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most of you probably don’t celebrate this. We, however, live in the town of Concepción, so we celebrate the town’s ‘fiestas patronales’ for the eight days leading up to and including December 8. This year it was initiated with a parade. Shoulder to Shoulder entered our ‘carroza’ (float). Of the six entrants, we happily took fourth place in the competition. Believe me, it was a relief not to come in last. We also entered a candidate to become the Queen of Concepción. Unlike our experience of the float, she was coronated Shoulder to Shoulder Queen of Concepción. The week long fair also featured a ‘Rueda Chicago’ (Ferris Wheel) as the major amusement ride. It towered over the town in the otherwise empty gravel field at the town’s entrance. As the ground is not at all level there, its four legs were propped up onto four tree stumps. It wobbled and rocked as it spun at a much more accelerated rate than most Ferris wheels. The policeman standing next to it assured us that it was completely safe. Honduran policeman are well known for their integrity, so we enthusiastically climbed on. Since you’re reading this, it all turned out well.

carroza

It seemed like Christmas got seriously started right after the fiestas patronales. In fact it started on December 17, the ‘aguinaldo,’ or the nine days before and including Christmas Day. It started quite brilliantly at 4:00 AM in our little town with extremely loud fireworks, followed by a tone-deaf band, followed by fireworks, followed by a band, etc., ad-infinitum. And here I have my most difficult time. What do fireworks have to do with Christmas? But here they are as ubiquitous as not having water or losing electricity. It just doesn’t put me in a holiday spirit. There are no carolers here, no chestnuts roasting on open fires, and no stockings hung by chimneys with care. So I’m left asking with Charlie Brown, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Well, we’re on a plane tomorrow morning bound for New Jersey. There, we’ll do an interview for a local television station in Princeton. We’ll then visit a friend in Brooklyn. On Christmas Eve, Laura’s daughter Emma will pick us up on her way from Norfolk, VA to Massachusetts. With a week of visiting friends and family, I’m sure we’ll get a good dose of New England holiday tradition. I think, in the end, we celebrate the beauty and wonder of life; our own and the abundance of it all around us. Whether it’s with hot chocolate or tamales, or for that matter with the crazy fruit cake, celebrations are about how good life is, and how good we are one to another.

paul and Laura

Merry Christmas

 

Worlds Away, and Yet So Close

It’s six in the morning.  I’ve just woken up and I stroll out onto the deck.  The expansive, gray sky and the soft, damp coolness embrace and welcome me.  I look out to the pasture and the hangar style barn in front of me.  In one pasture, a mare and her foal are scourging the ground for grains, and, in another pasture further to my right, the stallion gallops up to the edge of the fence checking me out.  Four Labradors are bounding up against the posts of the deck to my left, yipping for some attention.  There is a harmonizing wakening all about me and I feel privileged to be here.  I’m struck that I feel so at home here.  It is not anything like my home, nothing like Honduras where I live.  This November day in Ohio, so tremendously different from my home, and yet each in its particular way, so beautiful and so sustaining of life.

honduraslandscape.jpg

Honduran Landscape

Ohiolandscape

Ohio Landscape

Laura and I were welcomed into the home of Wayne and Christina Waite.  We were worried about making this trip for fund-raising and building new relationships.  It would mean meeting a lot of new people; people who perhaps wouldn’t even understand why we choose to live in a developing country and a foreign culture.  Maybe they’d resent us.  Maybe they’d be put off by us.  Could they understand the passion we feel about the people of Honduras?  Would they be willing to engage our request that they partner with us in our mission?  We both felt insecure as we ventured away from our comfort zone.  But Wayne and Christina, their son Daniel and his wife Nidia (from Camasca, Honduras where our bilingual school stands), and their grandson, Jonathan received us with such empowering graciousness that it settled our concern.  This same graciousness then imbued every encounter.

ohiohouse

A house in Ohio

The night after the morning on the deck, we were welcomed into the beautiful home of Neil and Bonnie Freund, Neil being one of the partners of Wayne’s law firm.  Again I was first overwhelmed with the foreignness of the environment.  Particularly with the choice of food — scallops wrapped in bacon share little with refried beans.  But the people there loved our stories and the amazing work Shoulder to Shoulder is accomplishing.  By night’s end we had raised over $25,000; good people shouldering a good cause.  And over the next few days we secured relationships that will further deepen and sustain our mission.  Wright State will partner with our bilingual school, helping us to develop best practice models for teaching.  Incarnation Catholic Church and their school will find ways to support our individual students and our classes in relationship to our students and faculty.  A House of Prayer Church will consider all sorts of means to assist us from financial support to music ministry exchanges to construction brigades.  With all of these new and exciting relationships, all of these new shoulders that are now firmly pressed against ours, the mission of Shoulder to Shoulder is alive and growing.

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Our house in Concepcion

Laura and I, at first afraid of meeting new people, found ourselves empowered and full of hope.  But that is what we do, we find empowerment and hope in making new relationships.  Ohio seems very far away from Honduras in so many ways.  But it is really very close, and getting closer all the time.

Vacationing, But Not So Far Away

Laura and I are on vacation now.  We are on the tropical island of Roatan, off the North Coast of Honduras.  I guess I would have to say it’s exactly what you would expect from a tropical paradise.  We took a self-guided motor scooter tour up and down the island yesterday and the expansive views of the ocean, the wildlife (iguanas climbing up palm trees a few feet from our bungalow porch), the laid back attitude of island life, all draw us into an “isn’t-this-the-way-life-is-meant-to-be” mood.  But both Laura and I are notoriously bad at vacationing, and this one comes at an inopportune time with a great many changes and challenges facing Shoulder to Shoulder.  So when we’re not tooling around on a motor scooter, we’re making phone calls or desperately trying to maintain an internet connection.  We sneak onto the porch of another unit in order to find a suitable signal to receive and send emails.  It’s hard to say what we feel guiltier about, working while we are supposed to be vacationing, or vacationing when we know there is work to be done.  So we split it down the middle.  That American work ethic drive seems to be imbedded in our DNA.

This is a new Honduras.  A running joke between the two of us has been to look at one another and comment, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Intibucá anymore.”  We started our vacation with a conference for NGOs doing development work in Honduras in Tela, another vacation destination on the North Coast.  The conference was held in an exclusive, luxury resort, and it was a bit surreal to consider all these people working amongst the poorest of the poor coming together in a place that could only be thought of as a dream for most Hondurans.  On the second day of the conference, however, we witnessed an impassioned presentation by a Brazilian nun who works with children returning to Honduras after deportation from the United States.  The surroundings could not soften the terror of a world where inequity punishes the innocent heartlessly.  We’ve seen many of these children on the Frontier of Intibucá.  Because of our common commitment with other conference attendees, we made valuable connections and bonds.  We also had a day after our conference for an outing on a boat tour.  I fished in the ocean for the first time in my life, catching a very large (at least as far as I was concerned) King fish that we later had for lunch.  I swam through a tunnel at an isthmus, though I did panic with the surge of the currents.  I propped myself up against the rock wall and now have the scars on my back to prove it.  But I made it through.  Even on vacation, my experiences here are always fresh and startling.

Laura on her Moto

Laura on her Moto

Then on to Roatan on a Ferry out of La Ceiba.  English, Spanish, and Garifuna are spoken here, and the island is well developed because of tourism.  Money doesn’t necessarily change everything, but it has an obvious impact on some things.  The man who is renting us our little apartment here commented that he is displeased that there are so many potholes on the roads.  I had to laugh.  First, most of the roads here are paved.  Second, my understanding of potholes has radically changed since living on the Frontera.  Potholes used to represent minor inconvenience for a driver and passengers and the anxious thought that a few more miles had been subtracted from the life of a tire.  Now I understand potholes as treacherous challenges to navigation, roughly equivalent to tidal waves for a sailor.  There aren’t any real potholes here.

A tremendous catch

A tremendous catch

So Laura and I are here in this tropical island, half enjoying our vacation and half trying to maintain our connections in administrating Shoulder to Shoulder, attempting to lose ourselves in the pampering of luxury, but remembering that most of those we know and serve will never experience even a taste of such abundance.  We are here, but not altogether, and we remain anxious to return to our beloved Frontera where life is more easily measured by less elusive values.   Two days before we began our travels we managed to visit Dr. Doug Stockman from the University of Rochester.  He has a brigade team with him in the little village of San Jose in San Marcos de la Sierra.  Doug has been there in the little village 25 times.  He and his brigade teams have established meaningful relationships of empowerment and dignity with the people of the small village.  While we sat with Doug at breakfast, a typically dressed woman entered carrying a large plastic bowl.  It was filled with bread that she was selling for a couple of pennies.  This is a common sight for Laura and me.  I actually recognized the daughter with her as someone I had seen on the busses selling the same bread.  The woman smiled.  We smiled back, and politely said thank you, but we wouldn’t be buying any bread.  She continued to smile, came closer to us, whereupon Doug recognized her.

She is part of Rochester’s micro loaning program.  Her business of selling bread, oatmeal, and tamales to the townspeople and travelers along the highway, is financed by small loans of about $150 or $300.  She was actually there to pay back the capital and the interest of 1% incurred over a six month time frame.  Doug engaged her and Laura and I translated.  She could not be happier or more grateful that Rochester has given her this opportunity.  She has two businesses, one is the selling of the food items that she prepares, and the other is raising a few chickens and some pigs.   The food selling business is going great.  She lost all of her chickens to a disease, but she was able to sell off one of her pigs to buy more chickens.  She is certain they will soon be laying eggs and she will be making a profit.  I observed this woman as I translated for her.   I felt humbled by her as she beamed with pride and a sense of confidence and self-worth.  She was feeding and providing for her family, a singular ambition, a dream fulfilled in a relationship formed in dignity and respect.  I think of her now as I am relaxing in this island paradise.  How much more opportunity is present among these Island people who vacuum up the dollars of foreigners who dive in their oceans and bask in their sun.  And yet, I do not see any greater pride or a deeper sense of fulfillment.

Girl Selling Bread

Girl Selling Bread

What wonderful things I am privileged to see.  I am in a tropical paradise.  Every day of my life is filled with new wonders of how rich the human spirit is.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors. You might remember this game, also called Roshambo, from your childhood, or perhaps you still play it to decide who gets to take out the garbage. Depending on the throw of your hand to symbolize one of the three elements, it clearly decides a victor and a loser. Rock crushes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock. Though the latter seems a bit dubious and forced. I would think that rock would always win, but then the game wouldn’t make much sense. In any case, the game supports the idea that life is about competition. There are always winners and losers. I guess it takes wisdom to realize that sometimes collaboration is the best game plan.

rock-paper-scissors

A few weeks back, some of the board members were here in Honduras holding intense and exhausting meetings and implementing big decisions. At the end of one of these long, somewhat stressful days, we sat around our house in Concepcion telling our war stories of our younger days. Remember that scene in Jaws when police chief Martin Brody, oceanographer Matt Hooper, and Captain Quint finally sit down in the boat’s cabin and begin to bond. They’re telling stories, each outdoing the other with how scarred they have become from life events. It’s a macho, competitive bonding, but a bonding none-the-less. Then the shark starts banging on the boat, first subtlety then violently, and for the rest of the movie, the three have to put aside their macho attitudes and work together, even to the point of sacrifice, for the remainder of the movie.

jaws

That was how our stories were being told at our house in Concepcion. One particular story, and I will attempt to protect identities here by not saying who told it, was particularly pertinent. Apparently in the early days of Shoulder to Shoulder, this particular individual was trying to make himself useful. He had no particular medical skills, but there was a construction project at the time. He found himself breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer (a very common activity at construction sites in Honduras). He found himself next to another volunteer also breaking up rocks. As male ego dictates, he found himself in competition, his pride insisting that he could break up more rocks than the other guy. His ego darn near killed him. Later in the day, the doctors at the site needed forms to record their medical encounters with patients. This was something he knew he could do, so he ran off and made the forms. When he came back with them, the same man with whom he had been breaking rocks, complained that the forms were too big. They wasted paper, a precious commodity in Honduras. He ran back, mumbling to himself, but desperately wanting to be of assistance. He remade the forms, found scissors and cut the paper into fourths, and came back with them proud and in need of someone’s gratitude. Of course, no one thanked him.

Wayne-shoveling

At this point, his rock, paper, scissors game had left him somewhat disheartened. He wanted to be the winner. He wanted to feel that he was needed and important. Maybe this mission work thing wasn’t for him after all. Let alone that he wasn’t the hero, he wasn’t even appreciated. But maybe it was then that the shark started banging up against the bottom of the boat. Someone had bought in a seriously injured man to the brigade team. Everyone needed to drop what they were doing to assist. Within moments, without consideration of any rocks, paper, or scissors, without a desire to win or a fear of losing, he found himself desperately applying pressure against the man’s wounds. He was covered in blood. When it was all over, he sat alone to reflect. He only then understood the meaning and import of service. He realized it was not about his need to feel important or appreciated, there weren’t any winners or losers, it was only about collaboration and the sincere response to need.

Shoulder to Shoulder has just implemented some major changes in its structure and its organization. We’ve done so, as I see it, because we are growing. Our organization has expanded the scope and size of its service and mission. There is simply a great deal more to accomplish and our administration is more demanding. There is also more pressure to increase our resources to meet the mission. It is a time of great opportunity, and also a time of great challenge. With so much change and growth, so much pressure, and great demand, there may be a tendency to become self-centered. It may cause us to think I can be the hero, I will be the one to lead and save us. This game of rock, paper, scissors would be a fool’s journey. Better that we recognize how we got here in the first place. It was a collaborative effort, a commitment in service and partnership, a working shoulder to shoulder to bring about substantive and sustainable change. This is an honorable mission that supports and sustains the dignity of all involved; those who serve and those served.

Boys-and-Rocks

Laura and I are honored to be part of Shoulder to Shoulder. We ask for everyone’s shoulder of commitment as we continue and expand this mission of dignified service.