Laura and I came to Honduras, and specifically Montaña de Luz, as social workers. All of our lives we have worked with people and communities on issues of empowerment and justice. This is what we wanted to do here, and certainly a great deal of what we do would be filed under the rubric of social work. We are working with our teenagers on gaining life skills and independence. There is great need to assist our younger children with self-esteem and confidence. There are a great many issues that surround behavioral management, basically parenting skills, and we have been offering advice and support to the “Tías” and Honduran staff in the day to day struggles and challenges of meeting the physical and emotional needs of 30 children. We are learning how best to interface with the larger community and other social service agencies in providing wider systems of support for the children as they begin to break away from Montaña de Luz. We are also beginning to know their families and what place they hold in the lives of the children now and in their futures. I am also beginning a volunteer program based on the Big Brother / Big Sister model in the US and other countries. All of this is good social work. It is exactly what we expected and we feel privileged to offer our small part in a challenging environment.
But, there are many other things that Laura and I do here as part of the team. These are things that are not quite so readily understandable as part of a job description for social work. In her wildest fantasy, Laura would have never pictured herself as an arts and crafts guru. She has also taken over the “God’s Gift” program: translating cards and letters between the children and their US sponsors, taking countless pictures of children in school uniforms, on outings, and at play, and finding interesting tidbits for newsletters. It in earlier blog I revealed that I had become a horticultural specialist. As of late I have become a bicycle mechanic. Much to my astonishment, this position was formalized at a staff meeting where it was agreed that I would be the go-to person for all things bicycle. I don’t ever remember those courses in high school or college, but apparently I had dormant mechanical skills that are only now surfacing. I am also in charge of doing our weekly grocery shopping. My Spanish is fairly efficient, and I have been using it the great majority of my life. But not really eating many vegetables, and not having much reason to converse about comestibles, until a few months ago I had no idea what “apio” or “repollo” meant. Now they have become part of my weekly lexicon at the farmer’s market.
Yesterday, fifteen undergraduate students from Ohio State University engineering department arrived at Montaña de Luz. They’ll be here a week and have three exciting projects to complete. They are going to re-purify our water purification system that hasn’t been working. They are going to install a wind turbine to generate electricity. The third project is in hydroponics in which they are going to create a small tilapia breeding pond that will double as a garden. Laura has been the liaison for the group in these weeks leading up to the trip. She has been reading all the emails, translating them, and making up the list of provisions that needed to be purchased. Again, not social work per se, but vitally important. It is a thankless job as everyone knows that whatever goes wrong will be first blamed on the messenger. We are both now to be placed into the position of translators for the next week. We needed three vehicles to pick them up at the airport yesterday because of the many supplies and donations they carried. The people from Sandy Hook, CT also sent down donated supplies with the OSU group for which we are most grateful. As we needed three vehicles, I was also employed as a chauffeur.
Driving in Honduras is nothing like driving in the States. Most people don’t drive here, unlike home where almost everyone drives. The roads are in tremendous disrepair. The vehicles are all twenty to thirty years old. The trucks barely crawl up the steep hills with winding curves. You need to drive with a certain sense of abandon or you’ll never get anywhere. You keep one eye on the car in front of you, one eye on the car in back, one eye on the approaching vehicles, and one eye on the potholes. It’s always exciting. Yesterday I got pulled over at one of the police check points. I was threatened with a ticket and the confiscation of my license because, after he had pulled me over, I didn’t put my emergency flashers on. The fine would have been about 700 lempira ($35), but he said he could let me go if I could see my way to buying him a soft drink. As it turned out, I only had bills worth 100 lempira ($5) in my wallet, so he was probably able to buy a couple of soft drinks. Social work?
Here at Montaña de Luz, Laura and I face tremendous challenges in what obviously belongs to our chosen profession of social work. It is hard work and requires attentiveness and commitment. Odd though, that it is these other tasks, these ancillary responsibilities born of necessity, that really get to the heart of what it means to be have become volunteers at Montaña de Luz. These things, the accomplishment of these things, put us both in touch with what social work is all about. They humble us, and they open the door to the real, day-to-day needs of these thirty children. We do not sit apart in offices (we have an office, but find it absolutely impossible to keep the kids away from it or us) and design programs. Our social work is indeed social, and really, really messy.