Navigate / search

The Circus Comes to Town

Remember when you were a little kid and you went to the circus? The clowns were always special. The iconic representation of this is when a little, colorful car pulled out into the circus ring with bells, whistles and honks, stopped in the center, and someone opened the door. Then the clowns started piling out of the car, seemingly way too many of them to have fit in the small car. Was there a trap door? Was it an optical illusion? Whatever it was, it was certainly entertaining. This is an apt metaphor from what we recently experience with the Mountain Area Health and Education Centers (MAHEC), brigade. All metaphors limp, and I don’t want to imply that the participants presented themselves as clowns. They were quite serious in why they were here, though they certainly were as colorful as clowns.

There were 38 registered participants on the brigade. As if that weren’t enough, an undergraduate student who was on a different brigade in a different town joined them. Here, we have the expression, “there’s always room for one more on the bus.” There were yet more gringos in the town of Camasca during the ten days MAHEC was here. Four volunteers, two graduate social work students from the University of Chicago, five undergraduate students from Duke University’s Project HEAL (Health Education and Awareness in Latin America), and Laura and I brought the total number of gringos in Camasca to 51. The municipal district of Camasca has only 1,150 residents, meaning almost 5% of the people here were from the US. If they stayed any longer, shopkeepers would have put up signs announcing “English spoken here.”  To be fair, in that group of 51, one was a Canadian citizen and another was a Honduran born in the US. Still, carrying on the metaphor, that’s a lot of clowns!

But even as the numbers awed us and the people of Camasca, what was really amazing was their diversity. Even though MAHEC sponsored the trip, many came with other affiliations. Apart from the University of North Carolina, the schools of Butler University, Bucknell University, and Davidson College were represented. The Society of Friends from Lancaster, PA also came with six members of that church. Henry, now sixteen, was on his third trip to Camasca. As he has in the past, he spent a good deal of his time volunteering at the bilingual school. What we don’t usually see on medical mission trips are children or young people, but this trip was a family affair. Aside from Henry, there was:  Gabriel (who turned 18 last month); twins Jeffrey and Seth (16); Aislin (14); Kai (9); and Henry and Luya (both 7).  All of them experienced the wonder of another culture; making friends among the young people of Camasca. There is always a spirit of joy when international, intercultural relationships are formed, but with children and young people, that spirit of joy seems transcendent and luminous.

What was accomplished in those ten days was truly phenomenal. The medical part of the team visited seven small communities as well as the High School and the Health Center, with hundreds of consults and the delivery of much needed medication. The Society of Friends gave eye exams in the small communities, at the Bilingual School, and at the High School. Many were given eyeglasses and the gift of vision, something for which they had no previous opportunity to receive. This mission of eye care will be followed up on by future Shoulder to Shoulder teams. The Society of Friends also came to the bilingual school, playing and teaching our children. They also helped us install a water collection system at our newest building on the campus.

Their time among us was certainly thrilling, and at the risk of killing my metaphor, it did remind me of the awe and excitement of when the circus came to town. There was a certain exotic character to it. Gringos are easily recognized here. The services they performed were certainly novel. Like high-wire acts, or trapeze swingers, the precision and expertize of their performance (their service) was exceptional. Perhaps, at times as well, their numbers and their colorful characters presented as clowns stepping out of a small car. But there is where the metaphor ends. The circus comes and goes, and whereas the electrifying experiences are remembered, the performers themselves are soon forgotten. They are itinerant, moving on to the next town without even a wave or a look back. But as the team of professionals and their families prepared to depart, we knew that we would miss them even more than the spectacular show they had given us. They are not performers and their intent was not to entertain. No, their presence was a genuine offer of friendship in service and justice. They have impressed themselves upon our hearts. They have given us so much more than their awesome service. They have given us themselves.

We will remember them fondly and await their return. For all that they have done for us, but even more so for whom they are, we are grateful.

Thanks For the Visit

Laura and I always try to be as present as possible to the medical service trip groups that visit us. They are the backbone of this organization, embodying an ethos of compassionate and just service to those in the most desperate need. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible as other demands can draw us away. It has been a hectic couple of months for Laura and I. We have two social work intern students with us, and volunteers coming and going. The education mission is advancing. Duke University and Project HEAL has five students with us for five weeks holding investigations into some pressing social issues for Camasca and Southern Intibucá. But the real kicker was spending two weeks in Washington, DC and Ohio with seven high school students and two professors for the FIRST Global robotics competition. In the midst of this, Brown / Wingate came to Guachipilincito.

Dr. Shawn Taylor
Dr. Shawn Taylor
Dr. Wayne Hale
Dr. Wayne Hale

It was a very small brigade, seven, unpretentious if you will. The competent and veteran leadership of Dr. Wayne Hale and Shawn Taylor, a Doctor of Pharmacy from Wingate, led the small group. One pharmacy student, My Linh Tran, and one dentist, Herbert Vu, filled out the small team. David and Jack, two undergraduate students, also joined up with the brigade team. Both of them stayed on in Honduras for an additional week; Jack coming to Camasca and David staying in Guachipilincito. Joseph Swartz, a construction expert, who had come with the group last year, repaired and renewed the plumbing system at the clinic.

I was so happy to meet up with the group. If not for them deciding to visit us at the bilingual school we would have missed them entirely. According to Dr. Hale, with just one provider they still managed to see about thirty patients a day. Brown is so familiar with their community that whether they are a small group or a large one, they serve the people with ease and familiarity. They do what they do so well and have built lasting and meaningful relationships with the community.

My Linh Tran
My Linh Tran
Jack Eifert
Jack Eifert

We had the good fortune to show off the bilingual school. Judging from their smiles as they presented themselves in the classrooms, they enjoyed their time with us. They also saw Camasca and our house. It was such a pleasure to host them. Laura and I play such a small part in the incredible service Brown / Wingate offers. We are really nothing more than facilitators. But with each team that comes here, and especially Brown / Wingate, it is so nice to have the opportunity to extend our gratitude. We do this on behalf of Shoulder to Shoulder, but as importantly on behalf of the people they serve so faithfully. We were honored to have had the opportunity to host them.

Joseph Schwartz
Joseph Schwartz
Herbert Vu
Herbert Vu

Thank you Brown / Wingate for visiting us. We most certainly appreciate the steady, humble service you offer without a demand for recognition. Come back and visit us anytime. Our door is always open.

Absolute Folly

Absolute folly! A complete waste of time and resources! A recipe for disaster! An olympic-style, Honduran robotic team, particularly one from the backwoods of Camasca and Concepción, Intibucá is equivalent to the Jamaican bobsled team. This was the reaction to the lame-brained idea of Shoulder to Shoulder assisting and supporting the creation of a seven person, high school robotics team to compete internationally. I have to admit that I shared some of those reactions when we decided to do this in February. How could kids living in extreme poverty — who had little or no resources at their high schools, many of who had never played a video game — design and build a robot, travel to the United States, and compete among 157 other nations? I and all the other naysayers were proven wrong. Not only did they meet the challenge, they excelled. They achieved 40th among 163 different teams (the top 25%) and third among all teams from the Americas. They had an experience that will shine on for a lifetime, and hopefully inspire them to achieve previously unimaginable goals.

Team Honduras with Team 341 “Miss Daisy,” Wissahickon High School, Ambler, PA
Team Honduras with Team 341 “Miss Daisy,” Wissahickon High School, Ambler, PA

They dedicated themselves to working on this daily at our bilingual school with two committed teachers from their high school. They accepted assistance and support with grace and humility. Alan Ostrow and his robotics team from Pennsylvania Skyped weekly with the team, and he made two trips to Honduras. The team initially received little encouragement, even from other Hondurans, and in spite of this found the courage to believe in their inherent dignity and worth.

In the last few weeks before they left, things started to change for them. They started getting some media attention both locally and nationally. They were invited to the Presidential Palace to meet the First Lady. They secured passports and visas. The robot was built and functioning well. What had started out as pure folly was about to become real.

Team Honduras at Coy Middle School, Beavercreek, OH, with other robotics’ teams
Team Honduras at Coy Middle School, Beavercreek, OH, with other robotics’ teams

The travel day itself was one of the most exhausting days of my life, as well as theirs I’m sure, both physically and emotionally. We woke at 2:00 AM to board a bus for a seven hour trek to San Pedro Sula Airport. We thought we arrived with sufficient time at the airport. But none of these kids had any familiarity with air travel, and Honduras has strict laws and legal procedures for traveling with minors, particularly those unaccompanied by a parent. We literally all got on the plane minutes before the doors were closed and it pulled away from the terminal. In one sense it was fortunate that our connecting flight was late in Houston. It gave the seven young people time to begin soaking in all the sensory stimuli they had never before encountered or even dreamed of. They walked through the airport from gate to gate, heads spinning, drawn this way and that by what they could only understand as exotic attractions. The plane was delayed for a long time, and we would not get to Washington until early the next morning. Between retrieving our robot and luggage and hooking up with the FIRST Global driver who would transport them to their dormitory, it was at least 3:00 AM. Personally, my head did not find a pillow until 4:00 AM.

At 7:00 AM, they were all up and at DAR Constitution Hall to begin their practice rounds. I and Laura, staying at a different dormitory further away from the hall, did not arrive until 9:00. Still, we were beyond exhaustion. I took great pride in having gotten them there, something I would never have imagined possible. I also found myself in tremendous admiration of what they had already accomplished against what seemed insurmountable obstacles. There was something these kids had that was tremendously special, but I hadn’t as of yet named it, or understood it. What was the purpose in doing this, in exerting such great effort and resources, overcoming entrenched obstacles, simply to bring seven poor kids from Honduras to the United States with a robot? What would be the gain for these kids, for Shoulder to Shoulder, for Intibucá, for Honduras, or for the world? What was the meaning of it? I sat in the stands watching the practice rounds, hoping, perhaps even praying, for some insight.

Team Honduras was paired up with Kazakhstan and another country against three opposing countries. Alexis stood next to a young man from Kazakhstan. Alexis is a gifted student to be sure, but he was even more sleep deprived than me and he speaks no English. Just as I considered this whole odyssey a folly back in February, now I would never in my wildest fancy believe that Alexis from Concepción, Intibucá could manage conversation with a sixteen year old from Kazakhstan.  Clearly impossible! But I’m watching something that defies all logic. The teenager from Kazakhstan throws his arm around Alexis’ shoulder and they open their bodies to one another. Both have wide smiles on their faces. Alexis says something and they both are laughing. They are engaged. They are forming a friendship, and they are doing it with such ease and grace, and I am thinking this moment should be enshrined and worshipped. I have received the insight I was searching for.

With Honduran Ambassador to the US
With Honduran Ambassador to the US

Alexis and the teenage boy from Kazakhstan yielded a reflection for me. There is so much in our world that belittles and demeans us. There is war, oppression, and poverty. These are born of fear, mistrust, and insecurity; a basic unwillingness to risk relationship with someone who seems different than me. These terrible sins against the dignity of human life are born in fear, but sustained in cowardice. It takes a great deal of energy and resources to maintain that cowardice. But peace is born in the simple belief that all others, no matter how different they appear, are worthy of attention and engagement. Peace is born in trust, but sustained in courage. Oddly, cowardice is so costly, so consuming, whereas courage demands only the natural response of a heart. One teenage boy lets his hand fall softly against another’s shoulder and suddenly all things are new and nothing is impossible.

 

****

 

Please forgive the length of this blog. There is just so much that happened for us and the robotics team in their journey to the US that I want to do it justice. After the competition in Washington, the team traveled to Ohio. They met with people who are supporting them and will support them and the education mission of Shoulder to Shoulder. This is not the end for the robotics team, but only the beginning. They will continue to meet here in Honduras and invest themselves in transforming their amazing experience into hope and service for other young people and all the people of Southern Intibucá. We have many people to thank for the success of this incredible journey and much more to share.

  • Alan and Wendy Ostrow and the young people they work with in robotics, Team 341 “Miss Daisy,” who journeyed along with our seven students.
  • Angel and Joe Allen who have visited us in Honduras and will come again. The families they enlisted to take our students into their homes and treat them as members of their families.
  • The robotics teams from Ohio that gathered at Beaver Creek School to share with our Honduran team.
  • Ross and Stacey McNutt who opened up their airfield, their simulators, and their planes to us. Our students flew across the skies of Ohio in single-engine aircrafts. They also received us in celebration at their home.
  • Our trip to King’s Island was particularly memorable.
  • Dick and Bonnie Buten of Cincinnati, who have already given so much to our education mission in material support and passion, gave us two days rest in their home. Their neighbors shared their pool.
  • Daniel Wade, who volunteered at the Good Shepherd Bilingual School, gave us a tour of his high school as well as some insights into the struggles for Latin American teens living in the US. And Fide Gehner from Concepción, Intibuca, who shared with us for that entire day.
  • Wayne Waite, his wife Christina, his son Daniel, his daughter-in-law Nidia, and his two grandchildren Jonathon and Matthew (Mateo). It was Wayne that initially said yes to this folly and has offered unwavering support.
  • Dean Kamen, Joe Sestek, the FIRST Global team, and an unnamed teenage boy from Kazakhstan.

 

Click here for a montage of Photos

Videos

Opening Ceremony Featuring Honduras

Alan Ostrow Interview with First Global

Paul Manship Interview with First Global

Video Featuring Honduras with Match #5

It Happened In The Rain

I have written a blog for every one of the brigade groups that have visited us in Honduras since Laura and I came to Shoulder to Shoulder almost three years ago. First, I think it is the least that we can do to celebrate and thank these groups that offer so much in the ongoing presence and mission of Shoulder to Shoulder. Second, I take some personal pride in being able to do this. But, on occasion we have not been as present to the brigade groups as we would like to be. That, unfortunately, was the case with the Virginia Commonwealth University / Fairfax Family Practice Centers / SAGE who were recently with us at their clinic in Pinares, San Marcos de La Sierra. Laura and I took a short vacation to the United States the day after they arrived.

Sandra Tandeciarz, one of the brigade leaders
Sandra Tandeciarz, one of the brigade leaders
Michael Filak, one of the brigade leaders
Michael Filak, one of the brigade leaders

We were fortunate to spend some time with the group on their first night in a hotel in La Esperanza. But we were off very early the next morning to catch our plane while they headed in the opposite direction to serve the people of Pinares. We had opportunity to speak with some of the leaders of the brigade about their ongoing work in Pinares. We are excited and encouraged by the continuing plans SAGE has to service the people of Pinares in development work even when the brigades are not here.

 

I don’t have much more to report other than what has been related to me by others. Jett is the pharmacist who has now come to Pinares twice with the group. The photos that you are enjoying have come courtesy of him. He was gracious in offering them to me, and as I asked him how the brigade went, he reported, “This brigade was certainly fantastic. The providers and students showed that a real team based healthcare system can work and that it can benefit any community.” This is certainly always true of VCU / FFPC / SAGE. There were a lot of teenagers on this trip, acting as translators and volunteering with the children. They seemed to bring a youthful spark to the activities. Jett’s photos certainly suggest that the smiles and laughter accompanied the brigade and extended to the children and families.

 

Edman, our Brigade Coordinator, shared with me that the brigade went well. Because I know them so well, I’m sure it was true. Still, Edman also shared that it rained constantly. Well, it is the rainy season and we get even more of it in this part of Honduras than others. The rain might have dampened the grounds, but never the spirits. Perhaps it even made some roads impassable by vehicle, but not by foot. It couldn’t stop VCU / FFPC from getting to where they were needed most, even when it took them three hours of hiking. It couldn’t stop their enthusiasm, and it certainly couldn’t stop the laughter and joy the group always creates.

 

Thanks for coming. We’ll be sure to be here when you come again.

photographs courtesy of Jett Nymann Paraoan

 

The Boys at the End of the Road

The boys had been there all day long; three scruffy looking kids, probably 9, 10, or 11, years old, inseparable, taking in all of the unique goings-on. The Americans had come to their small village of Matazanos and had set up their health clinic at their school. The Maine Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency program and Long Island University, School of Pharmacy, had teamed up for the third year to offer medical services in and around the municipality of Colomoncagua. This would be their last full day of their trip, and Laura and I had tagged along with them. It would turn out to be a most successful day, seeing over 100 patients in this very remote area.

Matazanos, Colomoncagua, Intibuca, Honduras
Matazanos, Colomoncagua, Intibuca, Honduras

Matazanos is one of these tiny villages splattered all over the remote area of Southern Intibucá, never far in distance from the central municipality, but always a memorable trip. We took two pick-ups. With the team, the supplies, and the translators, the cabs and the beds of the pickups were packed tight. As we wound along the narrow, rutted out, washed out, muddy pass, I would hear whoops and hollers from the passengers in the bed as we slipped into a rut, climbed steeply up a hill, or passed under branches.  The road is here for the occasional truck — never a car — that has to bring something in or out of Matazanos. The locals walk trails that are more direct, and probably in much better condition. In any case, the less than seven mile journey, even less on a straight line, took us about forty-five minutes before we reached Matazanos at the end of the road.

We arrived at the school, first through sixth (they were building the kindergarten), to a throng of children who, thanks to us, had the day off. The group panicked at first, thinking they needed to see each of the kids. But that would not be the case, they’d only see the kids who had health complaints. About mid-morning, all the kids got treated to a yoga session where they got to stretch like the mountains, the sun, cows, dogs, and cats, and make wonderful sounds. It was great exercise, disguised as a fun game (or perhaps a fun game disguised as a great exercise). The kids loved it.

Extreme Yoga
Extreme Yoga

I kept noticing the three young boys. They played in the yoga game, and loved it. Unlike the other kids who wandered in and out of the school, these three hung out all day long and seemed to be having the time of their lives.  At one point, the three of them were lined up with their faces pressed against the bars of the window to one of the classrooms. Inside, the pharmacists and the pharmacy students were preparing the medications for the providers’ prescriptions. They were reading books and using apps on their telephones to understand the medications. The young boys had never seen anything like this. For them, it was the magic of alchemy. The Americans might just as well have been performing brain surgery.

Around lunch time I got a couple of minutes to speak with them. Their first question to me was where I and the visitors had learned English. I don’t think they understood when I answered that English was their first language, just as Spanish was theirs. As we were packing up, the boys were finally getting ready to leave. I got a few more minutes with them. I learned their names and a few other things. They wondered what the United States was like, but they had absolutely no context in which they could understand. All three of them had traveled to Colomoncagua (a one hour walk) which, for them, was the city. Though one of them had been to Camasca (a 45 minute car ride), that was as far as they had traveled. None had ever been to La Esperanza, the one place in the whole area that actually could qualify as a very small city. I asked them what they hoped to do when they grew up. They answered by way of their experience – they wanted to be farmers. I asked about being a policeman, or even a doctor like the ones they were seeing today. They giggled, such a fanciful idea from the strange gringo.

Checking out the Pharmacy
Checking out the Pharmacy

Their worlds are so small and their opportunities so limited. They will not go to school beyond the sixth grade. They will never travel beyond a ten to fifteen mile radius. But, oh boy, do they have curiosity! And I wondered who would ever nourish that curiosity? Who would ever help them to give some form to unfocused dreams? I0n a sense, Maine / Long Island gave them a great gift today:  the ability to catch a glimpse of possibilities. Perhaps it is only a moment, a passing entertainment; something like taking a peek behind the tent at a traveling carnival. Still, isn’t there a great deal more hidden in the curiosity of young children? Maine / Long Island opened a door, and beyond the door, an unknown world. Perhaps if Maine / Long Island continue to come and build relationships (they already have and they have every intention of continuing), one of these boys, or any number of the children who come to know them, may find a new road.

The Boys
The Boys

Curiosity is a powerful thing. It won’t be satisfied or stifled. It is, of course, what causes many from here to dangerously cross borders and arrive without documentation or permission in the US. But curiosity, well-formed and given proper context, yields discovery and invention.  Maybe, with the help of persons of integrity and generosity, such as those from Maine / Long Island, some of their curiosity and their dreams will flourish into new life.

Maine / Long Island
Maine / Long Island