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The Unexpected

As I am writing this, Laura and I are on vacation in the US. We have, as always, an incredibly packed agenda. We started out in Denver, three days, in order to visit Laura’s son Gregory, my cousin Kevin and his wife Dolores, and their son Alex, who will be joining us for three months in August as a volunteer at the bilingual school. We also managed to tour the Rocky Mountain National Park at 13,000 feet. Breathtaking! Now we are in the greater Springfield, MA area to catch up with family and friends. So in four days we’ve traveled over 3000 miles. Everything has happened exactly as we planned it. Just this morning I realized that is what is putting me just a little on edge. There haven’t been any surprises. I’m not used to everything falling together as planned. I’m thinking something is wrong.

Brigade Members at Hotel in La Esperanza
Brigade Members at Hotel in La Esperanza

Efficiency is so highly valued in the US. But sometimes it is the unexpected, and the way we end up dealing with it, that identifies and marks us.

 

Virginia Commonwealth University, Fairfax Family Practice Centers, and the organization SAGE (Student and Global Community Engagement) that they have founded recently visited the clinic they built and sustain in Pinares, San Marcos de la Sierra, Honduras. They came with a thirty person team. Though that was a bit large for them and presented a challenge, they have done this so many times they have learned all the routines. They know what to pack. They know what to expect. In the week they were here, they managed to visit many of the outlining communities and assess the health needs of the children living there. They provided medical and dental consults, physical therapy, and a mission to maintain clean water in the small communities. They do incredible work with precise planning and expertise; a model of efficiency at its finest. Still, this is Honduras, so something will have to go wrong.

Brigade Member with Happy Kid at Portillo de Norte
Brigade Member with Happy Kid at Portillo de Norte

It was not a desperate phone call, but our brigade coordinator, Moises, had a hint of urgency in his voice when he told us the brigade was running out of meds only half way through their week. It wouldn’t be a problem, we planned on visiting anyway. We would pick up the meds they needed at one of our main clinics, and if we couldn’t find everything they needed, we could drive them to La Esperanza where they could purchase them. But before he hung up the phone he also told us a five year old had to be transported to the hospital in La Esperanza. He had a broken arm. Also not a problem, we could get him there.

None of that was expected, but still it was a relatively easy fix. We got most of the meds. Chris and Logan would travel with us to La Esperanza to pick up the remaining meds. Our doctor/translator Jose would accompany our young man with the broken arm and his mother to the hospital. The hospital is always busy, and I worried that it might be all day, if not until the next, before they actually treated the broken arm. But we dropped the three of them off at the hospital and asked for a telephone call to update us. We found the remaining meds, and to my surprise got the telephone call that the arm had been cast. Dr. Jose also realized they might be waiting forever. He simply asked them to show him where the plaster was and he cast the arm himself. Everything was done within a few hours and we were on our way back to Pinares, mother and son in the back seat of the pickup with Jose, Chris, and Logan riding in the bed. This might not have been the most conventional means for supplying meds or setting a broken arm, but all things considered, rather efficient for Honduran standards. But then we offered mother and son a ride back to their home.

They had walked in the morning to the clinic at Pinares. She said it had taken them two hours, which is more than the typical “one hour” pat answer to that question. In fact, it took me almost an hour to arrive at their home in the car. Admittedly the car is not that much faster than walking considering the terrain over which we travelled, but walking this could not have been less than three hours. Now think about this. A mother walking with her five-year-old son, walking for three hours up and down mountains and over rocky terrain, walking with her son whose broken arm is neither set nor cast, and now perhaps we can understand why efficiency is not necessarily a prized value here. Their response was nothing more than gratitude.

VCU, FFPCS, and SAGE have once again done tremendous work at the clinic in Pinares. They prepared themselves well and followed an ambitious schedule. But it was what they did on the fly, for which there are no plans, that exemplified their unique style of compassion.

 

 

What Sacrifice Yields

In the two and a half years Laura and I have lived in Honduras, I’ve become accustomed to being led around. That’s understandable. It’s not my country, and at least initially, everything is unfamiliar. The positives to being led around are that you build relationships of trust with your guides and you begin to discover things hidden under the surface. It’s an ongoing process of exciting discoveries, like the wonder of Christmas morning for a five-year-old. The negative to being led around is to be placed in that position of dependence and vulnerability. To trust being led takes moving beyond one’s comfort zone. It really implies sacrifice – doing something beyond the necessary with the hope that it will provide something better. Sacrifice and surrender.

Having so often been led around, it’s a good feeling to finally achieve the position of leading someone else. Such was our experience with AHOP (not to be confused with IHOP), A House of Prayer, a church community from Xenia, Ohio who recently came to Camasca to share and serve. While the team was here they sponsored a sports camp. They also spent some quality time at our bilingual school with our children. The church sponsors three of our children so they are very much committed to our mission of education. They hoped to meet a few of the families of our children while they were here. Laura and I knew just which families to bring them to, and how to get there. Just follow us.

Lunch At AHOP’s Sports Camp
Lunch At AHOP’s Sports Camp

“But there’s no road here,” one of the AHOP members bemoaned. We were standing on the cobblestoned street just outside the town center. I ducked down under a branch and gestured for the others to follow. The path is not at all obvious from the road and the thickness of the foliage would not offer any assurance that this was the way to any domicile. The group reluctantly fell in behind my lead. Along the path we’re inching our way down a sharp precipice. The view is incredible, looking down over about 2,000 feet, you can spot the Black River five or six miles distant winding through the mountain passes. But, could anyone really live down here? Down a rock-warn channel, passing bulls, cows, and calves along the way, over, under, and through barbed-wired fences, zig-zagging in and out of a pineapple grove, we descended. The earlier cobblestoned road now long forgotten, and yet in reality it was only a few hundred yards away. If I listened closely with my ears attuned to my heart, I could hear the incredulous thoughts, “But where in the world is he taking us?” Where indeed, fording a rill across a makeshift brick, up a muddy hill, and down along the other side, we arrived on the porch of Maria Dolores. She, her daughter Keilyn in second grade, and her son Bryan in kindergarten, were there to greet us.

The Walk to the Childrens’ Homes
The Walk to the Childrens’ Homes

Everyone sat, resting after the tiring, somewhat anxiety producing, hike, on the plastic chairs already placed in anticipation of our arrival. We were welcomed with generous hospitality, Maria Dolores managing to provide us all with glasses of pineapple juice, no doubt freshly squeezed from the grove we walked through. Through translators she told us a bit of her story. Her brothers and sisters, with the exception of her brother German and his family, have all attended college and moved on to begin professional careers. She has stayed behind in this unlikely abode where she grew up to take care of her aging parents. Her mother, who was asleep while we visited, has coronary disease. Dolores has to take her to the doctor, obtain her medication, and take care of her father, her children, and her home. She tells us this matter-of-factly, with no sense of resentment or pride. She shares her hope for her children. She is grateful for the opportunity of the bilingual school, certain that her children will find the way beyond the confines of the situation they were born into. As she tells her story, as she reveals her sacrifice generously offered in hope, her visitors begin to bond with her. Josh, a pastor at AHOP, and Jillian share the story of their toddler son. He, like Dolores’ mother, also struggles with heart difficulties. From Xenia, Ohio, to Camasca, Intibucá, to this home hidden beyond the trees, the distance has lessened to nothing more than a knowing glance. Before we leave to visit her brother German and his family, we join hands in the warmth of prayer and thanksgiving.

Maria Dolores and Daughter Keilyn
Maria Dolores and Daughter Keilyn

Her brother’s home is a two-minute walk away, though it too is hidden under the trees. Juan Carlos, a first-grader, sees us coming and gathers the chairs for us to sit inside his home. German is there with his eldest child, an adult daughter who has been physically challenged since birth. Iris stands at about the height of her six-year-old brother, Juan Carlos, and walks with severe difficulty. She can no longer make the trip into town on her own, but relies on other family members to carry her. Her smile is infectious as she pleasingly relates to us how she assists her mother, a teacher, with computer work, English classes, and documentation. Her mother cannot get home frequently, as her teaching job is in La Esperanza. German stays home, tending his personal farm and taking care of the family. He has two other sons, both of whom are attending college. When we hear this, there is a collective, albeit silent, gasp. How is it possible that this family supports two children in college? And yet again, like his sister Dolores, German relates his story without the expectation of pity or honor. It is simply what he has done because it is necessary. He himself may never, will never, leave this home where the journey to and from it is exceptionally onerous. But he and his wife will take care of their daughter and forge a wider path for their sons on their journeys from home.

German, Daughter Iris, and Son Juan Carlos
German, Daughter Iris, and Son Juan Carlos

Our journey down began with a sense of uncertainty that produced insecurity. We could not see the way, what could lie beyond the trees or below the mountain. But we found a place of rest and comfort. We met with welcome. Leaving, climbing out, was hard. We would, in a sense, be going very far away. Yet having been here, the way back would be something forever in our memory. We had become, somehow, very close to these families hidden under the trees and below the mountain.

 

Thank you, AHOP, for your willingness to be led. We hope you discovered something valuable along the way, “a pearl of great price.” You will always have welcome.

Bienvenidos, Mr. Ben y Mr. Yon!

We all, in our formative years, have that epiphanic experience that hurtles us on the trajectory to our field of study and eventual career.

My such experience took place when I accompanied my Dad, Dr. Bruce Gebhardt, on a Shoulder to Shoulder brigade to Santa Lucia in 2009. I was only fourteen at the time and my official position on the brigade roster was “Sherpa”— I really served only to help doctors set up shop and run errands. Nevertheless, it was simply the coolest thing I had ever done! The exposure to the sights and sounds of Intibucá, serving the various communities in the area, the choco-bananas and the riding around in the back of trucks left me with a love of travel and international development. Ever since my brigade experience in 2009, I have focused my studies towards international politics and foreign language, all the while thinking, “man, I hope one day I can go back to Honduras and offer a bit more to the organization and the community than my services as a Sherpa.”

Ben Surrounded
Ben Surrounded

Flash-forward to 2016, and I am spending my summer as a teaching assistant in the Good Shepherd Bilingual School in Camasca—and my long anticipated return to Honduras, in which I will hopefully be able to more substantially contribute to the community, has been wonderful so far.

Anecdotes aside, allow me to introduce myself and the other newly arrived English teaching assistant that will be working at the school this summer—My name is Ben Gebhardt, and I am a rising senior at John Carroll University. With me as an assistant teacher at the bilingual school is my friend John Stefanick, a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh. The two of us are here to help out at Good Shepherd from May to August, and our first couple of weeks in Intibucá have been great to us.

John also surrounded
John also surrounded

Camasca is a beautiful little pueblo about three hours away from La Esperanza. Its inhabitants are welcoming, engaging and very proud of the strong reputation that their village has on the frontera. Their pride is well merited—Camasca’s cobble-stoned streets are immaculately clean, there is a restaurant with a killer menu and the village is home to the only gym/weight room in this part of Honduras. But most importantly, the village holds the unique distinction as host of the nation’s only government-sponsored bilingual school.

We have gotten a very warm bienvenidos from just about everybody in the town. In our first days in Camasca, Profe Iris brought us some banana chips as a welcoming present, Profe Edwin invited us to join a teachers-only soccer team and the whole staff at the bilingual school made sure that we felt very invited to their ranks.

Ben in the classroom
Ben in the classroom

And, of course, we have made fast friends with the bright young students of the Good Shepherd Bilingual School. John has thus far been helping out with the second graders (who, amidst their difficulty in pronouncing the “j” in English, have taken to calling him “Mr. Yon”). I have spent much of my time with the Kindergarteners, who, by virtue of their age, have been great fun to work with—very energetic and quick to learn.

Having spoken with the teachers, we have determined that our special contribution to the school this summer will be the implementation of a “Reading Corner.” Starting next week, we will be taking small groups of students aside throughout the course of the day in order to focus on reading books in English language, hoping to hone their skills in vocabulary and grammar as well as to cultivate in them a love of literature.

John attacked at the gate
John attacked at the gate

At any rate, this former Shoulder to Shoulder Sherpa is greatly anticipating the next couple of months’ work in the bilingual school. The eager children, the dedicated teachers and the welcoming village will surely make this summer rewarding on all fronts.

Cultural Exchanges

What does a three year old have to tell us about the complexity and importance of cultural exchange? A great deal more than you would think. Jonathan Waite, three years old, is the grandson of Wayne Waite, the Board President of Shoulder to Shoulder, and his wife Christina. Jonathan lives in Xenia, Ohio with his parents, Daniel Waite and Nidia Belissa Waite. He is presently visiting his grandparents in Camasca, Intibucá, Honduras, accompanied by his mother. His father will join them this week. Daniel and Nidia have organized a one-week sports brigade for the young people of Camasca with their church, AHOP, A House of Prayer. We’re very much looking forward to their arrival.

Last week, Nidia had to take a trip to Tegucigalpa to attend a high school graduation and she left her son Jonathan in the care of her parents. Jonathan is fairly bilingual, accustomed to hearing English and Spanish at home and using them interchangeably in his verbal communication. Still, those who he is speaking with are most often monolingual and he has a ways to go to figure out who knows which language. Additionally, he’s three, and his vocabulary is still a bit limited. Because of this, when his mother went off to Tegucigalpa, he ended up with a bit of a communication impasse. It seems he didn’t have his favorite t-shirt with him in Honduras. His favorite t-shirt sports a picture of a shark on its front and he refers to it as his shark shirt. His consternation at not having his favorite t-shirt was aggravated and exacerbated when his grandparents could not understand what was causing his angst. His attempts at expressing his great dismay literally fell on deaf ears, and that frustrating sense of not being heard nor understood simply eroded into a terrible state of unparalleled crisis.

It’s bad enough for an adult to be in this situation and I personally can empathize with Jonathan’s plight. There is nothing more terrible or frightful as to find yourself unattached. Your sense of security, of worth and honor, of integrity, begins to crumble, and as hard as you try, there is nothing you can do to stop this freefall into a dark and lonely place. Jonathan perhaps knew enough that the persons around him, his family, could not solve his terrible dilemma. They could not give him his favorite shirt. But it was a thousand times worse that they could not even appreciate the import of the matter. Jonathan’s crisis soon became everyone’s crisis and seemingly not a soul could make any sense out of the simple annunciation, “Shark shirt.”

But his cousin, Eduardo, a second grader at our bilingual school came to the rescue. The word shark in Spanish is “tiburón.” Being only in the second grade, one would not necessarily expect that Eduardo would know the word tiburón, let alone its translation, shark, in English. But as fate, luck, or simply a well rounded education would have it, Eduardo has a friend in the third grade who is something of a budding artist and also likes to draw sharks. The young artist has a pen pal in the fifth grade at St. Mary’s School in Lee, MA with whom he has been sharing his portfolio of a variety of maritime predators otherwise known as sharks. Thus Eduardo was well acquainted with the word. He simply told his family that Jonathan wants his shark shirt, “camiseta de tiburón,” and the crisis that severely threatened a three year old’s trust in his Honduran family was diffused.

Communication, even among people who speak the same language, is often as challenging as it is critical. It is by communication that we discover and invest in relationships. Sometimes I am asked why we are investing so much time and resources in a bilingual school in Honduras. Isn’t that secondary to the tremendous problems that poverty causes? I don’t know. Perhaps Eduardo and Jonathan, having easily overcome a problem for which all of the adults around them were rendered impotent, will actually find solutions to the causes of poverty. Shark means tiburón. This is more profound than you might think.

Elevations

Most of my life I’ve kind of hung around at the same altitude, give or take about 1000 feet. I suspect that is mostly the case for anyone living in the US. Our elevations don’t vary tremendously from day to day or hour to hour. That is not the case here in Honduras where everywhere you look there is the remnant of another volcano standing in your path. Almost every Saturday morning I wake up at 1624 feet in Concepción. I get on a packed bus with thirty some other people, at least as many backpacks, and sometimes a chicken or two and begin to climb. About one hour and forty-five minutes later, having traveled along 34 miles of road a total distance of 22 miles, I find myself in La Esperanza at 5577 feet. It’s colder and clearer, the air much thinner, and the whole world seems changed. On Monday morning, I do the reverse, shedding layers of clothing on the way down. Everything changes in the rapidity of ascents and descents.

At San Marcos Clinic
At San Marcos Clinic

Rapid changes in elevation is what best seems to describe Maine-Dartmouth’s experience on their recent medical brigade to Colomoncagua, Intibucá. It’s safe to say they started out at or about sea level in Maine. Because of the irregularity of flights from Maine to Boston to Tegucigalpa, their odyssey lasted almost two full days, and, by the time they caught up to us in La Esperanza, they were exhausted. Flying in and out of the heavens, they were diverted from their final destination in Tegucigalpa to return to almost sea level at San Pedro Sula. Back in the air quickly thank God, they arrived at Tegucigalpa, 3248 feet, where Shoulder to Shoulder was waiting for them. Up and down a few dozen times more in an escort van, they finally got to the highest city in Honduras, La Esperanza at 5577 feet. Oddly, the weather they experienced, the damp and penetrating cold, might have reminded them of the late April weather of Maine that they had just left behind. There only for one night, their elevation changed drastically again, falling about four-thousand feet to arrive in Concepción. After a brief bathroom break and tour of our main clinic in Concepción, they winded back up another mountain pass to finally settle in Colomoncagua at 2576 feet. Talk about a roller coaster.

Older Man’s Consult
Older Man’s Consult

Laura and I usually spend a good deal of time with brigades on their way in and their way out. We hear about their expectations on going in and share in their reflections as they leave. We might get a half day with them at their work site, but we’re busy taking pictures and they’re busy seeing patients. We did see Maine-Dartmouth on their way in. But we wouldn’t be available on their way out as we were already committed to important meetings. Because we would miss them on their way out, we decided to spend the weekend with them in Colomoncagua. We were so pleased that we got such a close up view of their rich experience.

Happy Kid
Happy Kid

The varied elevations, their varied experiences, and their varied characters and personalities weaved and waved in and out of their time together. But without diversity, harmony cannot be achieved. José was born and raised in El Salvador, a literal rock’s toss away from where we were, but Barbara had never been on a medical mission trip and spoke no Spanish. But their voices blended in a theme of service and compassion. We witnessed them working among the simple townspeople at the San Marcos clinic. They had come from so far away, had traversed high peaks and low valleys, and yet they all seemed as if they belonged. Laura and I felt privileged to be part of this concerto of care.

Under The Fall
Under The Fall

The next day was yet an entirely different experience.   It was Sunday, it was May Day, it was Nancy’s birthday, and it was certainly time for fun. After a great breakfast and a visit to the local market where hand crafted leather belts, woven shoulder bags, and other local goods were purchased, we headed out to see the beauty pristinely hidden within nature. The waterfall dominates the natural amphitheater where the stone walls rise majestically above us. One further elevation to consider and explore. I watched them all under the curtain of the water’s fall. They surrendered to the experience of the moment, defined and enhanced by it, elevated to great heights and plunged to great depths. It is all so very enriching.