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Witness

Writers are dependent on muses who are often fickle and unreliable. Sometimes, after a medical mission trip, I suffer through the anxiety of not finding inspiration. On other occasions, I simply find myself too busy to dedicate the time to writing up an article. Both problems haunted me after the Brown/Wingate medical mission trip that recently took place in Guachipilincito. August presents as one of those months were the stars align in such a peculiar manner that everyone wants to be in Honduras. Another brigade followed on the heels of Brown/Wingate. The funder for our very extensive and ambitious nutrition program, Mathile Institute with its representative, Greg Rheinhart and his wife Becky, came to the Frontera to visit the families and children benefiting from the program. We are investing in a major expansion of our education program among area schools. And finally, the Board members of our organization came to Honduras for a meeting. With all of this happening at the same time, Laura and I were caught up in the whirlwind.

Dr. Emily Harrison and Moises Vallecillo, Brigade Coordinator
Dr. Emily Harrison and Moises Vallecillo, Brigade Coordinator

Meanwhile, I was feeling great anxiety over not publishing a blog on Brown/Wingate. Additionally, one brigade participant, David, a talented pre-med student, had extended his stay in Guachipilincito to complete additional service among the community. Laura and I had no time to look in on him, or to wish him happy birthday as it had passed during his time there. But this Wednesday, we were transporting yet another brigade from the Frontera back to the airport in Tegucigalpa. We stopped in Concepcion to pick David up along the way to bring him back to the airport as well. He had been in Guachipilincito over a month so we figured he had a lot of luggage. Our brigade coordinator, Moises, and I jumped from the bus figuring we would need to assist him with his baggage. What an amazing site! David walked towards us, a light backpack strapped to his back and a water bottle and hat in his hand. He looked as if he were going to the corner store, rather than taking an intercontinental journey. The sight of him froze me in my tracks, and I knew there was something of tremendous value in this visage upon which I would need to reflect.

“Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. (Luke 9.1)” Fear not, I do not intend to preach, at least not in any religious sense, though I used to do that for a living. I might have just as easily said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers (Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind).” David’s confidence, his willingness to shed the false security of things for a conviction in the goodness of relationship, is a witness of which I and the world have great need. Here I am running around for the past three weeks, investing in the complexities of negotiations and intense communications, carrying a ton of baggage both literally and figuratively, and this young man walks lightly and lithely among the humble people of Guachipilincito. Whose journey has more meaning? Who has touched upon the beauty of humanity? Who has witnessed the miracle of compassion and generosity?

Patient Consultation at Guachipilincito
Patient Consultation at Guachipilincito

 David symbolizes the greatness of many of our brigade experience, and most especially that of Brown/Wingate. Our brigade groups arrive with loads of supplies at the Tegucigalpa airport, bins of medicines and supplies that make their way through customs and are packed into transport vehicles to journey into isolated territories where the people are resourced challenge. The groups have paid extra to move these items and it has cost them time and energy for planning and execution. We place great value on the things we tote, while we essentially ignore those who do the toting. But when these groups leave, they are unburdened, having used up or gifted the supplies. They are depleted, or seemingly so. Yet, I would contend that they are the ones who have been enriched as much if not more so than the ones who have benefitted from their service and generosity.

Nutrition Committee Meeting
Nutrition Committee Meeting

Brown/Wingate saw hundreds of patients, gave away hundreds of dollars of medications, trekked across step winding paths to visit the elderly and infirmed confined to their distant homes, fulfilling their well-planned mission of compassionate service. They unburdened themselves with the absolute joy realized in generosity. Giving presents as an exercise in addition and subtraction; something taken away from one to the corresponding gain of another. In fact it is an exercise in multiplication where value expands exponentially. I wonder sometimes who benefits more from generous compassion, the one receiving or the one giving? Then again, even that is my need to judge and quantify as if even compassion becomes a measured competition. Perhaps it is only the matter of walking joyfully unburdened.

In the Pharmacy
In the Pharmacy

Thank you David and thank you Brown/Wingate. Thank you Guachipilincito. All of you have given witness of the beauty of humanity. How enriched we are when we realize how little we need.

Happy Birthday, Estados Unidos

Feliz cumpleaños, Estados Unidos! On Monday, July 4th, the American volunteers (Matt, Kate, Ben and Mr. Yon) thought that a lesson on U.S. independence was in order. Accordingly, the four of us spent the day going from class to class offering special lessons on why the United States celebrates the Fourth of July.

The kids had a great time with the special activities. With the chiquitinos (youngsters) in Kindergarten, we had a special lesson on the American flag. The kids, who are very proud of their recently acquired familiarity with the English color spectrum, memorized that the flag is red, white and blue in a heartbeat. Next, they got to show off their artistic prowess and drew their best rendition of Old Glory.

Presentation of Flags
Presentation of Flags

Since the flag activity was such a hit, we did the same with the first graders. We also thought that we would test their arithmetic, as we challenged them to tell us how old the United States was this year (they were mind-blown when they figured out that the Fourth of July was the U.S.’s 240th birthday—que viejo!).

With the second and third graders, we pursued a different activity. We had them play the “Game of Georges,” in which half of the class got to pretend that they were Englishmen and the other half American colonists. The pseudo-Englishmen had (probably too much) fun bossing around their colonial counterparts, and the American colonists clearly felt some just satisfaction in declaring their independence at the end of the game. Throughout our lessons with the older kids, we were sure to draw upon the similarities between the Anglo/American divorce and that of Spain/Honduras.

It was a fun, educational Fourth of July, and the kids walked away with a good history lesson and some even better artwork.

Volunteers

We presently have five volunteers at our bilingual school. Thabi, Ben, John (Mr. Yon), Kate, and Matt are having a great time and an incredible, meaningful, life-changing experience. We are tremendously proud of them and grateful for the incalculable gift  they give to our students. Our children will remember them as friends for a lifetime and they will learn to converse in English. Our volunteers may never truly understand the significance and value of the time they have given.

Thabi and Kate will be with us through the end of the school year in November. Matt will soon complete his five weeks with us and we will dearly miss him. It has been all too short and we hope he can return. In mid August, Ben and John will complete their tour with us. On the day of their travel, Alex will be arriving to join Thabi and Kate for the remainder of the school year. We have had an incredible year with volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. What they have had in common is a generous heart open to enriching, life-changing experiences. We thank them!!

Volunteer Matt Tibbits
Volunteer Matt Tibbits

If you would like to read about Matt’s experience at the school, he posts a blog at Backpack Matt.

We are in need of volunteers at our bilingual school for the 2017 academic year from February through November. Find out more about our volunteer opportunities at http://shouldertoshoulder.org/volunteer-opportunities. You can also write us at Paul and Laura with any and all inquiries.

Be Part of Something Revolutionary

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.