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Reflection on NY/HELP's 2016 Honduras Trip

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

By David Woodruff

This was my second NY/HELP trip to Honduras. Our group of Dr. Gordon Comstock and me, was small but achieved a great deal. It was very satisfying, yet I think the accomplishments of a group of 6 to 10 would have been awesome. Sign up for the next trip in January 2017!

We had a task list of 12 items given us by the NY UCC Conference’s NY/HELP Honduras Steering Committee. Even with Dr. Comstock spending 10 hour days seeing 103 patients, we actioned each item.

Before I hit the highlights I want to share I feel that my unplanned and unexpected trip was part of God’s plan. It has been a lesson I seem to have to keep learning. When you care and help others God will bless you. First the trip and our experiences was tremendous. I was able to get to know Dr. Comstock and confirmed my sense he is a modern day hero – 24 trips in the last 25 years to help the same tribe of less than 5,500 people at his own expense. I noticed this year, that for less than I spend on fast food in a year, I was able to make a significant contribution. (By the way, I am not a fast food fan.) A few dollars invested in the tribe’s future has really paid off for me. My outlook, happiness and sense of purpose have greatly improved.

img101Let me tell you about our trip. We were blessed by great help from Mario, the loyal taxi driver who has supported NY/HELP for 10 years. Mario met us at the airport at 10pm and had us to our hotel before midnight. I felt very safe with him shepherding us.

The next morning, he was back at 5 am to take us to the bus station so we could catch the first express bus to Yoro. Even though old school buses are used and also larger charter type buses, ours was closer in size to trolleys, seating about 25 people with no on-board bathroom. The nearly 4-hour express ride cost 100 lempiras (Lp) which is about $5 US. Let me digress to say the bus conductor hawks for passengers as the bus travels; he calls out our destination and seeks more passengers.

img111Our NY/HELP coordinator, Joel, met us at the bus station with fellow tribe member, Osmán. Osmán owns an old Toyota pickup truck, the only 4-wheel drive vehicle in the tribe to my knowledge. As a side note, Mataderos is where the middle school (grades 7, 8 and 9th grade) is located and is where Osmán lives with his family. The $120 scholarship I donate yearly pays for one student to attend for a year. I was able to talk with my student this year; it was so rewarding to meet him and the other students.

Before journeying to the mountains where La Laguna is, in Yoro we bought food supplies for the week and 36 dozen diapers for the clinic. This is the closet commercial city for people of the tribe and where they come for most of their health care visits beyond the level of help the clinic’s nurse can give during the year. We drove an hour back towards San Pedro Sula (where we flew into) and then headed up into the mountains over 4,000 feet above sea level and 1200 feet above the 2-lane highway that connects San Pedro Sula and Yoro. We made one stop to buy water for drinking and cooking before going off the paved road (which was built by the US Army Corp of Engineers in the early 1980s). It took nearly 2 hours to drive up the logging trail to reach the clinic. There was a new section of logging trail made during the last 2 years and we were able to drive through Mataderos which saved us nearly a half hour. Osmán lives in Mataderos which is about a one hour walk from La Laguna where the clinic is located. I was very happy he drove us all the way to the clinic. Lunch was ready for us and we dined on beans, rice, and tortillas.

img2We got settled and discussed the week ahead with the staff and got prepared to see patients Sunday morning. We learned from the staff what was going on and what the tribal council was thinking about. We went to bed shortly after supper.

When we got up and got ready for breakfast at 6 there were already patients waiting for the clinic to open. The word was out that Dr. Gordon Comstock had arrived. I spent most of the day walking around La Laguna. I went to the school and admired the fine job that had been done in January putting new metal on the roof of the two buildings and fixing the roof on the outdoor eating area. The school is located above the clinic on the hill with a huge soccer field which is used every night by the youth, once the day’s school and work is completed, for a couple hours before sunset which was about 7 pm. The soccer balls are a wonderful gift and we have found the more expensive ones called “One-World” balls last much longer as the normal air filled balls puncture easily on the fences. Put a fence around a field and your family controls the use of the land and the horses, cows and pigs roam freely, so the fences protect the banana plants, coffee beans, corn and other crops.

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Water improvements are still needed in La Laguna, as the school site and the upper half of the village does not yet have water lines into the yards of the homes. Water for each of the villages remains a developing situation of improvements. I was surprised in my walk-a-bouts to see several homes with solar panels on the roof and satellite dishes. There was only one in the village two years ago. On the bus ride from San Pedro Sula, there was an older couple on the bus with a 27-inch flat screen TV. They got off in one of the rural villages on the roadway that had electricity. There are many hours of darkness since the day and night are nearly equal. as Honduras is located so close to the equator. Chickens run loose and it seemed many more families had chickens in their yards on this trip. I noticed many more motorcycles on this trip -- maybe as many as 6 -- when 2 years ago there was only one or two. I noticed one day that a school teacher arrived riding one of these small motorcycles -- about 125 to 175 cc sized bikes. Near the Catholic Church there was new field cultivated and it was planted with beans. Many homes showed signs of improvements and there were more than 3 new homes since my last visit 2 years ago. A new generation of families is beginning to start their lives together and remain in the mountains.

Each day I tried to learn new Spanish words from the people who came to see Gordon and also from the staff. I helped out carrying water and other housekeeping chores and exercised by walking around the village. Each meal was special because Gordon and I would talk with various people about the items on our list of things to accomplish. Really he talked and explained what was said and I sometimes offered some follow-up questions or comments. Generally, I tried to express pleasure in the satisfaction they expressed about new kindergartens, furniture for them and the roof on the school and other projects completed with villagers and NY/HELP last January. It is clear these folks are grateful for the assistance and caring attitudes of the people who travel from New York state to partner with them.

After 4 days of seeing patients we were ready to return to Yoro to finish handling items on our list before going to the airport. On our last evening in the mountains, we spent several hours in discussions. First with our coordinator, Joel, about his duties and how things were going for him and within the tribe. There has been much satisfaction expressed about us hiring a coordinator from the village. He is very well respected and walked to many villages, helping them select participants for the sewing program that will start in January 2017. One of the cooks, Aracely (Ruth) will being helping Connie Houde with the sewing program and Aracely was optimistic about how this will help each of the villages and the women of the tribe. We also talked about the clinic with our staff nurse, Mirtila, and the patients and projected expenses of health items that needed attention off the mountain. The next morning before we left the clinic, Gordon saw 6 patients arriving before 7 am who had walked 3 hours to see him.

img421Osmán arrived and we loaded our bags – several bags going back to NY empty because the supplies and medicines had been delivered. Once Gordon had seen the patients that arrived Thursday morning, we departed, again going through Mataderos and stopping at the middle school. Gordon talked with one of the teachers and discussed the computers in use there and she explained how they could be improved upon. This school has solar panels so they can charge the batteries of the computer. The garden started 2 years ago was still in use. Several students showed me things within the garden and tried to share with me their excitement about us visiting. Several of the boys were playing marbles during recess. I was amazed at how good the boys were on the rough ground of the school yard. The adult son of the principal came to the school while we were visiting and we learned why the girls were dressed up. In fact, we got to watch a dress rehearsal of a dance by 12 middle school students, 6 boys and 6 girls. The rehearsal was in preparation for the upcoming celebration of the “Day of the Indians.” We went to the community center which is close to the school. The teacher used a smart phone and a speaker to play the dance music and the students danced and sang to the music. A very impressive number and their joy in the dance was rewarding to see and feel.

img411Before I leave Mataderos, let me tell you about a student at the elementary school who had been playing marbles and who had been intent on talking to me even though I did not understand his Spanish. He pointed to Gordon several times while trying to get me to understand what he was saying. My “no comprendo” did not discourage him. He was so sincere and earnest that I asked Gordon to come over to translate. We learned he was Josue. The name was one I knew because two years ago when he was 5, he was a little runt of a kid who had been born prematurely, and then had severe blockage of his portal artery, resulting in intestinal bleeding. NY/HELP funded an operation for him to have a shunt put in. Gordon was as surprised as me, although he had seen him August 2015, at how much Josue had grown over the last year and it was twice as amazing for me who last saw him in 2014. The young man was so alive and happy. He was very competitive in the marble games and seemed to be extremely well liked by his peers in the school. NY/HELP makes a difference and we can do it because of your contributions.

I had mixed emotions as we left Mataderos and drove down the steep mountain to get to the paved road. Excited about getting back to my family for sure, but also a strong desire to see what I could do to help get water to all the homes and work with the teachers for the school gardens and spend more time with the student I sponsor for his middle school education. I would like to assist in a historical account of the tribe and complete a census to know who lives in which villages. I look forward to the time when I can communicate in Spanish with the people of the mountain.

img3Osmán took us to the hotel and we got our room Thursday. After checking in and depositing our bags in the room, Osmán then went with us to CEVER (the Evangelical & Reformed Vocational Education Center). This was a major item on our task list – Kindergarten furniture and a relationship with CEVER. CEVER is a BOCES-like school affiliated with our sister E&R churches in Honduras The director, Ava Luz Navarro, had time to give us a tour. They have 7 programs; welding, machinist, auto repair, carpentry, computer, cosmetology, and food/restaurant operations This last one was very interesting to me as a former Army cook and I was curious about what had been accomplished since we visited 2 years ago. This new addition to the school was a product of Bill Briggs and a restaurant owner from New England. The building for this was under construction then and not operational yet. img451This year there were students in the restaurant section being tested on material already covered. The upstairs balcony railing was being constructed for more atmosphere for the restaurant. Members of the welding class were doing this work and the carpenter shop had done much of the building of the structure and furniture items for the restaurant. The Director had one of the instructors, a former student of the first graduating class, show us the kitchen. All of the equipment was now set up and operational. A great addition to the trade school!

The auto repair section professor was also a graduate of the program but from 17 years ago and had returned to teach after working in several of the larger cities. CEVER also teaches high school classes for students who wish to combine their skill training with a high school diploma.

Osmán was kind enough to take us back to the hotel and dropped Joel, Gordon and me off at the hotel around 5 pm. Gordon was interested in going to the boarding house. It was about a 2 mile hike. We were able to see Pastor José Feliciano and house-mother Petronida, two people that have over the years been very close to NY/ HELP. Youth from the village used to stay in the boarding house and attend a high school just down the road. This couple started at the boarding house with help from Bill Briggs, the NY Conference minister in the 1990's. José Feliciano is a retired E&R minister. His wife still oversees the boarding house which has 23 students living there. They have a home on the property in addition to the boarding house and have a large garden to aid in feeding the students boarding there. This year it has been very dry in Honduras and we offered to help get them a drip-irrigation kit for the garden.

img471These drip kits are being used in the some of the gardens in the mountains.

That evening Joel suggested we eat at a new Chinese restaurant down the street from the hotel. The food was very good and cost the 3 of us less than $24 US. Each plate had more food than we could eat.

We went back to the hotel and enjoyed our first showers in over a week. Hot water cannot be over-rated! God is good. The next morning, we were up early working on our list. We went and got pictures from Joel’s camera transferred to a flash drive, picked up markers and other supplies for training classes and meetings, and found a place to get Joel’s NY/HELP computer operational. In the hotel the night before, we could not get it to connect to the internet in order to transfer the pictures. We invested in this repair/upgrade so Joel would have Microsoft Office and internet access to send reports to NY/HELP. Currently he has to come into Yoro to access the internet but with people using solar panels and satellite dish TV; I suspect soon the village will have internet. Even though Gordon and my cell phones would not get a signal in the mountains, some members of the tribe had various cell phones with the ability to get reception to call and text. This was not possible two years ago.

img481We worked with Joel until 2:30 and crossed the street, arriving at the bus station at 2:50 to find that the 3 o’clock bus had already left (it was full so no sense in waiting around). I was alarmed to find our there was only one more express bus to San Pedro Sula that day – at 3:30pm. I immediately bought our tickets and took a seat to be sure we would have passage. That bus did not leave until it was full which was close to 4 pm. We collected more people who stood in the aisle as we left Yoro behind. Joel got off the bus as we reached La Habana, the turn-off for the mountain. We are lucky that Joel takes time away from his farming to be our coordinator. I believe him to be a good asset for NY/HELP and his tribe.

We were again blessed by God when we reached San Pedro Sula bus station. This place reminds me of Grand Central Station in New York City. Mario, responding to a text from Gordon, was there and found us – very much like finding a needle in a stack of hay. He whisked us to our hotel and had dinner with us and another surprise came as we ate. Our old friend, Jimmy Alvarado, arrived at the hotel and it was old home week for Gordon. Jimmy had been the NY/HELP coordinator when Gordon first went to Honduras. He now runs an English school in San Pedro Sula. Gordon was able to go and visit the school.

Mario was back at 4 am to take us to the airport. We arrived very quickly since the traffic was very light. We were through customs and security quickly and had time to relax and buy breakfast before our plane began to board. The trip was drawing to a close and counting the blessings of this trip left me breathless to see God so active in our lives and journey.

Now a month later I am amazed at how the blessings keep coming. I am convinced my NY/HELP volunteer trip with Dr. Comstock has helped my life greatly.

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