Saturday, March 31, 2012

My debut in Tyler, Texas

This is going to be a year of firsts for me - like this one, getting my first story published in a Texas newspaper.  While my role with the Comision de Accion Social Menonita is primarily to help them with communications here in Honduras, I figure it can't hurt to put those English-language skills of mine to work sometimes to spread the word about CASM a little farther afield.
I'm posting the story below, just in case you don't like links. It's one more piece in the puzzle of what I actually do down here in Honduras, which I admit I'm still working on understanding myself. I do like the chance to jump into plain old reporting once in a while.

Copan Ruinas, Honduras-The big hole in the ground was two feet deep and nothing but dirt when the volunteers from First Christian Church in Tyler got their first look at it March 10.
By the time they headed home to Texas on March 18, it was three feet deeper and ready for concrete to be poured. And the 900 people living in the isolated mountain pueblo of La Cumbre were significantly closer to having the badly needed new reservoir that would ensure every household in the village had water. 
“Every year I ask the Lord to give me a vision, a purpose for the trip, and this year I asked to be blessed with a feeling of Christianity coming back to me from Honduras,” volunteer Joe Gonzalez said Saturday at his hotel as his team prepared for the trip home. “Up on that mountain, every time I pushed the wheelbarrow with another load of dirt and saw that view all around us, I felt like that was happening.”
First Christian congregation member Larry Gilliam has been organizing the annual week-long volunteer missions for 12 years now, and most of the group of 14 volunteers on the Honduras missions are veterans of many such trips. “I hear that once you go on one of these, you get hooked,” said first-timer Larry Davis, who was on the trip with his wife Linda.
This year’s team was a mix of people from Tyler, Houston and Austin that included several married couples and a mother and daughter – Leslie and Kelsey Neal, from Flint. The volunteer team works with Church World Service to identify projects and host organizations in Mexico and Central America, and for this trip partnered with the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita, a Christian organization that works in seven regions of Honduras to improve conditions in impoverished communities.
“We don’t go anywhere without a good host group, and we couldn’t have asked for a better one,” said Gilliam, noting that CASM co-ordinator Merlin Fuentes went out of his way to ensure a good experience for the volunteers. “I’ve worked with dozens of host organizations over the years, and this one was as good as any we’ve had.”
Half of the volunteer group worked on the water reservoir in La Cumbre, while the other half worked alongside Honduran doctors and nurses at a health clinic in Santa Rita, about six kilometres outside Copan Ruinas.  The volunteers had raised $2,000 for medications to be distributed during their time at the clinic, a draw that attracted poor families from throughout the region.
A frightening incident in the early days of the clinic ended up creating an enduring bond between the Tyler team and the Honduran medical team, recalled Ruth Gonzalez, one of three Texas nurses who volunteered at the clinic. A patient had a near-fatal allergic reaction to a medication “and we thought we’d lost her,” said Gonzalez. Fortunately, quick intervention by the clinic’s doctor saved the day.
“You never know what’s going to pull you through, teach you,” she added. “What happened that day really brought to light why you’re doing something.”
Each of the volunteer trips costs about $30,000, with money coming from fundraising events in Tyler, First Christian Church and individual volunteers.  This year’s group ended up with $2,000 in surplus funds, which they left behind in Copan Ruinas to help finish off the water reservoir.  After hearing about an orphanage in desperate straits in the community, the team also bought $300 worth of food and dropped it off.
“Most every trip we’ve been on, we look for a little something extra that could use some money,” said Roger Spain of Lufkin, who was on his ninth trip.
Gilliam conceived of the annual forays after several years of leading youth groups on missions around the world. “I grew up in a family that believed in outreach. It just came natural,” he added.
Over the years, projects have run the gamut: Building greenhouses; digging wells; constructing rabbit hutches. Spain says the spur-of-the-moment side projects can be as rewarding as the main projects, recalling a trip to Nicaragua in 2005 in which the group bought and delivered the materials for a half-built community medical clinic that had stalled out seven years earlier.
This past weekend was R&R time for the team before the volunteers returned home. But while Gilliam had sailed through seven consecutive days of two-hour truck rides along a skinny mountain road and more than 40 hours of shovelling dirt, he was shaken by what lay ahead on Saturday.
“The biggest issue for me is I have to ride a horse this morning, and that’s not my deal,” said a nervous Gilliam.  “I don’t do horses.”

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