Saturday, August 18, 2012

Turn around and there's another worthy project

Classroom windows at Copan's largest school
Want a project? I've got a thousand of them. Something about being a gringa in a country for whom gringo-ness summons images of money just seems to bring people running with ideas for how you can help.
And they're great ideas. I visited Escuela Juan Ramon Cueva in Copan Ruinas the other day and had to agree with the teacher that the place really could use a little gringo attention. A thousand students attend the school every day, and all that wear and tear is taking its toll. The roof is falling in on a couple of classrooms, and the big tin techo that shelters the courtyard where the kids play is riddled with holes and broken bits.
It would cost about $1,500 to put a new roof over the courtyard. That's nothing for a visiting group of Americans or Canadians looking to do a good deed, which is how much of the school got built in the first place. (A Rotary Club plaque hangs outside the bathrooms.)
Not long before this classroom ceiling collapses
But for the school, $1,500 is completely out of reach. There's just no place to get that money in Honduras - no government grants, no foundations, no culture of hitting up the wealthy for a big donation. I guess that's why a gringa can't go anywhere without someone hauling her off to see something in a terrible state of disrepair and then mentioning hey, if she knows anybody who might like to help....
After visiting the school I had this brilliant idea about a matchmaking service that connected volunteers from developed countries to small projects in places like Honduras. But then I went on Google and discovered that there are already several dozen such services, pitching equally worthy projects in all the hungry countries of the world.
Still, there's clearly more matchmaking to be done. If the biggest school in this region is reduced to pitching a passing stranger who's just there to admire the concrete work in the bathrooms, there still must be a lot of gaps in the process of connecting willing volunteers from developed countries with worthy projects in distant lands.
A striking number of  volunteer missions come to Honduras from the U.S. and Canada. The "Missions Calendar" featured by Honduras Weekly lists 26 groups from the U.S. alone that are coming to the country to do various good deeds between now and the end of the year. Some will provide medical and dental care; others will build things or share the word of God.
And those are just the missions that got it together to submit their listings to the on-line newspaper. The little non-profit I work for has already had two teams of U.S. volunteers come down for projects since I arrived in January, and another one is coming in November.
The first mission kicked off a major water project in La Cumbre. The second provided desperately needed veterinarian services for the livestock of subsistence farmers. The third will build 50 fuel-efficient wood cooking stoves for some of the poorest families in the country.
Great projects. But could there ever be enough international missions for all the things that need done? My sense is that there's a whole lot of untapped individual goodness in wealthy countries that could be directed toward small projects in the developing world with just a little more coordination. A little bit of time and money from comparatively affluent volunteers  goes a long, long way in poor countries.
And variety? I suspect that whatever strikes your fancy, there's a project that fits.
I've had people pitch me on reroofing a school; sponsoring their child to attend private school;  finding desks; installing bathrooms; redoing a classroom floor; organizing a water project for families in an isolated Copan barrio; building a new house for a hard-scrabble family of five; and buying $5 water jugs so villagers had something to fetch clean water in.
The woman next door is counting on me to buy  more of her handmade jewelry so her family can replace the house that the bank took. Another acquaintance just cut to the chase and asked if I'd give her family $60 every month so life wouldn't be so hard.
As the new gringa in town, all I can do is hear people out and pick the projects most likely to have impact while also being manageable for me and my supporters back home. But I still feel bad every time I see the guy who pitched me on the water project for his barrio. And I would love to be able to hook up the director of Escuela Juan Ramon Cueva with someone who could get her roof project done.
Maybe you? Call me.

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