Giving Service, Gaining Insight

St. Thomas staff members participate in Mission Honduras

There was an edgy excitement for our upcoming adventure. We expected challenges, both physical and emotional, requiring us to explore the essential elements that define us as individuals. However, Mission Hon-duras provided the stimulation to not only transcend our routine lives into an extraordinary experience, it also transformed our personal perspectives about who we were, what we wanted to be, and how we related to others. We (a group of 10 from St. Thomas) came to service the disadvantaged people in Honduras. We left with new insights about ourselves.

It began and ended with a bus ride. I watched in near terror as our bus sped through tight, winding mountains, passing semis chugging up the hill, our driver jerking back to our lane within inches of an oncoming car. Palm trees blended into pines with the increased elevation, homes in disrepair littered the valleys, stubborn burros loaded with firewood trudged up the steep incline, and fly-infested shacks sold coconuts, mangoes and bananas to travelers. We were no longer in St. Paul. We were now in Central America, a thousand miles from home and a hundred years from the 21st century.

An hour and a half later, we pulled onto the dirt road and through the iron gate of the mission. Barbed wire swirled like grapevines across the top of the fence. "Don’t worry," our long-term volunteer said. "Each night an armed guard is posted outside the gate. You’ll be safe." We had arrived at our destination: Mission Honduras.

My companions and I had volunteered to travel to Flores, Honduras, as a part of a VISION (Volunteers In Service Internationally Or Nationally) trip coordinated through St. Thomas Campus Ministry. VISION sponsors immersion trips in the United States, Central America, Northern Ireland and South America. The program is rooted in Catholic social teaching and based on six components: service, simplicity, spirituality, community, intercultural exchange and justice issues. UST faculty, staff and students participate in several VISION trips each year; this was the first trip to Honduras.

Each of us had personal reasons for volunteering to serve a week in Honduras. Venturing to a tropical climate in January sounded pretty good. However, giving service to others and seeking spiritual growth were certainly more prominent motivators. Also, getting outside our comfortable and familiar lives and searching for a more meaningful experience than driving in rush-hour traffic each day were additional reasons.

Our group was a cross section of the support staff at St. Thomas. It included Laurie Dimond, Theology; Tina Kuechle, Minneapolis campus administration; Jill Leither, Child Development Center; Jason Moldan, Computing Services; Tom Prein, O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center; Nate Rolloff, Human Resources; Tim Schindler, Graduate Programs in English; Bill Schmitt, School of Continuing Studies student (and my husband); and Jenny Schmitt, Development. Together we had volunteered to sell concessions at the Xcel Energy Center to raise funds for our trip. We also contributed personal donations to the mission.

The Rev. Emil Cook, O. F. M. Conv., an American missionary who began his work in Honduras in 1970, continues a tireless commitment to the mission. We were fortunate to have Father Emil take us on a tour of the many mission sites throughout the country. His short, stout physique, balding head and twinkling blue eyes reminded me of Santa Claus. Kindness radiated from his smile, assuring me that poverty and despair could not diminish his dreams of serving these children.

Father Emil explained how working with several former students, now university graduates, the Honduran corporation known as APUFRAM was established to provide academic and spiritual education to the poor children of Honduras (83 percent of Hondurans don’t receive an education beyond the third grade). The goal of Mission Honduras is to provide American financial and personnel support for APUFRAM, whose goal is to teach the poor "how to fish" instead of simply providing a fish.

His voice boomed a half-pitch higher as he shared his strongly held convictions. Only through self-sufficiency can Hondurans help themselves out of the long cycle of poverty. He wanted to be certain we understood the difference between simply giving something to alleviate a short-term need, and giving something that would end the cycle of need and extend improved conditions for generations to come.

Currently, APUFRAM consists of two elementary schools, two orphanages, six high schools, a trade school and university housing. APUFRAM/ Mission Honduras has educated thousands of young Hondurans who are now helping their communities with such things as agriculture, business, engineering, medicine and teaching.

Our group lived at the mission for eight days, serving the mission, learning more about the rich culture of the Honduran people and, most importantly, meeting the children who benefit from the mission’s work.

Relieved to have arrived in Flores safely, we hauled our bags into the one-level, stark, concrete building and down the corridor to our rooms, one for men and one for women. Three sets of bunkbeds huddled together to form our sleeping quarters, with a tiny bathroom off to one side. I didn’t worry about the men, but five women sharing this scant bathing facility could present challenges. The shower was a protruding pipe from the concrete wall. A quick turn of the red stopper released a drizzle of cold water to moisten your skin. Also, our standards for sanitation were challenged as no tissue was allowed to be flushed in the toilet, and septic smell permeated the room. However, we reminded ourselves that 80 percent of the homes in Honduras had no running water and even more had no electricity. We agreed we were grateful for indoor water (although the water was frequently shut down) and plumbing. And we had minimal electricity — one dim light bulb in each room.

The mission had a blend of long- and short-term volunteers from America and local Honduran workers who were hired to fill various needs at the mission. Our cooks, Sophia and Lydia, came each day at 6 a.m. and those awake for morning Mass were greeted with smells of fried corn bread and coffee. I spoke no Spanish and they spoke no English, but I’d rub my stomach, smile broadly and mutter sounds of delight to express my appreciation for their work. "Buenos, buenos," I stuttered. They returned my smiles warmly and nodded politely. Challenges of language were eased with the drama of exaggerated arm gestures and the genuine willingness to try.

We gathered together for each meal, grateful for the food, glad to share each other’s company, and feeling blest to have this experience. Meals were often black beans, tortillas and scrambled eggs served family style. Drinking water was stored in a double plastic barrel, disinfected with a strong dose of chlorine bleach because the bacteria in the water usually caused dysentery. Armed with malaria pills and the inoculations against typhus and tetanus we had before leaving the United States, we were prepared against diseases foreign to our immune system.

Work details were given to us each day by a retired schoolteacher from Maine who volunteers at the mission. Dan rose at dawn, facing too much work, with too few resources. We hoped to help him, even just a little. Hopping on the local bus system — an orange school bus, jammed with people who kindly offered a corner of their seats to us — we arrived at the King Pollo restaurant, owned by the mission, and next door to the abandoned women’s shelter. We spent several days at this site, cleaning, painting and shoveling gravel.

We worked hard. But we also began to share ourselves and form friendships. Scrubbing grit from a chair, we spoke of our own dreams and struggles, we gave comfort to each other when needed, and humor to ease the fear of disclosure of personal information. The VISION component of community was not only the distant community of our trip, but also the community of our traveling companions.

We returned from work detail to Sophia and Lydia chatting in the kitchen and smells of onion and garlic spilling onto the patio. Some of us attended the Liturgy of the Hours, while others journaled and read in quiet reflection. As the only non-Catholic there, I initially was shy about my blend of Lutheran and Eastern beliefs, but I felt comfortable after the first day. Our group was not judgmental; we were all there for the same purpose. My husband and I started each morning with our daily spiritual readings of Dalai Lama meditations and reflections on simplicity and kindness to others, lessons on living with a compassionate heart.

Prayer and reflection were an essential component of the trip and of VISION. Each evening our group gathered in the mission garden to read spiritual passages, sing songs and relate events of the day. We took this time to examine ourselves and our reactions to what we had seen and done. We hoped to gain a better understanding of how to apply these lessons to our lives when we returned home. Some made private observations of their feelings, while others courageously shared themselves with the group, each of us touched in a profound way.

Ask any of us, and we would agree that playing with the children was the highlight of the trip. Giggles would erupt from a half dozen preschoolers when we laid down our paint brushes at the abandoned women’s shelter and tossed a child high in the air, threw a ball to small, outstretched hands or pushed kids on the swing. Laughter of children is a universal language that touches the true nature of our hearts. We delighted in sharing these moments.

The next day we visited the boys’ orphanage. These children — many involved in glue sniffing and theft — were picked up off the streets of Tegucigalpa. They ranged in age from 9 to 14. Some had eyes filled with sorrow, others were tough beyond their years, but underneath, they were all scared and vulnerable — wanting attention, needing love. We were easily persuaded to play "futbol" or soccer. Running up the field, kicking the ball, we were soon outnumbered 3-to-1 and resorted to tickling and hugging to gain an advantage. We slapped "high-fives" and showed "thumbs-up" to the boys as they swiped the ball from under our feet. It was only an afternoon of soccer for them, but it will be a lifetime memory for us.

Our sightseeing excursion included a trip to the mission retreat on the Caribbean Sea, giving us a few hours to play tourist: tossing a Frisbee, finding seashells. A tour of the open-air markets of fresh produce and cheap denim in Comayagua contrasted dramatically with the high-tech cyber-café where the volunteers checked e-mails from home. A stroll through Flores had roosters cackling at the cattle that roamed the streets with us.

The week felt like months removed from the familiar; yet it was over so fast. We threw our bags in the van, gathered for photos and hugs of farewell, and headed back to the Tegucigalpa airport. We no longer feared the near-death driving of Honduras, nor found the landscape unusual. Of course, this was all the same. We had changed. We had learned the true meaning of service (giving to others what they need, not what you think they need) and sharing. Giving of yourself and your financial resources can make a difference. We had found new insights into ourselves and our world. It was our challenge now to return home and live life differently as a result of this experience.

Once I was asked why I worked at St. Thomas. After a moment, I replied, "I think I will be a better person for having worked here." Participating in opportunities like this VISION trip, I know this statement is true. 

Elizabeth A. Schmitt is marketing director at St. Thomas.