The Children of Roatan

Empathy is a quality in a human being that can cause seismic shifts. Empathy through the eyes of a child is a natural state. Empathy was present and revealed itself through the children at Minnequa Elementary in Pueblo in November, 2012.

The trip to Honduras was not exactly sanctioned by anyone, including my friend, the travel agent, who stood to make a commission off the fare. After all, Honduras had been officially designated as the murder capital of the world, which was a difficult notion for me to fathom, especially in light of all the other nations who seem to be suffering the carnage of their civilian populations because of drug infused crime and corruption. A quick link up to the State Department website confirmed this piece of information and I was also dismayed by the Peace Corps’ decision to withdraw its personnel from Honduras because of the high levels of danger.

There was a sense of relief when I researched the area to where I was headed, the island of Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras. From all indications, the government has poured in security resources to preserve the tourist industry in this poverty stricken country. The security not only consisted of an active police force, but also shotgun toting guards located at every shop or store that handled money. The closest example would be if you drove around Pueblo and saw at every store an armed guard, finger on trigger, looking like he was still in his teen years.

Roatan has the geographic distinction of sitting on the edge of the largest barrier reef outside of Australia. The scuba diving is incredible and is a year-round source of income from around the globe. This Island has been no stranger to those in the “serious” diving world, but the addition of cruise ship landings has raised the revenue worthiness of the Island to the mainland.

The political realities of Honduras and the Island are typical of many countries in the region. Roatan was a part of the British Empire and connected with British Honduras, now known as Belize. In 1859, the Island was given to the country of Honduras and the English speaking population is now under the jurisdiction of a government whose people speak Spanish.

The indigenous population has long been extinct and the current residents are a conglomeration of people who have migrated to the Island over the centuries. There are the Garifuna, who are descendants from Black Carib who fought on the side of the French and were rounded up by the English who defeated them in battles in the Windward Islands. There are also English speaking descendants of slaves from the Cayman Islands who were abandoned by the British when slavery was outlawed. Another group has also been there since the Colonial British and is related to pirates who were labeled as privateers because of a commission they received from the Empire to prey on the Spanish galleons bringing gold out of Central America. The most recent arrivals are Mainlanders, Hondurans, who speak only Spanish who thought they were escaping from the poverty and natural disasters for what they hoped would be a safe place 25 miles away. These internal divisions have paralyzed progress on the island and promoted a sense of hopelessness that is pervasive within the community.

There is no sizeable middle class. People either are living in opulent homes in tourist areas of West Bay or West End or in slums situated in the majority of the Island. Corruption runs rampant in Honduras, where even the licensing of a much needed medical facility requires extra monies to make sure the paperwork flows in a timely fashion.

How I came to be in this location is a convoluted story of the Universe setting up the right set of circumstances at the right time. Suffice to say that not following my travel agent’s advice and spending $50.00 on travel insurance was one of the influential decisions ever made in my life. Rupturing my hamstring during the YMCA Corporate cup almost three weeks before was enough to have me try to back out of going to a developing or emerging (third world) country. After hearing my pleas for travel mercy answered by an “I told you so” and the edible nature of my plane tickets, I had no alternative but to head south.

The genesis for this trip came from a chance meeting with a person I had worked with at Mineral Palace Park. She was riding her bike and I was armed with “Living Buddha Living Christ” when the conversation turned to potential missionary work. The possible options were discussed and a meeting was set with a local church leader. Soon I was given some names and pointed in a general direction to meet people I did not know and travel to a country I had never been.

The group with whom I was scheduled to meet were mostly from a Pentecostal church based in Sacramento, California. The mission on this island was composed of two groups. There were younger people who were part of an organization called Helping Children of the World. This is a christian based effort to provide support and aid to children and their families wherever in the world these may be needed. There were also some more experienced pastors to provide leadership and cement the practical relationships necessary to accomplish the goals of this exploratory trip.

Having no clue what role or purpose I would serve during this trip and less of an idea as what the term exploratory mission meant, I just offered up my service in whatever manner would be most beneficial. I was asked to serve as an interpreter during the first meeting of this trip which had been scheduled with the director of the Department of Education and his administrative staff. My Spanish was less than fluent, so breaking the ice with the director and his administration was an interesting challenge. The conversation centered around gaps in the current system which were teachers learning to speak English, stopping dropouts after 6th grade, and providing special needs children with instructors.

There were side conversations among some church members about visiting a school so I asked if we could see one. The head of the Department of Education, Dr. Maximo Castro Molina, was kind enough to set up a visit to a site which was labeled Kindergarten through 9th grade. Compulsory education in this country is only through the 6th grade. The high school is called college and there are very few private and public universities located on the mainland. The state has set certain educational standards which must be taught and created specific curriculum to achieve those goals.  The reality is that a good percentage of the children on the island do not even attend.

The school we were to visit was named El Centro de Educacion Basica Ruben Barahona and is located in a poor area named French Harbor. As we drove over a short bridge to this small barrier island, the first thing that caught my attention was the sound of children’s voices rising from behind eight foot high cement walls with fixed circular razor-sharp barbed wire. From the street you could see that there were slatted wooden windows in the rundown colonial looking buildings which we discovered later served as classrooms.

Making our way through the padlocked iron gates, we were met by a group of children running around a dirt yard with scattered cement blocks and devoid of any playground equipment. Walking towards the classrooms, it was hard to avoid slipping on areas of the yard which were green from algae growing where water would evidently stream whenever it would rain. Although I took photographs of the areas, they in no way one could ever accurately document the feel of the conditions in which these children were being educated. The majority of the children were also wearing TOMS shoes, which proved to me that at least that company lives up to its one for one pledge of sending footwear to destitute nations.

The garbage had been piled up in a couple of barrels near the stairwells for days and a swarm of bees and flies made it challenging to even go up to visit some of the sweltering classrooms located on the second floor where temperatures in midday October were already reaching 36 degrees celsius. The teacher said some children preferred to be at school because the conditions were worse at their homes. There was a safety issue in that children left at home alone while parents worked could be physically or sexually hurt by strangers, neighbors, or even family members in whose care that had been placed.

The school is not able to house all 533 children who are registered to attend during the same time period. School hours are staggered with 4thgrade through 9th attending from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. and kindergarten through 3rd from noon until 4:00 p.m. There are no facilities for special needs children and when asked what services were provided, the only discussion centered on hearing impaired children being in the same classroom. It became evident that special needs children are not served, do not go to school, and are not even seen on the streets.

All grades use the same equipment and classrooms with the older children fitting in the same stripped wooden desks and surrounded with the same classroom displays as kindergarteners. The bathroom facilities are non-existent because the funds are not available to replace broken equipment and there is not one water fountain available. Water bottles could be purchased during set times, but when one child asked for some water he was directed to a hose which was lying on the ground attached to a spigot.

Speaking to some of the children, they told me nothing different than I have heard when visiting with children in Pueblo. They loved their school and it was evident they were proud of their work as they showed me math problems neatly written in old notebooks. These children are thirsty to learn and shared their dreams about their future such as becoming teachers, pilots and soccer players.

They smiled, played and were adjusted to the realities of where they lived and what they had to do to exist. These children were no different than any others and still maintained that sense of innocence which has not lost the concepts of hope and possibilities.

In a room with steel grated windows, guarded by a heavy metal door with the only air conditioning in the entire school, sat 20 outdated computers provided by the government. The students have 40 minutes, twice a week to work, two students at a station, on their assignments. The kids were very serious about their studies and some even looked a little perturbed at these foreigners interfering with their time in the cool, clean computer lab.

The principal was proud of what they were trying to accomplish without any resources. He recognized that by thirteen, most children would drop out, losing some to pregnancy and others to drugs. There were many families that kept their children from attending at all because they were needed to help take care of an ill parent, find work, take care of siblings or forage for their daily survival.

Although the school has no costs, parents are required to buy uniforms and school supplies, the cost of which kept some children from attending. As you drive through the streets, it is heartbreaking to see the amount of children both young and older, either roaming the town, hanging around gathering places such as shops or playing in fields during schools days. The anecdotal figure provided by one organization placed enrollment at much less than 50% of the school age children on the Island. Official statistics seem to be a little dubious, so no one knows the true number.

People, no matter where in the world you may meet them, have their own story to tell. These stories may reflect experiences of an individual or as a collective group. Living in disparate conditions hampers communication and does not allow people to share their story with the world. It then becomes incumbent on others, the visitor, to share these people’s tales. The reality is that the majority of the world lives in the same conditions that exist on that one island in the Caribbean; we just tend to ignore it and go about our own lives with our own issues.

The people with whom I decided to share this story were the students and faculty of Minnequa Elementary in Pueblo. Earlier in the school year I had been contacted by Ms. Chelsea Swarbrick to give a repeat of a pep talk to kick off the assembly on reading and swear in the Student Council and Class Officers. I had been introduced to the school the year before by Minnequa alumnus, Judge Ernie Ruybalid, whose father had worked as a janitor at the school decades ago.

The year before when I spoke, the message was not going through and from the looks on their faces as I walked through the gym, they would rather be in class than listen to a guy with a black robe talk about whatever Charlie Brown parent noise was emanating from his mouth. When communicating with people in a professional capacity, the fact that you may be boring them is not so evident because of the ingrained societal norms which are based in part on self-preservation. On the other hand, when you speak to a child, this indoctrination of dishonesty has not yet come to its fruition and when they have had enough, they pretty much let you know. We really should be more like children at times.

That’s when I decided to put together a presentation which I was hoping would resound within them on some level. Throughout the visual presentation, we compared and contrasted the educational system as it existed several thousand miles away to what these Pueblo students were lucky enough to have at Minnequa. Anyone watching the faces and reactions of these local children would recognize the extraordinary human beings who attend this school.

A slide of the Minnequa playground equipment was followed by one of the algae strewn area in which the Honduran children would play. The computer lab in Pueblo contrasted starkly with the crowded shared area in Roatan, and the air-conditioned classrooms starkly contrasted to the almost 97 degree rooms coupled with humidity in which the island children worked in order complete their assignments.

Immediately afterwards, the new student council president and vice-president, two remarkable sixth grade students, approached me to ask what they could do to help. I said they would have to discuss that with their advisor, but it was evident that some seed had been planted and their young minds were going to figure out what to do. As my partner and I were leaving another child ran up to the fence and asked if he could give me money for that school. I thanked him for his generosity and told him something would be in the works.

These children then took the initiative and as part of their school wide activity organized a fundraising project for the children and a note was attached on the outside of the box stressing the importance of reading. The students, through a joint effort with their parents began to fill up this box which was located in the front office area.

Mrs. Melissa Patterson, the Principal of Minnequa, was kind enough to allow me to visit the school throughout the course of the year. There was not one time when the children at Minnequa did not discuss the school in Roatan. One young man even indicated a desire to go there and witness for himself the manner in which people survive.

The collections box had to be over 100 pounds of material ranging from erasers, to rulers and to every type of supply an elementary school aged child would need. The next question was how to get it to Roatan without it being “lost” in transit. There was the option of flying these materials to Tampa or Miami and then loaded through customs onto boats headed directly for Roatan. But when I was on the island, there were too many stories about items missing and unaccounted for which had been placed directly on a boat with no stops between U.S. soil and Honduran.

While in the process of working on the logistics with Dr. Ramos, the Universe stepped in and Pastor Steve Jones, the church contact in Roatan just happened to be in Pueblo. After loading it in a large suitcase, Steve was able to hand carry to Roatan without any of the “surcharges” such an item may carry in Honduras. The report from the Island was that grateful children were given school supplies and were thankful that there were children from a school a thousand miles away that cared.

That the student body and their parents from this school in the heart of Bessemer displayed such a willingness to give would not surprise anyone who spent any time with these children. There are programs being encouraged by the Pueblo City Schools for people in the community to find their way into the schools to mentor, provide tutoring, serve as role models, and generally guide this next generation. We all have a story or maybe even a talent to share with these children. Spending some time in a school setting would enhance not only the student’s lives but our own. We make time for the things and people we value. There is no telling what spark can ignite, just like the generous giving to complete strangers by these incredible children, which may influence and enhance the community of Pueblo and one a thousand miles away.

Judge Victor Reyes, Special to the PULP


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