Honduras Trip Report – December 2019
From: Charles Miller
My trip to El Rosario, and surrounding communities, presented a number of challenges, as well as a number of interesting opportunities. Below please find an outline of both. I should preface these remarks by noting that upon my arrival “the valley” was in the grip of a dengue fever outbreak which had put as many as 30 students in bed – some for up to 4 weeks- while killing two young men in the village. There seem to be a pallor in the community, and justifiably so. The trip was also marked by four emergency trips to the hospital in one week (birth, broken foot, epilepsy, and acute dengue fever). More about this later in the report.
This has been a trying year for the school. Two of our best teachers left after not getting paid for over a year and a half by the government. Their departure put a heavy burden on the remaining four teachers, which in turn affected the quality of overall student life. For the first time, we are facing a drop in student enrollment, from a high a few years ago of 107 to possibly 87. Some of this is a product of a very small entering 7th grade, as well as the usual turmoil with parents moving for better wages. Dionisio and I did have a number of meetings with students and parents, and I will return in mid-January to continue to recruit students while encouraging those enrolled to continue. The good news is that Blanca, Director of the SAT program has promised us six teachers for the upcoming year. And I in turn have promised that I can find another 10 students to enroll by the beginning of the school year, February 1st. Also, I believe I stabilized those thinking about dropping out, while explaining that the loss of their teachers was temporary, that all schools go through “slides,” and that constancy and continuity will prevail. I believe I have a promise from Blanca to provide teachers who are already getting paid, and therefor will not be encouraged to leave mid-term. There were lots of good encounters with the students, and I believe my presence assured them, and more importantly their parents, that the ship will be righted.
One reason for my optimism is an excellent relationship with Blanca,. Jorge, and Mr. Green, the national head of the SAT program (which has devised the rural school curriculum we use, as well as the teacher training regimen). Our school is far and away the most endowed in turns of materials, campus characteristics, and scholarships (everyone!).
This January I will travel to La Ceiba with plans to cement our relations. Scholarships, a girls’ dorm, teacher contracts, the domiciling of kids from “away” in ER…. there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. The following are school related items of various importance…
- We started our first work study program by providing work in the
library, which will pay for, in this case, Andrea Mejias to attend
nursing school on weekends.
- From now on we will pay for our own librarians, and while the
government is officially responsible for their salaries, it is no
longer worth the hassle, or the constant visits to city hall, or the
year long wait. This will add $4,000 to our budget. as mentioned, but
by turning it into work study, we are in effect providing a
scholarship to a particularly wonderful girl of very modest means.
- The fence materials are in place, just waiting for the school year
to end. Cosmetically, a big improvement, but also a much needed
security barrier (cows, pigs, chickens, boyfriends, etc.)
- The food program continues successfully. Students from the most far
flung villages continue to get free breakfast and lunch, while half of
the cantina sells snacks to kids with some “spending loot.”
- The six cherries are now the five stars, and our nascent “NHS”
program is taking root. Besides wrapping graduation gifts, we picked
up litter, taught each other how to tell fortunes, and set up a
cosmetics retail program that should provide additional revenue for
the school’s extracurriculars.
- The English and computer classes taught at the community center (
which TCI built) have been a big success, with over a hundred youth
and young adults graduating from the programs last week.
- WIFI has finally made it to the school library, which has vastly
accelerated the access to knowledge, and to contacts outside the
valley ( i.e. the USA).
- We have arranged for a much tighter relationship between the
kindergarten teacher and the librarians- Andrea will be critical
here-in hopes the youngest kids will use our materials more readily.
This trip affirmed the necessity of getting a pickup for the village. Frankly, I’m not sure how these folks get by without one, or what exactly they would have done in the case of the emergencies mentioned above. This is a “big ticket” item, and while not exactly within our mission, lives would be saved (often young ones) from snake bites, uncontrolled fever, early deliveries, epileptic attacks, and the like.
Patty has been indispensable for the past ten years. She has not, however, been able to work these past two trips, and as is so often the case, her replacement – Allesandra Turtari – did a terrific job in her stead. Patty, for all her strengths as a note taker, accountant, translator lacks a sense of humor or play, and I believe, acts as sort of a barrier between me and our constituencies. Allesandra, on the other hand, is very funny, out going, charming, and seriously smart. All took to her immediately: Fanny, Maria, Gloria, Napo, Ronis, Nelson, and Dionisio…If Allesandra can find time from her regular job, she will be a worthy replacement. This will be a most difficult conversation with Patty… but the reality is she has gotten “old” on the job, and that the village, and myself, need a more uplifting presence who can do a better job of representing TCI’s interests in the valley. Allesandra has a great feel for kids – who glommed to her, would be willing to visit, and stay, in the village without me… something Patty won’t do, and which is becoming highly problematic with my getting older. I’ll have to make this decision before the January trip.
I was disappointed, but not disheartened, that the well – at 61′ – was still without water. This means additional cost with every foot dug over 50′. Ivan, the well digger, is positive of the water – just a matter of at what cost – but at this point you must continue digging. We discussed water flow, acres covered, as well as homes -and Ivan was convincing in that he’s never not found water. “Patience,” he kept saying. When water is discovered, it will be enough to “flood” much of the tillage, as well as enough water to serve all the homes in El Rosario. Again, the well was a stop gap against continued droughts, but it also provides the opportunity for cash crops (cucumbers, peppers, melons, tomatoes, etc.), and the prospect of year round work for those involved. When water is found – hopefully this week – we’ll tile the well, and start looking into pumps, generators, holding tanks and the like. We believe we can energize all this through solar power (it’s being done nearby). One interesting opportunity the well produces is this: nearby is a 7,200 sqm field which has proven too rocky to support hard wood trees. There is increasing pressure building from migrants from The States returning home who have some money, but who can not find suitable land to build on. We can probably fit ten lots on this property, and with solar and water provided e should be able to raise enough money to pay back the cost of the property, while also funding a community center which would solely be the use of the townspeople ( marriages, wakes, dances, town councils, etc.). The elders have been asking for this for a long time, I’d like to be able to do it for them…Of course, more families means more kids for the school.
3/4 of the coffee harvest was lost to fungus caused by drought. I have agreed to replant those trees dead with a more robust, drought resistant plant from Brazil. It will be another decade, perhaps, before this investment is recouped, but meanwhile the poorest families (those without their own land) continue work on the coffee plantation making a meager, but much needed pay. If I were to factor in wages given out, then over the last four years… it’s been a good investment… if not a money making one. Hopefully we’ll be up and running in two years , looking for a return of 5-7% on top of salaries handed out.
Old Greek Proverb:
“Villages prosper when old men plant trees under whose shade they’ll never sit.”
I’ll be long gone when these tress are harvested. Out of 5,000 tress planted 2,600 mahogany trees made it, and all 600 teak trees. At today’s price, these trees would be extremely valuable… but no one knows commodity prices 15 years from now. At the very least, the trees should produce enough money to sustain the school and the communities well into the future. And as pointed out before, the care of the trees provides much needed income to those who are landless.
Challenges present opportunities. I came home from this trip more enthused to return than any time in the past three years. Big issues have to be decided. The school needs my undivided attention for the next six months. We have the foundation to become not only a good school, but a very good school. Everything in a valley this size is deeply personal – familial: provide an education, and a degree; provide work and an income; provide possibilities for those who want to go, those who want to say. The bottom line is that we have 15 grads – mostly boys – working in the textile factories , and sending money home; we have three girls in nursing school, and two more in the police and army. None of these jobs were available without a h.s. diploma… and of course the English and computer studies help as well. And while one can’t be naive about the challenges ahead, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the future of these young people. One simply doesn’t know where the leaders of tomorrow are going to come from… all one can do is provide the platform, and reason for hope. So far sogood.
- Follow up with Engineers without Borders ( Dan Saulnier) – investigate co-ordinated plan to refurbish the town holding tank, and (ancient) pipes carrying water through the town. Plan to build a holding tank in the mountains above Dionisio’s property- with intention of flooding lower fields (Dan will survey this site next week).
- Do full soil assessment for cash crops and best nutrients to build new strains of corn and beans.
- Look into buying a used truck, probably through Hertz or Avis in San Pedro.
- Visit La Ceiba: talk with Mr. Green regarding girls’ dormitory, loans to teachers, and scholarship program for top students, people.
- Assess flow from well #1. Determine reach, cost of irrigation pipes per farmer. Investigate solar energy in Yoro
- Purchase 5,000 coffee plants to replace those too damaged to survive. Investigate mixing in cacao with the coffee.
- Do a full assessment of hunger in the villages within our purview. Come up with actionable plan to address hunger.
- Continue the solar light distribution program.
- Make sure food program is fully funded (it is!), and that all have access to food, even if they can not physically get to ER.
- Provide plenty of time in January for full recruitment blitz- aim for 100 kids matriculating.
- Work with mothers in ER to provide room and board for students from away.
- Seriously consider developing fallow TCI land for housing for returning migrants. Contemplate the shared cost of building much needed community center.
- Do cost benefit analysis of another direct giving program.
- Continue to build library, refurbish computers, manage wifi access, and evolve into more user friendly environment for the smallest kids.
- Aggressively work with SAT to provide not only tenured teachers, but inspiring ones.
- Encourage Allesandra to take an active role in Honduras/TCI. Provide a transition for her and Patty.
- Complete fence around school.
- POSSIBLY, look into planting more land if the water projects succeed.
- Make sure all extant programs: scholarships, books, uniforms, stipends librarians, food distribution, tutoring are fully funded.
- Grow the NHS into a more robust program- more members, more responsibilities.
- Investigate CERV (again) in hopes of providing trade school education to the kids who may elect to drop out of school. Another reason why the truck is so important ( transport to and from school)
- Come up with creative plan to find work for Delmar, Herson, Jhonny, and others who can’t leave ( courage, contacts, confidence) in the valley, perhaps by providing land for them to work…
- Continue to bring down cosmetics (the Dollar Store!!!) which kids can sell to raise money for the school. Look into other money making policies (baking lessons…talk to Nellie about a baking school). And cosmetology school…
- Determine water pressure and size of tank to irrigate as much as 400,000 sqms.