Rotarians offer ‘Service Above Self’ in Honduras

Jan. 24 through Feb. 1, while northern Ohio was enduring its typical wintry weather, two officers of Tiffin’s Rotary Club were in San Pedro Sula, Honduras; however, their Central American trip was no vacation. They were part of a team of 11 Rotarians on a service mission. Keith Hodkinson and Gina Reuter of Tiffin joined with Rotary Club members from Swanton, Elyria, Bellevue, Bryan and Bucyrus for the trip.

During a recent Rotary meeting at Pioneer Mill, members heard a follow-up about the trip, complete with a slide show. Hodkinson introduced his guests, Bill Pepple of Bryan and Shawn McGhee and Colin McQuade of Swanton, who were part of the team. McGhee, the facilitator for the team, has made 10 trips to Honduras, so Hodkinson invited him to give an overview of the conditions the volunteers experienced in the areas they visited and worked.

“From the first time we went down there eight years ago to now, it’s become a lot cleaner. I can’t say it’s a lot safer. It just seems safer,” McGhee said.

Rotarians from San Pedro met the Ohio contingent at the airport and helped them get through customs. During the week, the local club members served as escorts and drivers. McGhee said he carried a cell phone with a file of numbers to contact one of the escorts or authorities. McGhee referred to slides of the team arriving at the airport and described the chaotic scene.

“There are no car rental agencies at the airport. There’s just people – families. We were greeted by, I believe, 15 Rotarians from this particular club,” he said. “We had taken 22 duffles of clothes – all the T-shirts that you collected plus shoes, plus tools, plus all this other stuff that we took down.”

The Ohio team had planned to do some construction work on a school in the mountains, but a week before departure, McGhee learned the group needed to choose another project. Heavy rains had triggered mudslides that washed out the only road leading to the school; therefore, the team focused on making improvements at La Casa De La Nina Orphanage. Situated in the city, it houses 15 females ages 7 to 26.

Five clubs had donated $3,000 each and the district for those clubs provided a grant for $10,000. That gave the team a budget of $25,000. Those funds were sent to Rotary officials in Honduras with a portion set aside for the school. The Ohio volunteers paid their own airfare, lodging, food and other expenses.

At the orphanage, the team built an interior wall, painted and did a variety of repairs, including a fix for the water system. McGhee said two or three girls always were on hand to help the volunteers.

“They wanted us to make their home better, and that was probably the most rewarding part of the trip,” he said.

The workers tried to stay under-budget as much as possible and use the extra money for “little extras” for the girls. McGhee said some individuals with no connection to Rotary also made contributions for this purpose. One of those extras came at the request from the Casa staff. They said the girls had gone without shoes, school uniforms and school supplies for the last three years.

“We had a meeting and decided this was something we had to do,” McGhee said. “We took all the girls to the mall.”

Reuter led the shopping to help the girls pick out what they needed. The total cost was about $3,000, with Rotarian escorts making a sizable donation for these purchases.

At that point, Reuter came forward to speak about her role as the only female volunteer in the service mission. She appreciated the generosity and fellowship with the local Rotarians, who really seemed to understand “what Rotary is all about.” She also made special connections with the staff and residents at La Casa De La Nina.

“When I went into the orphanage, my first concern was the kitchen area. It was in really poor condition. The place was functional, but it needed a lot of work,” Reuter said. “They didn’t have cleaning supplies. They didn’t have a lot of extra food supplies, so they saved everything they could.”

Insects and rodents had gotten into food that had been stored, and some of the shelves and bins had foul-smelling fragments of spoiled food. Reuter said the staff and the girls helped her remove everything from the pantry and refrigerator. The team bought cleaning supplies to sanitize everything. Reuter said she wondered how the staff would react to a stranger invading their domain. She didn’t want to insult or offend anyone, especially the cook.

“I couldn’t speak Spanish to her, so we had to work through that,” Reuter said.

After spending a whole day working on the kitchen, Reuter pointed out a bank of cupboards she wanted to tackle the next day. When she returned in the morning, the cook and the girls had completed that project. Reuter was relieved to see their cooperation.

“From that point on, even though we didn’t speak the same language, we were on the same page. We went in and started from the bottom up, cleaning everything out, and the girls were helping us every step of the way,” Reuter said.

Then the women went shopping for new food bins and staples to restock the kitchen. Reuter was pleased with the cook’s practical selections.

“She stretched that money as far as she possibly could,” Reuter said.

After working all day, the local Rotarians would invite team members to dinner. One of the hosts said he watched how the girls were observing Reuter as she took charge of various tasks and interacted with the male team members. Reuter said the men always were respectful and willing to help with things she wasn’t able to do alone.

“It was a great relationship … and I really appreciated them doing that,” Reuter said.

Hodkinson recalled hearing many of the girls calling out Gina’s name. He also commended Pepple and McQuade for bonding with the orphans.

“They had more fun with these girls. They interacted with these girls like they were kids again, and the girls loved working with them,” Hodkinson said.

He reported Tiffin residents provided 578 T-shirts in good condition for Reuter and him to distribute. Hodkinson said he was able to draw on his experiences with a thrifty relative who “saved everything” and taught him to make do with whatever tools and materials are available.

The orphanage had four toilets, but only two were functional. His first assignment was to get them all working. Next, the team focused on fixing the wiring and plumbing from the cistern.

“They have water from the city that comes in, and it goes on and off periodically. It’s not like here, where it’s on all the time,” Hodkinson said. “Their pump hasn’t worked for over a year, so when the water went off, they had no water to use, and there was a pipe that was broken.”

One of the guys had done electrical work, so he took care of the pump, while Hodkinson was able to fix the pipe to get the system running again. Then, they turned their attention to smoothing out a concrete floor in the dining area. It was littered with bits of mortar that had not been cleaned up after a block wall was built. Muriatic acid is commonly used for those kinds of jobs, but the chemical was not available in the city. Hodkinson substituted vinegar and made it work. He said the team had to get creative when they could not obtain the ideal materials or tools.

The window screens were another project. Hodkinson said they were layered with dirt, obstructing the view and the air flow. The team removed the screens and went on a “three-hour mission” to find screening, line and a tool to apply it. They stopped at eight hardware stores to get everything for the job. Hodkinson said San Pedro Sula is known as the most dangerous city in the world, so foot travel is risky. Most of the locals carry some kind of weapon, which Hodkinson said offered a strange feeling of safety.

“The first thing you notice is firearms everywhere. Sawed-off shotguns, automatic weapons – everywhere you look, whether you’re walking into a True Value hardware store … or standing in the hotel,” Hodkinson said. “It’s just part of life there, but those people are some of the sweetest, most down-to-earth, most caring group of individuals I have ever met in my life.”

The local Rotarians also drove some of the Ohioans to the Mayan ruins at Copan. As they traveled along a jagged road, Hodkinson said, his guide pointed out the mansions of drug cartel officials. When they came to a checkpoint, all the car windows had to be lowered for inspection. At the ruins, Hodkinson had to get permission for a picture of himself with one of the young guards carrying a gun almost as long as the soldier was tall. Hodkinson said Copan is the top tourist attraction in Honduras, but drug trade in the area is the reason for the abundance of weapons and other security measures.

Although Hodkinson has been a Rotarian for years, he said this trip gave him more insight on the global nature of Rotary International and the projects it funds to save lives. The organization is known for its community projects, but the local chapter also contributes to causes beyond Tiffin. Rotary’s motto is “Service Above Self.” Hodkinson said he saw tears from the girls when the team departed because Rotary’s efforts had made a significant impact on them.

“This has changed my life,” Hodkinson said. “I highly encourage every one of you, if you can, in the future, if we do this again, I hope that you will all take the opportunity to do this. This will change your perspective on what is important in your life.”

To conclude the program, McGhee took a few questions from Tiffin Rotary members. He told them the largest team he had taken to Honduras was 19 people, but that number was difficult to monitor and transport. For a question about the many weapons, McGhee explained Honduras is a refueling stop for air traffic between Mexico and South America. The drug cartels have built numerous landing strips in the rugged terrain. Most ordinary citizens know the locations and keep their distance from drug-related sites.

“You’re dealing with a third-world country that is strictly corrupt and has been corrupt for quite some time,” McGhee said. “Every day, we went in and evaluated the situation. We sent another group to the hardware store. We went to the hardware store every day.”

Drug traders rarely pay attention to schools, where Rotary does the majority of its construction projects, McGhee added. The tools and supplies the teams bring down are left behind for the area residents. Hodkinson said he knew of one young man who used a saw to find employment and earn income to support his family.

Before departing from the orphanage, the volunteers brought in pizza and dance music for a party. McGhee said the girls were so excited they decorated the hall and made signs in English. One of them read “Thank you for the attention.” Most of the team was on the dance floor with the girls doing the hokey pokey and the chicken dance. One member was in the computer room wrapping up another project.

“His whole week was spent on taking six broken computers and creating five computers with working Internet. That is very important, because it opens the world,” McGhee said.

In May or June, McGhee plans to return to Honduras for the dedication of the school in the mountains that was not accessible in January. Other groups are working to finish it. He also plans to visit an organic coffee plantation in Copan. From his many trips, McGhee has learned to be more respectful of the culture and more resourceful in procuring what is needed for each project.

“We have to check our ‘ugly American’ at the door. They have different ways of doing things,” he said.