By Andy Manthei
There are some things that I will never understand about this culture, I thought to myself as I was dragged from the shower after a long days work in the blistering heat of San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
At first, I thought the kids were seeking vengeance for my having chased them around the job site (with a live tarantula in hand) earlier that day while laughing incessantly. I quickly learned, however, that the kids were trying to protect me from myself.
They began to explain to me, through a translator, that if I were to take a shower after being in the heat of the sun all day, my bones would become brittle and fracture which would clearly lead to paralysis. After an hour of debating the absurdity of their claim, which was unanimously taken for fact by all the Hondurans, I went to bed showerless and bewildered.
A GRINGO HEADS SOUTH
How did I find myself in this situation? Who are these kids? How did they end up here? And why were they so eager to save me, a gringo whom they barely knew, from the clutches of that horrific shower?
It all started a few years ago when my father got involved with Orphan Helpers. Orphan Helpers is a faith-based non-governmental organization that partners with the government of Honduras to help some of the most neglected and abused kids in the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It provides teachers and preachers in state-run orphanages and detention centers.
After graduating from Petoskey High School in 2008, I went on to college at Michigan State University with little vision for my future. In high school, I had won several power-lifting competitions across the state and played football, but somehow I felt empty inside and void of the meaning and purpose that I wanted in my life. When my dad asked me if I wanted to travel to Honduras over spring break in 2011, I said yesseeking adventure and an escape from the frigid conditions of East Lansing.
We spent a week traveling with Orphan Helpersvisiting the facilities and meeting the kids. I also had a chance to meet the executive director of Orphan Helpers and we hatched a plan to start a weight lifting program for the kids. I returned to MSU with more than just a suntanI returned with a fire burning inside me to help these warehoused throw away kids become the leaders that will change the course of the country.
In May, I boarded a plane to embark on a seven-week stint in Honduras.
My task? Join forces with three former teenage criminals to help transform a decrepit, abandoned government facility into a school and vocational training centerand to teach the boys to lift weights.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
On the outskirts of the city of San Pedro Sula lies a government compound that was abandoned nine years prior to my arrival. Just beyond the 20-foot wall that surrounds the perimeter of the site, a mountain teeming with life within the shacks that have sprung up across its face looms as a constant reminder of where hundreds of kids would end up if we didnt continue to pursue our goals.
Orphan Helpers has chosen to renovate these discarded facilities and breathe life into a school that has the potential to house and educate 450 children. This area has been affectionately named Genesis and it will be a new beginning for the throw-away children of Honduras. Genesis will be a stepping stone for kids who graduate from the orphanages and detention centers and desire greater education to obtain a life they had never thought possible.
CRIMINALS NO MORE
In the past, three 18 to 20-year-old men at Genesis had lived on the streets as criminals. With the aid of Orphan Helpers, these young men, who had been convicted of murder, rape and extortion in their pasts, made a transformation of their lives.
Saul, Oscar, and Gerson have served sentences for their crimes but have still chosen to stay with Orphan Helpers to renovate a school that will impact thousands of lives when finished. I lived with them in an old, beaten-down administration building for seven weeks, and I couldnt have felt safer living with anyone else.
Gerson, the tallest of the three, always has a broad smile streaking across his face. Excitable, playful, and caring, it is hard to imagine that he was once part of a team that specialized in organized crime.
Gerson told me of a few of the crimes he had committed. Stealing cars became second-nature to himat one point he successfully stole the contents of an armored vehicle after neutralizing the driver.
Eventually he moved on to kidnapping and holding his victims for a hefty ransombecoming a professional criminal at the age of 15. One day, however, his life took a drastic turn. Gerson and his team kidnapped a victim and were holding the hostage in a building. He stayed there that night and went to sleep. Hours later, he awoke to gun shots. He ran out the back door, but was met by a group of men in police uniform who beat him to the ground until he was unconscious.
Gerson awoke in a moving vehicle with his hands bound, and quickly realized he was not in a cop car. He learned that he had kidnapped a person related to a drug cartel, and was ambushed by a group under the employ of the cartel that were dressed in cop uniforms to fool the public into thinking they had made a drug bust. Who would call the cops if the cops were already there?
The driver was debating with the man in the passenger seat where he should dump Gersons body outside the city after he had executed him. Yet something was watching over my friend Gerson that night, and the men ditched him outside of a police station.
Gerson was later convicted and sent to a corrections facility next door to Genesis where he met some of the Orphan Helpers staff and decided to turn his life around.
Constructing a weight room was designated as my priority by the executive director of Orphan Helpers because it would give the boys a masculine activity to master that would break up their day from the usual work, eat, work, sleep schedule. I was to teach Gerson how to perform the routines so that he could in turn train the boys in Genesis to lift weights and keep the system going after I returned to the States.
Lifting weights, however, didnt translate culturally as I thought it would. As I began to teach the boys routines with dozens of different lifts and exercises, I found that each boy seldom did the movements they didnt enjoy and only performed their favorite lifts. Eventually they quit doing the lifts they didnt enjoy altogether.
Saul, for example, could spend all day performing the over-head military press. He found hoisting the bar over his head to be a quite masculine and enjoyable activity, and despite my explaining to him thoroughly how lifting weights isnt about performing one exercise all day, it remained difficult to get him to follow a routine.
THE RENOVATION PROCESS
As a team, our primary objective was to renovate the existing buildings to prepare Genesis for the first swarm of students looking to attend classes. These first students would be from the orphanage up the street called Nueva Esperanza (New Hope). Here, over 120 children are locked inside a walled, cramped one-acre plot.
All of the children are enthusiastic about the opportunity to leave this cage as I have come to call it, and will exit the facility through a door we installed and access the classrooms by a sidewalk an American team helped us build.
Clearing nearly a decade worth of dust, trash and termite-infested equipment along with fixing the leaking roof was no small task, particularly in over 100 degree weather. Lack of supplies and insufficient funds proved to be detrimental to our goals, not to mention the language barrier that existed between me and the boys during complex tasks.
As an example of my troubles with Spanish, I recall playing basketball with the boys the first few days I was in Honduras. The boys always passed me the ball, even when I motioned that it was their turn to shoot. For some unknown reason, I thought that the word for turn (as in, its your turn) was vaca in Spanish.
I ignored their bewildered expressions and continued to use the term until a translator showed up. It turns out the word vaca means cow.
If it is difficult to play games with a language barrier, it is nearly impossible to piece together an ancient pump in order to supply enough pressure to get a power-washer working to clean the roof of a school.
Despite all of this, we finished the first two classrooms along with supplying a weight-room, clearing acres of overgrown vegetation and constructing a sidewalk in just seven weeks.
But in all honesty we have only scratched the surface on the work that has yet to be accomplished. Multiple dorms, a cafeteria, another school building, a clinic and several other structures lie in disrepair across the 10 acres of this walled-in campus.
The boys I lived with told stories of redemption from the streets, but there are many more stories of love and devotion that are just as striking. I met a brother and sister by the names of Roberto and Grisselle. Both are college-age students living in an urban area of the city with their parents Erin (Aaron) and Norma, a little fireball of a sister named Noreen. The whole family is heavily involved in charitable work and share an incredible love for their country and their people.
Roberto and Grisselle came to the Genesis center on multiple occasions to volunteer their time and to translate for clueless Americans like myself. They are passionate about Orphan Helpers because they see the results they are having on the lives of orphans, former street kids and criminals in need of a second chance.
Roberto, along with his friends, are in the beginning stages of starting a new charity called Creere (Believe) that will help feed the children in the poorest communities of Honduras. Many mothers, when they realize they cant afford to feed their children, hand their kids over to the government-run orphanages where they know they will at least be fed.
Roberto aims to stop the problem at the source by sending food to these mothers in need before they ever put their children in the government system. He is enabling mothers to keep their children, and in doing so he is saving the kids from a lifetime of mistreatment in orphanages and on the streets.
THE MOUNTAIN VILLAGE
Grisselle, on the other hand, is a nursing student involved in medical brigades across the country.
One day, I found myself having ridden on horseback up a steep mountain trail to a small village composed primarily of storm-beaten shacks. I recall there being an unusually high population of dogs, malnourished and scrawny as they were, fighting ravenously throughout the center of town. Amongst this seemingly chaotic scene, the people went about their day as if nothing out of the usual was happening.
It was here that Grisselle introduced me to many of the people she and her teams have helped on trips to this area. I met a woman high-up in this mountain village outside the town of Copan who, after developing a massive, cancerous tumor in her eye, had it removed by the team just before the cancer reached her brain -- another life saved.
This woman, and the children of this village, love Grisselle for the work she has done there over the years. Without people like her and those on her team, towns like these may otherwise be forgotten.
ONE KID AT A TIME
If there is one lesson I took away from my time in Honduras, its that one person can make a difference in the life of another. We must understand there is a world in need; know that we can make a difference in the life of another human being; and recognize that our actions can redirect the course of generations to come.
Gerson is just one success story out of the waste-ridden streets that so many call home, but there can be so many more stories like his. The stories of Roberto and Grisselle are encouraging, but without help they can only accomplish so much.
The Michigan Orphan Helpers Gala on July 21 will be a great opportunity to learn even more about Orphan Helpers, what they are doing, and what you can do to help.
Michigan Orphan Helpers Gala
Where: Knights of Columbus Hall in Petoskey
When: Thursday, July 21, 2011. A reception will begin at 6 p.m. and dinner will be served at 7 p.m.
RSVP: Lynn McDonald at 231-526-6711
For more: www.orphanhelpers.org