Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Energy & Passion :)

Throughout this summer experience, I was able to put my Spanish translation skills to use, enjoy many evenings dodging cow pies while playing soccer games in town, and participate in many El Porvenir community initiatives. The group of eight VT students jumped right into initiatives such as domestic garden promotion with a local agronomist, an empowerment/exercise/nutrition club with a local group of women, beach reforestation with the local high school students and the local tourism committee, dengue prevention outreach with the local clinic, computer classes with middle school students, and water sanitation talks with the local water committee. As you can see, we kept ourselves busy.

In addition to putting effort into community projects, my group had the opportunity to experience Honduran culture as well. Personally, I visited a Garifuna (Afro-Honduran) community, re-discovered my love for baleadas (typical Honduran food consisting of a fresh tortilla, beans, eggs, and cheese) and horchata (common drink consisting mainly of peanuts, rice milk, and sugar), overcame my fear of huge beetles and geckos, woke up to roosters, learned how to dance Honduran style, rode two-sies on a broken bike, and fell in love with the sight of jagged mountains and beach sunsets.

It was an amazing trip, and the memories I will take with me are tremendous.

But upon reflecting further, I am beginning to wonder what the main benefit was from my individual presence in the community. I gained many great memories and a better understanding of community-led development from working in El Porvenir, but what did the people that I met and the students with whom I worked gain from me?

With the help of Virginia Tech and an international service nonprofit called Peacework, I first visited El Porvenir and started the partnership between the community and the Virginia Tech Honors program a little over two years ago. At the time, I assumed the main benefits of this partnership would be students getting practical experience related to their field of study and the El Porvenir community using the technical knowledge that the students would bring to community initiatives.

But, after working in the El Porvenir community on three separate occasions, spending four semesters preparing a group of students to partner with El Porvenir on the implementation of community programs, and finally bringing a student group to work in the community, my perspective has changed. I have realized that my role of making the connection between students and community members was not just to create a space where the community could take advantage of knowledge resources and students could get practical experience.

For both the student group and the El Porvenir community groups, the connection was to show them that other people in this world truly care about tackling the tough problems that people face every day.

Realistically, the aspiring firefighters from El Porvenir whom my group worked with might never be able to raise enough money to finish their firehouse, the local agronomist may never be able to help all of the El Porvenir families with successful home gardens, and some of the Virginia Tech students in my group may not be able to travel outside the country to work on a project like this ever again.

But, as I sat through an El Porvenir women’s empowerment/exercise/nutrition club meeting and watched the leader speak about her future goals for the club, and as I listened attentively at an interest meeting with the new Ut Prosim El Porvenir class leaders and watched them talk about their future goals for the class, the excitement and passion through which all parties spoke was palpable. The passionate energy I helped unite by bringing these people together has given all parties involved an example of what it means to join in solidarity across difference, care ardently about issues that are universal to the human condition, and work together towards tackling life’s tough problems.

-Emily :)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


“Did someone remember the bug spray?” Emily calls to us as we leave the volunteer house, ready for the beach. We were off to our favorite spot. One of the region’s many rivers meets the ocean about a ten minute walk from our house. We like to swim in the cool, clear waters of the river just before the fresh and salt waters mix. The river bottom is stony instead of sandy there; our feet maneuver the thousands of small brick, navy, and deep green-colored rocks as we wade across the current.

I look up and notice how different this spot looks compared to yesterday. The beach between the river and ocean had shifted and a new pool of water had formed apart from the sea. It happened so quickly, I think to myself. In reality though, the change had happened ever so gradually. The river current had been gently carrying the sand and sediment, precipitate and particulates as the ocean persistently lapped at the dunes. Even as we stood in it, it was changing all around us, forming new beach and erasing old resting places. I squat to dip my shoulders beneath the surface and feel the pull—the change, really—all around me. How often do we overlook this constant evolution? I decide the progression will not be lost on me.

Just over three weeks of charlas, exercise classes, meetings, and almacigo plantings have passed. We’ve been elated, exhausted, inspired, and frustrated many times over by now. Enough time has passed so that even I am no longer carne nuevo for the mosquitoes and averaging twenty new bug bites a day. But what has changed here? What have we changed? How have we, the volunteers, changed throughout these past few weeks?

After some thought, I realize we’re standing knee deep in the estuary now.

Currently, there are home gardening lessons led by a local and exceptionally enthusiastic agriculturist, women’s exercise classes and nutrition talks, a school gardening program, and a few other endeavors either underway or in the works. New connections between community leaders are being made and past relationships are deepening as more people realize they have similar dreams for El Porvenir. You could say that same thing is happening between us volunteers as we realize we have bigger dreams for our own capabilities. Among us, we have an aspiring motorcyclist, a soccer player, a runner, a singer, a linguist, and a farmer—just to name a few. I can’t help but believe that as El Porvenir is slowly becoming what it is meant to be, so are we.

In other words, this town is basically a college student. Full of knowledge and resources and desperately searching for ways to connect it all and put it into practice. A little scared it doesn’t have what it takes to step out on its own and shine, but ready to add to the good in the world. And most importantly, constantly changing.

I don’t think we’ll ever get to witness or fully comprehend the changes that take place because of our presence here. Nor do I think will we wholly understand the changes that have taken place within us because of our experiences here. Sure, we can measure it in terms of how many gardens planted and how many henna tattoos given, but we’d leave out the pride of a young mother transplanting a new pepino seedling and the sense of freedom gained from reaching fifth gear in the middle of a pineapple field. We’d miss all the little triumphs, all the little grains of silt and sand as they fall into place.

What will the river sculpt for us? Where will the beach be tomorrow? I guess we’ll find out the next time we pause amidst the flow.

-Jessica Schultz (Senior HNFE major)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Buenas, this is Jessie with another update! Living and working in El Porvenir, for me, is entirely exciting and fulfilling. Today, during a bit of downtime, I was reading a book called “Triumph and Hope” by Barbara Joe, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras who worked on health education in two very underdeveloped parts of the country. After describing one of the many challenges she faced in her work, she was reminded of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and wisdom to know the difference”.

This quote strikes a particular chord with me, as our group is constantly trying to figure out what our role is here in El Porvenir. Colin, Jessica and I (Garden group…. Assemmmmmble!!) have spent copious amounts of time over the last few days –weeks? Years? How long have we been here again?- with Jose Carlo, a former agricultural extension agent who has made it his pet project to start household gardens with a number of families. When Nicole and I were here in January, he explained his great vision for this project. It is wonderful to see his plans finally taking root in the community, and at the same time it’s a little overwhelming – he plans to work with fifteen families! Jose Carlo always seems eager to work with us, and our presence here seems to be some sort of catalyst for change (a reoccurring theme throughout each of our projects, planned and unplanned). As we struggle to find the balance between learning from Jose Carlo and sharing the knowledge we have accrued through extensive research and some experience, I yearn for the wisdom to understand what I can and cannot help change here.

As we try to figure out what it means to build capacity and community (and be brave enough to attempt this with only a few adept Spanish speakers), we have our ups and downs as individuals and as a group. Yesterday, however, was a hugely gratifying day for me. What seemed like distant dreams of linking community members and institutions to work on projects in which both parties have a vested interest were realized yesterday in a meeting with the primary school. The primary school has been trying to grow vegetables for the children to eat, and failing (Each of the teachers has an assigned plot of land for their students, but none have succeeded). At an earlier meeting, the teachers requested information and help from us on nutrition, agriculture, general health, and first aid. So, instead of trying to write out what little we know about agriculture in Honduras, Colin, Jessica, and I asked Jose Carlo if he would come to the meeting to answer questions. Once he showed up, the teachers eagerly questioned him for an hour and devised a schedule for preparing the soil and planting. Jose Carlo’s enthusiasm was contagious, and we left the meeting filled with optimistic sentiment. He had given the teachers his phone number and plans to return and give more charlas on agriculture.

The most frustrating challenge for me has been the language barrier. With a year of basic Spanish instruction and a month of travelling in Latin America already this summer, I was hoping (maybe somewhat idealistically assuming) that I would have a better understanding of the language. The learning curve was sharp at first, but sometimes I feel like I’ve hit a wall. We each have our good days and our bad days- we’ll be coming out of a meeting and someone will be bursting with excitement that they understood pretty much all of what was said. On the other hand, there are some days or mornings when I can barely understand the most basic sentence. I am constantly annoyed with myself for my inability to express complex thoughts and use more than the same couple of verbs on a regular basis- something I might previously have perceived in others as a lack of intelligence or personality! My favorite activities here are ones that don’t involve much conversation, such as playing basketball with our firefighter friends, soccer with the plethora of kids running around El Porvenir, and the womens’ exercise class that Brooke just wrote about.

All in all, group morale is generally very high and we are excited to embark on the next two weeks with Rose, who just arrived last night. Que le vaya bien (go well/good luck)!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Women of El Porvenir

As of today, we have been in El Porvenir, Honduras for exactly two weeks (although some days it feels like we have been here about two months!). I have learned so much from my time in El Porvenir-much more than I could ever gain from a densely written textbook, a lengthy homework assignment, or a lecture packed with fancy words. The most important (and perhaps most simple) lesson I have learned is that people are people no matter what country you are in. I have found more similarities between Americans and Hondurans than I would have believed was possible. Teenage girls here also like to paint each other’s creamy, sun browned faces with makeup and gossip about their boyfriends in excited, hushed tones. Scraggly little boys with dirt streaks on their faces and holes in their jeans also love to tackle each other and wrestle in the knee high grass. Men in colorful, sweat soaked jerseys also love to compete in adrenaline filled soccer matches. Families also love to sit on their porches in the evenings when the air finally cools and fireflies drift up to the trees to greet the moon with their twinkling lights.

The people here like to be talked to, listened to, and cared for. Don’t we all? About a week ago, my friend Nicole and I were discussing one particular group of people in the community that we wanted to reach-women. The women of El Porvenir are often brushed aside, merely used as a tool to help life run a little bit smoother. The women work so hard, but are rarely acknowledged for their integral role in society. Nicole and I decided it would be awesome to start an exercise class for women in the community. Only minutes after we expressed our idea to Jessica, the Peace Corps volunteer, we had an interest meeting set up for the next day. This is an example of just how quickly opportunities spring up in El Porvenir. I expected a grand total of about five women to show up for the meeting. So when about fifteen women sauntered into the meeting room Nicole and I were floored. Not only were the women willing to have an exercise class, buy they were actually excited and wanted an hour-long class five days a week. I left the meeting feeling more inspired than I had the entire trip.

Monday evening Nicole and I walked to the soccer field for the first exercise class with butterflies in our stomachs and hope in our hearts. Would anyone even want to come run and jump around with a couple of crazy gringas? That question was answered when a pack of Honduran women rounded the corner and waved at us with friendly smiles on their faces.

To say the class was a success would be an understatement. The level of comfort that was established so early in the class shocked me. The women laughed, joked, and hammed it up. The activities that were challenging did not deter them from trying. It was so encouraging to see the women’s different personalities whine through. One especially petite, feisty woman was always the first one running down the field during every exercise, screaming and laughing the whole way. She was usually doing the exercise wrong, but her energy and enthusiasm was contagious and lifted up the class. A fairly large woman wearing a shirt that said in English, “Where is the f***ing ziti?” tried her very hardest at every activity despite the challenges that her extra weight posed. Each day we have the class, more and more women come. Last night we had close to thirty women attend the class.

This exercise class is the highlight of the trip for me. I have grown to love and admire these women. Their positive attitudes, perseverance, and hard work have inspired me in many aspects of my life. This class is not great FOR the women; it is great BECAUSE of the women. Nicole and I simply opened up the road for the class, but the women are flying down the road at alarming speeds because of their attitudes and commitment. Tonight marks the end of week one of exercise classes. I look forward to tonight knowing that I will be sharing one more hour this week surrounded by friends in a healthy environment filled with laughter, love, and acceptance. In this class language barriers disappear and skin color makes no difference because we are united by the fact that we are all accepted, we are all passionate, we are all lovely, we are all women.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Hola! To provide an update on UPEP’s trip, this is Ben Kirby, a Civil and Environmental engineering junior and member of the UPEP Water group.

For the first time in El Porvenir, I awoke this morning to the alarm clock instead of our friendly neighborhood roosters. Realizing today is my assigned cleaning day, I got an early start, but first things first: I began brewing some CafĂ© Copan coffee while I took in the already hot and humid beach breeze. As I washed dishes and swept a few beetles off the floor, I decided to listen to music. John Coltrane’s “Summertime” was the song of choice. Being the first to rise this morning, I sat on the porch with beach in view with no one but John Coltrane for company. I found myself reflecting on the group’s experiences as our first week came to a close. I reached the conclusion that “Summertime” and our group’s experiences have several common traits:

1) Like Coltrane’s sax solos, the first week was fast-paced. For instance, our schedule on Day 5 began around 7:30am for dengue outreach with the Centro de Salud (health clinic). Paired with clinic employees, we went house to house to inspect wash basins, barrels, bottles, etc. for mosquito larvae. I was paired with Gabriel, a 22-year-old English-speaking local, with whom I have developed a fairly close bond. During inspections, we encountered two of seventeen houses with mosquito larvae, both of which tested positive, meaning the larvae’s mother mosquito carried dengue. Afterwards, UPEP members regrouped and toured El Porvenir’s municipality building on the way back to the house. The municipality’s kitchen crew was busy making lunch which emitted the enticing aroma of shrimp and spices leaving me enviously craving their food. At the house, I settled on Chef Boyardee ravioli straight from the can. A few of us took a quick beach break and cooled off in the water. In the evening, we took a ride to the colegio to meet the Junta de Agua, El Povenir’s water management group. The Junta presented two informative videos they made which discuss water conservation, water sanitation, and the town’s water system, among other themes. Afterwards, we discussed the videos and touched base with the Junta. For dinner, we ate at an open-air restaurant on the beach. To my delight, shrimp was on the menu. With my shrimp craving satisfied, we moseyed on over to the basketball court to play with Alex, the bombero, and his friend Oscar. At this point, the time was already around 9pm. After a draining game of baloncesto, the day was not yet over. We went to Nick’s restaurant for some refreshments while we checked emails and relaxed. After showering and chatting a bit, it was bed time and well past midnight. Day 5 was over.

2) Improvisation is key in both “Summertime” and our everyday projects. One unforeseen event arose when the local school teachers went on strike, effectively closing El Porvenir’s schools which we had plans to work with. Thus, we rolled with the punches, and new plans were developed. We also invited the colegio students to have a culinary and cultural exchange for dinner last night. With limited access to American ingredients, we had to choose dishes we could prepare in house. The group worked its magic, and we served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along with banana pancakes and homemade syrup. Our improvisation continued as the students arrived, bringing blocks of ice for a traditional Honduran pineapple-based drink called “chicha.” However, the ice blocks needed to be broken into much smaller ice cubes. To break the ice, we looked for a hammer or useful tool without success and failingly attempted to break the ice by throwing it on the concrete floor. To solve this problem, we grabbed a large rock from outside instead and successfully broke the ice blocks. On the topic of breaking ice, we figuratively broke the ice after a bit of awkwardness between the colegio students, most of whom speak no English, and the UPEP members, several of whom speak only “un poquito” Spanish. Colin, a UPEP Garden group member, plugged in his iPod and proceeded to have an impromptu dance off with a Michael Jackson-idolizing colegio student named Dixon. This helped break down the language barrier and brought cheers and laughter from all present. After the dance off, we were all dancing at some points and having a good time. Jessica, also of the UPEP Garden group, further broke the ice by offering her services as a Henna tattoo artist. Seemingly every colegio student stood in line for a tattoo and being a good sport, Jessica spent most of the night inking the students. With the help of some quick thinking and improvisation, the night was a success in my book.

3) Like even John Coltrane, who mastered the technique of circular breathing, the group needs an occasional breather. This morning’s schedule had originally included an early morning mountain hike up to the town’s water tank with the Junta de Agua for inspection, cleaning, and general maintenance. However, more improvisation came as a water pipe broke near the Centro de Salud requiring the Junta’s total attention, effectively cancelling the hike. This allowed for a little breather and beach time as well as time for the writing of this blog.

As Week 2 begins, I would say all is going well. Aside from a few minor cuts, stomach aches, and pesky mosquito and ant bites, morale is high, and there is already a feeling of accomplishment but not of complacence. In the meantime, stay tuned and expect an update from Colin in the next day or two.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Idle Time"

Any picture is worth 1000 words- a hackneyed expression, maybe, but in this case a truism. Unfortunately, I only have 600 to describe Ut Prosim El Porvenir’s mission over 2500 miles from Blacksburg. But if I could choose one scene to half-articulate, I’d show you our extended and diverted walk home last night from the local secondary school of El Porvenir, Honduras.

Since our arrival in Honduras, we’ve quite literally hit the ground running. From the start, our daily schedule has enveloped us and taken on a life of its own: an unwitting game of chicken on the Honduran roadways with an intrepid taxi driver, followed immediately by an onslaught of rapid, agriculturally-themed Spanish with the local garden group, which led invariably to laying the beginning foundation of the fire station with a group of vaguely related, jocular, and water-happy volunteer firefighters, not to be overshadowed by the door-to-door Dengue inspections we helped conduct in conjunction with a meticulously capable team from the health clinic, courtesy of a national emergency Dengue mandate. However, four days into the mix, catching my breath and reclining on the untouched Honduran shore, it’s not any of these events which fully prove an allegory for UPEP’s presence in the community, but rather the seemingly insignificant return trip from one such event.

As Heather, our nonprofit community liaison, advised us yesterday, “Idle time always represents an opportunity.” And so it did. Dragging our feet on the freshly paved Porvenir streets on the way back to the volunteer house last night, the seven of us were physically exhausted but in high spirits, shouting out our token Spanish phrases haphazardly to the local pulperia owners and their naked, sun-kissed children. From the obscurity behind us came the cry, “Ey! Every-bady! Lez go! High fives!” Circling us on a tricked-out bicycle was Alex, the apparently bilingual head of El Porvenir’s volunteer fire department. I’d like you to picture Alex as the guy at your high school who knew everyone and played every sport. Well. Now add a wife, a few children, and the respect of an entire community, and you’re beginning to understand the role that Alex Rodriguez plays in this town.

As he treated us to a sampling of the Backstreet Boys and Justin Bieber while Alex herded us down the street, an idea struck him, “Ey. guys! Come to my mahm’s! I cho ju plans!” We stepped into a nearby pulperia (corner store), where he retrieved some papers from the back and seated us all around a picnic table. He then proceeded to lay in front of us 3 different blueprints for his distant and ideal firehouse, all professionally designed and executed, and acting in sharp contrast to the surrounding tin roofs and one room shacks. Speaking rapid and fervent Spanish, Alex articulated every detail of his dream for the community, from the garages that would house the already present and functioning fire trucks, down to the last bunk bed, where, he assured us, there would always be room for community volunteers to overnight. Finally, we turned our attention to the last page of the plans, which consisted of a list of numbers attached to a large quantity of zeroes in any language. Alex glanced down at the page, smiled at us wearily, and said, “Si Dios lo quiere, va a pasar.” (If God is willing, he will make it happen).

Exchanging Spanglish goodbyes a few hours later with Alex and his fellow bombero (a secondary student who moonlights as a shark hunter), we mentioned that our group would be “reforesting the beach” with the secondary school later this week. The bomberos eagerly sought out further details and rapidly indicated their commitment to such a pursuit, also mentioning that they were hoping to challenge us to a basketball game the next night. I marveled to myself at how in a town where thirty minutes late translates to a prompt arrival, community initiatives seem to spring up with surprising alacrity.

Reflecting on our parting last night, I find that it presents an apt metaphor for UPEP’s principal function in El Porvenir. We’re not here to provide physical labor, or act as founts of wisdom, or offer donations. There is such a hotbed of excitement and potential involvement just simmering under the surface, as Alex’s commitment so significantly proved. Our aim is to gather this vision, harvest it, and provide these diverse and vibrant community members with the stage and resources to meet one another halfway- something our visibility in the community has already begun to foment.

Ut Prosim El Porvenir: So That I May Serve The Future

Welcome to the Ut Prosim El Porvenir's summer 2010 blog. This is Emily Barry, the graduate student leader of this group. It has been six days since UPEP’s arrival in the coastal town of El Porvenir, Honduras where we will be blogging for the duration of our month-long trip. UPEP is a Virginia Tech student-run service-learning course where students learn about the community of El Porvenir and about issues of international development and community organization related to their particular field of interest. Then, students travel to El Porvenir to work with a variety of local government and non-profit groups to form relationships and build capacity within existing community programs. We have a total of eight VT student participants in El Porvenir this summer, and these students are working with community partners on programs geared towards public health outreach, women’s empowerment, agriculture, and water sanitation. We will try to update our blog every few days, so stay tuned! The first blogger is Nicole Russell, a junior Business Management/Spanish major.