Sunday, January 21, 2007

Fredericksburg-area college students and businesspeople experience poverty, hope in the squatter village of SietedeAbril

From The Fredericksburg Free Lance Star

College students, businesspeople from the Fredericksburg area travel to Honduran village where poverty is the norm


EL PROGRESO, HONDURAS--Outside this teeming Central American city sits a village on a garbage-strewn dirt road at the foot of a mountain shrouded in mist.

As a bus carrying Americans--mostly from the Fredericksburg area--lumbers past, barefoot children in worn clothes smile and welcome the visitors to Siete de Abril. Men carrying firewood and machetes say hola --hello.

Chickens, pigs and dogs roam freely in the shade of banana trees and coconut palms. Papayas hang from trees behind some houses.

The sound of hammering, English and Spanish voices, and handsaws is everywhere. To the 70 families who live in this poor squatter village, it's the sound of hope.

The Americans--conspicuous with their pale skin and stylish shorts, tennis shoes and ball caps--are patching up the scant dwellings. They work in six crews, using building materials purchased in town. Every morning for a week, they board a hired bus from a Catholic retreat center in El Progreso, where they are staying, to the village. An armed guard rides with them.

Ten are here from the Stafford and Rappahannock Rotary Clubs, along with 25 students with the Campus Christian Community at the University of Mary Washington. Several others are with Students Helping Honduras, including Shin and Cosmo Fujiyama--the brother-and-sister team who have coordinated relief projects in El Progreso for more than a year now.

Shin, 23, in his final year at UMW, first came to Honduras three years ago as a student volunteer. That journey was the catalyst for a Honduras connection that has grown into a movement, involving multiple groups from the Fredericksburg area, from the college to businesspeople to churches.

Siete de Abril means "April 7," the date in 1999 when the village was founded to provide a place for refugees from Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras the previous year.

Whole villages were wiped out in floods and mudslides, but unlike in America when Hurricane Katrina hit, there were no government subsidies, no checks in the mail to help rebuild, no massive flood of volunteers.

The displaced were allowed to move in after the storm and build whatever shelter they could. And they've stayed.

The contrast between downtown El Progreso and the village just a few miles away is stunning. With KFC, Burger King, nightclubs and hotels, El Progreso could be any small city in America.

In Siete de Abril, there's no electricity. Bathrooms are outhouses--holes dug in the ground. The only modern amenity is running water, a spigot to each shack, piped from a stream on the mountain.

Most houses have cookstoves fashioned out of dirt.

Kelvin Baker, 28, the son-in-law of Bob Azzarito, minister of the Campus Christian Community, is fluent in Spanish and translates what the middle-aged woman who owns the home he's working on tells him.

"This woman has seven kids. Her husband was killed. They came out and occupied this space" a couple of years ago, he says.

Before the house was fixed, it had a leaky tin roof and mattresses that would get wet every time it rained. Inside are two beds and a hammock separated by curtains made of sheets. The floor is dirt. Personal belongings, pots and a few tattered stuffed-animal toys are nailed up on the wooden posts inside.

At another house, Ken Scruggs, a Rotarian and mortgage broker back home, waits for nails. Maria Anette and her twin 2-year-old daughters, Luis, 10, and Joselene, 6, live in the one-room shack.

"We took the old roof off, added 2 feet on an interior wall. This one is getting a whole new roof," Scruggs says. He and Carlos Melendez, a chiropractor and Rotarian, finish work on a door, with help from a villager.

Maria, dressed in a blue top, jeans and flip-flops, takes care of the children. Her husband, Juan, sells shoes. They eat mostly tortillas, rice, beans, eggs, cereal.

Another shack has holes in the tin roof and big gaps along the sides. Shin Fujiyama translates what a woman in her 30s, but who looks to be twice that age, says:

"Sometimes we have to sleep under the beds when it rains. The baby is sick because it's so humid and wet and there's no money for medicine." Seven people live in the house.

Fujiyama shakes his head. "I don't know how these kids can study. If you want a kid to go to school, they need a full stomach and to get a good rest at night."

Everywhere they go, Shin and Cosmo are greeted like rock stars. Kids run up and hug them, adults pull them aside to talk.

The original plan was to fix 17 roofs in the village; by the end of the week, 20 homes are practically rebuilt. The tab: nearly $2,000 from donations collected back home and money chipped in by some of the relief workers as it was needed.

Fujiyama's goal is to eventually fix every house in the village. Maybe someday replace them with more substantial concrete-block abodes. He wants to build a communal chicken coop, and a soccer field to keep teenagers, who have little to do, away from a cycle of drugs and violence.

"These people are so thankful for people helping them out," he says. "I couldn't have done any of this without Bob [Azzarito]," who has helped spread the word back home to get college students to make the trip.

"I bring the students here because it changes their lives and their view of the world," Azzarito says. One of them, Bethany O'Connor, 21, for example, plans to do economic development work in Third World countries.

"College students are so good-natured and flexible. And you can tell how much they love the children," Azzarito says.

Blythe McLean, 19, a UMW student studying political science and religion, takes turns working, then playing with village children who gather around.

"I wanted to come because of my faith in God and to serve others just as Jesus did," she says. "We're here, helping, instead of just hanging out at home. It disgusts me that so many brothers and sisters are suffering and no one cares."

In the village, Rotarian Jim Lewis is lining up the help to construct a permanent toilet for the Shin Fujiyama School of Hope, built last summer and named by the villagers. There's room for 40 to 60 children in kindergarten and elementary school.

Desks from the old James Monroe High School sit under its tin roof. They were shipped in a container several months ago.

Henry Osburn, a Milwaukee philanthropist whom Shin met on a plane, pays the salaries of four teachers. UMW students and Immanuel Presbyterian Church in McLean helped with the project.

Over several days, men from the village who work in construction donate their time to dig the hole for the school bathroom, dig the footer and mix concrete by hand. Some are being paid, while others donate their time.

One is Oscar Herrera, 26, who lived in the United States for 12 years until he was caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported four months ago. He lives with his mother now.

Used to $1,000-a-week paychecks doing drywall and construction work in New Mexico and Texas, he had two cars, a girlfriend and a child. Now he has nothing.

In the United States, "I lived near a country club and a pool. I want to go back, but I have no money."

Rotarians Lou Barnett and Richard Lyall and UMW students Amanda Lemco and Taylor Hall rebuild a hut completely blackened on the inside. The residents were cooking with too little ventilation. As a result, a teenage boy who has been living there has chronic breathing problems. A scorpion scurries out from under the doorway and is promptly crushed under a shoe.

Barnett, 50, is an interior designer back home.

"I work with beautiful things all the time. This is such a contrast that shows not only how lucky we are, but how grateful these people are for the basic necessities."

This is her first trip to do relief work. "Friends warned me about coming here. But an opportunity like this may never come again."

Lemco, a Spanish major who speaks fluently and helps with translating in the village, is getting a first-hand look at one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

"The country is very beautiful, but very poor. They get very little help from the government. It's nice that they get help from their neighbors, and that Shin [Fujiyama] cares and that people come here with him," she says.

Jeff Small, a Stafford Rotarian, businessman and lawyer, puts things in perspective after working on several houses.

"Back home, I've seen stalls for horses much better than these."

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