Alternative Spring Break 2017 – Roatan, Honduras

14 students and 2 staff embarked on a journey to the town of La Colonia in Roatan, Honduras. This is the second year that Penn State students will spend in Roatan. Why Roatan, Honduras? Ten years ago, Scott Fried, motivational speaker, HIV/AIDS educator, activist, and author, traveled to the island of Honduras on a holiday cruise. After a 6 hour excursion, Scott stumbled on the community of La Colonia in Roatan, Honduras, an extremely poor area lying 40 miles off the northern coast of Honduras. There, he discovered, 1 in 7 people lives with AIDS. After engaging with the locals and learning their stories, Scott vowed that he would go back to that community. This spring, in his 11th year of service, Scott has graciously invited Penn State Hillel students back to help give back to the place that he fell in love with (read more about Scott’s work at

Below are excerpts from students on the trip where they share their experience:

Day One by Juan Martinez, Junior – Petroleum Engineer:

‘You’re back.’ The sound of that phrase still lingers in my ears after a night here, not because it is something I’ve never heard before, but because I can feel every word. I feel it forming in their hearts, warming me up inside in the summer weather of the island; I feel the words making their way out through their mouths between the excitement and the smile in their faces – a smile that is there because for some it is weird to let a laugh out, even though we all feel it. What I feel the most is their happiness, because we gave them our word and we kept it, and I’m glad we did.

Today was grueling. The hike to our new site is significantly longer than last year’s, the materials took us all day to carry up to the top, the kids are older and need more attention, and we are all juggling meeting these amazing new people and giving attention to our old friends on the island. But when I look into Alex’s eyes – the man who I call ‘big boss’ because he is a big boss – I see a mix of happiness, hope, and frustration that makes it all worth it. I am an objective driven person, I know what I came here to do and I want to finish it. But when I look at the familiar faces, when I see Alice being a goon shoveling sand, when I see the rest of the boys playing with kids on their backs… I remember that we are not here to just build stairs: if anything, stairs are probably the least important part of this trip. We are here for the people, because being in their homes shows them that we care and that they are not forgotten.

During lunch I sat and pondered on why I don’t like going home. My reason remains the same: home is timeless. Nothing moves, nothing changes, and I like change. Today when I was saying ‘hi’ to everyone in La Colonia I noticed that Roatan is no different than my home, Ecuador. This community is timeless as well. But why are we timeless, exactly? Is it because we are habit creatures and we stay true to our life long habits? Is it because change takes longer in developing countries? Or is it because there is something missing to ignite that change? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions but I do know something. Today we ignited something that inspired change; we ignited something that empowered an entire community. Today we gave them hope.

Day Two by Amanda Silverstein, Musical Theater:

Our first full day in La Colonia was more than anything in life could prepare us for. Today we had to bring all the delivered materials up the mountain so they will be ready to mix tomorrow and eventually make the steps themselves. These materials consisted of large buckets of gravel and sand, as well as wood planks and 94 pound bags of cement. The Penn State gym did not prepare us for this. The dozens and dozens of kids who just kept appearing leaping at the chance to run, yes run, a full bucket up to the top of the site, inspired us. 

The work was exhausting. Here we were, a group of Americans doing an assembly line of buckets, while zooming past were men and boys like Alex, el “jefe” of the whole project carrying TWO 94 pound bags of cement on his head. No joke—balancing them on his head. I later told Alex that he was my inspiration of the day, which he responded with showing me his hands from all the work he does (this includes making small sculptures out of jade). As we all expressed tonight in our debrief, it is just incredible the amount of work and energy this community can put into something. Hasta mañana!

Day Three by Alice Polonsky, Senior – Human Development and Family Services:

Today we came to La Colonia bright and early to begin the process of building the steps. We were greeted by all of the children and families of this community with countless smiles and endless hugs and kisses. We began to pass out clothes and toys to all of them. As someone pointed out, prior to our arrival, one girl was using an old rope as a jump rope but today she received a brand new one. She was astonished by the fact that she would ever receive this type of toy. This very moment showed many of us the importance of creating a memorable childhood for these children who barely have enough to eat. Throughout the day, we carried the cinder blocks up the stairs and began creating a retaining wall and steps with the men and women of La Colonia.  One of the families even allowed us to mix cement in her front yard. Furthermore, part of the group went snorkeling for half the day and the rest of the group finished building the steps. We successfully built 34 steps and we are excited and motivated for what is in store for the rest of the week.

Day Four by Hannah Geller, Sophomore – Video and Film:

Hoy es Miercoles. (Today is Wednesday.) We started the day off with working for an hour or so- handing out clothing (ropa) and toys (jugetes) to the kids. It is heart warming to hand them out and heart breaking to run out.

Afterwards we visited Familia’s Saludables (The HIV/AIDS clinic) with Elsie, whose house we built last year, and her children- Fernando and Jackie. We heard from Elsie and other women who are out about their HIV status. It felt so backwards. Due to misconceptions regarding HIV transmission, it is impossible to obtain a job as an HIV positive woman after they cannot provide an HIV negative card. Depending on the source, it is said that 1 in every 7 or 10 people in Roatan has HIV, and the reality of that statistic made this visit even more meaningful.
After a moving experience at the clinic, we stopped by a bilingual school. It was refreshing to see children who are so passionate about learning because they realize it is a privilege, contrary to how many American students feel.
We ate our pb&j lunches in the collectivo (small public mini bus) so we could get right back to work when we arrived in La Colonia after our field trip. Saying goodbye to the kids and exploring a new part of Roatan gave me fresh eyes and really made me miss La Colonia- mostly the people.
We hopped off the collectivo and handed out lunches to the children and workers. We were all so giggly and couldn’t stop making jokes (chistes) with each other. Any pre-existing barriers– cultural, lingual, or other–  seem to be melting away under the bright Honduran sun. Our growing friendships make it all the more difficult to say goodbye, and I wish this day never had to come. Adios y gracias!

Day Five by Rebecca Lerman, Senior

Today we built more than stairs; we built upon connections from last year and created new ones.  We arrived at the project on the hill early this morning to find that the new order of materials was not yet delivered. Frustrated, we waited until only one of the shipments could make it up the mountain in the rain.

However, for many, our day became infinitely better as we traveled to the home of Marianne, Davi, Yseny, and Christian. On the way over, we handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the community. There, Marianne, the mother of three, made us a delicious and satisfying authentic meal.  We played with Davi, a young boy with Down Syndrome whom is unable to live the same life as many of the other children in La Colonia. Davi was ecstatic, full of energy, and radiating happiness. We returned to the site to carry 94 pounds of cement up the hill. The guys took the lead but the girls soon followed proving that we too, could carry our weight and a few extra pounds. Once home at Casa Ladera, we prepared and enjoyed a pasta dinner together. Today was a special day for all.

Day Six by Jonathan Muth,  Spanish Major

Unity, the best word to describe the past 24 hours in Roatán as we get ready to fly back to the states. Everyone who was on the staircase today was impacted by the project we completed, juntos. We lost a day and a half due to factors we couldn’t change, so today was an important day to not only catch up but also finish the project. That required the Hondurans and Penn State Students to work together nonstop to unload the materials, create the cement and carry hundreds of filled buckets up the hill. We finished what we came here to do and more, and I hope I get to come back one day to see the amazing work again.

However, unity more importantly defines the memories we made together and the impact every person had on each other’s lives. No matter where we are, whether it’s 2 miles down the road or 1,770 miles away in State College, what we experienced for one week was inviolable. I’m grateful to return to the life I used to take for granted in the US, but more thankful for los hondureños for leaving me a better person. I know without a doubt that Bryan’s kindness, Christopher’s smile, Alex’s mentor-ship and Fernando’s appreciation for life will stick with me wherever I go in the world, and I cannot thank them enough.

Back in the States by Amanda Silverstein

As I walk up the usually daunting hill to class this morning; instead of sweat droplets running down the sides of my face I feel the brisk state college wind against my cheeks and ears. Although walking up a hill to work in the morning feels the same in my legs, I couldn’t feel more different. And every time I look up, I expect to see a little barefoot kid running into my arms.

Before we got to Roatan, our fearless leader Becca Lerman asked us to write on a sheet of paper what we wanted to change when we went to the community of La Colonia, in ourselves or in the people there. I wrote that I wanted to give them hope for the future. I wanted them to know they could count on me and that I would keep returning to do all I can to improve their lives. I believe having returned for a second year in a row, I have done just that. Knowing this makes the adjustment even harder.

I got to sleep in my full sized bed last night, in my heated apartment, and I don’t have to worry about if I get to eat today. Its easy to return to the states and go back to our normal lives, complaining about the usual things—the cold, homework, etc. But we cannot and will not forget the struggle of La Colonia. But more importantly, we will not forget the pure joy that community made us feel and how we did the same for them.

This morning when I was cleaning out my backpack, I found a baby shirt crumpled up in the bottom. I pulled it out and immediately let out all the tears I had been holding in the entire week. I meant to give it to one child named Juan Carlos I had made a connection with from last year. To me, this is just a sign that I have to go back, if anything, just to give him something I promised. See you soon Roatan.