Alternative Spring Break 2018 – Roatan, Honduras
Once again, dedicated students and staff have embarked on a journey to the town of La Colonia in Roatan, Honduras. This is the 3rd year that Penn State students will spend in Roatan. Why Roatan, Honduras? Eleven 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 www.scottfried.com/honduras).
Below are excerpts from students on the trip where they share their experience:
Day 7 by Sarah Kegerreis: The final two days of the week, I think, were the easiest on our bodies but the hardest on our hearts. After spending almost an entire week with the beautiful people of La Colonia, and my beautiful new friends from Penn State, it becomes harder and harder to imagine returning to our normal routines. The road has grown so much higher since the first day we all went home covered in cement, and we’ve gotten much better at returning home with less and less of it on our clothes. It’s gotten so high that our normal assembly line was no longer cutting it – but because of the road we have already paved, the cement mixer was able to make it to the top of the hill by the beloved Pulperia we sought shade from each day. While the buckets were still heavy, they were much easier to pass than on Saturday, and our assembly line was able to shrink. In lulls on paving while waiting for supplies or for the mixer to be fixed, almost everyone had a child either on their back or holding their hand. It’s been amazing to not only see these kids warm up to us so much and run for our hugs every day, but to also see my new friends in what I’ll call “parent mode,” something we don’t see from our peers or even our close friends in our normal campus environment.
Friday came and I don’t think any of us were prepared – or willing – to say our goodbyes. After a relaxing morning of soccer with a few of the younger boys (and a great view of our road from the field), we put in motion one of the things I think we were most excited about. We named a road! Calle Nittany, in beautiful blue and white, and painted by each of us, forever sits at the entrance of a truly beautiful community. It was an honor to use a name that united all of us in the group in the first place, to further unite us with La Colonia in a way that will last long after we are wheels down in New York or on summer vacation from Penn State. La Colonia put on a great fiesta, with amazing food, great decorations and music. Kids were running up and down the road, sitting with us as we all ate, and getting ready for sunset beach soccer. After we took plenty of pictures and said our hasta luego’s to Calle Nittany, we went to a small beach area with a great pier to play soccer. It was mostly the Penn State boys against the La Colonia boys, and a lot of us went out onto the pier with the younger kids. It was like nothing else I’ve ever seen, to see so many people at once so carefree and full of love for each other. Some of our group jumped right into the water, catching kids as they jumped in or helping them back out – just to catch them when they jumped back in.
I think a few of us were grateful that the sun had already set when it came time to say our hasta leugo’s to our new familia so that our tears weren’t quite as obvious, even though just about everyone was crying in some capacity. So many little hands and little hugs that we reached for every day are not with us anymore, now that we are back in State College, so many meals that we will never be able to recreate, and so many people that we hope to make a permanent installment in our lives, just like Scott Fried did over a decade ago. We learned a lot: about La Colonia and Roatan, about what it means to serve others, about each other, and about ourselves. Although each of us had a different experience while being at the same place together for the last week, I know we all share at least one thing as we return home. This is not the last time we will be in Roatan or La Colonia, or the last time we will walk up Calle Nittany, the road that love built. It’s not the last time we will speak broken Spanish to people who already loved us, despite our language barrier, or the last time little hands reach for ours just because we are there for them. Although those little hands will be bigger the next time we hold them, it has not been a day of lasts for us. It has only been a beautiful week of firsts. It will never be adios, it will only ever be hasta luego.
Day 6 by Greg Carvajal: Today was overall bittersweet. On the one hand, we have just about reached the completion of our project to construct a road for La Colonia, while on the other hand, our trip is drawing to a close. We started off the day with our usual rise and shine at 8 am, and headed to the community. We were greeted with smiles and happiness from the children and workers, and continued on with the work. The first task assigned to us was to shovel at the mass of dirt on the side of the road in order to create a drainage canal. Since this did not require the entire group, we were switching off with one another and the intensity of the work wasn’t as bad as previous days. During this time, a part of the group also went to visit another area of La Colonia where some of the family members of people we’ve grown to love live at. I was not a part of that group, so I was one of the people shoveling. Even under easier work conditions, you still worked up quite the sweat, as one of my friends remarked, “this is blistering heat”. It’s hard to complain though, because time goes by really fast when you’re cracking jokes with your friends and having great conversation. After this activity for a couple hours, it was time for lunch. One of the community members named Elsey unexpectedly cooked for us. I walked up the steep hill to Elsey’s house with an adorable child named Ashley on my shoulders, excited for more Honduran deliciousness. Elsey had cooked us a homemade stew with chicken, potatoes, plantain chunks and rice. To me, this kind of food is even more special because it reminds me of Dominican stew that my mom makes called ‘Sancocho’. The lunch was unsurprisingly delicious, and we all thanked Elsey and her daughter Jackie for cooking. After lunch, half the group split with us to go scuba diving at West End. I was on the half that went Tuesday, so I stayed at the site. The afternoon was a lot less work and we only added more cement to the road for a short period of time. After that, a bunch of the neighborhood kids, 2 others in the group and myself went to the small field to play soccer. The games were quick and competitive, and we had enough people for several teams. I played for a while (not to brag but I scored a goal on Gage) and eventually got a bit tired and sat and watched others play on the side. As things were winding down, I was talking to one of the locals who was close to my age about his dream travel destination, favorite foods, and street slang in Honduras. After soccer, we brought out the luggage with clothes donations and distributed it to the community. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing the huge smiles on everyone’s faces.
Day 5 by Emma Sinkoff: Today brought a mix of emotions. We started the morning working at the site in La Colonia, and then around 10am we left to visit the women’s clinic for HIV/AIDS. I don’t think I have ever had such and intense and overwhelming rush of emotions. At the clinic, Scott, one of our trip leaders, told his story about how he was infected with HIV, and how it has changed and shaped his outlook on life in so many different ways, and led him to meet incredible people, including the communities in Roatan, and the women who have also been infected with HIV. I have never listened to such strong, hopeful, encouraging, and inspirational group of women. About six women shared their stories with us and watching them open up in from of a group of students whom they had just met was incredible. These women wanted to share their stories because they are no longer afraid and want to teach others the courage, and heart it takes to overcome such challenges and discrimination one can face in life. We as students learned so much from them and as much as they learned from us. Together after listening to the women, we ate lunch together and gave hugs goodbye. After leaving the clinic, Valarie, who owns the clinic, also built a school for the children who’s parents have been infected HIV/AIDs, took us on a tour of the school. We went into classrooms, and met with some of the children. It was beautiful to see them happy and in a safe space, where they could enjoy themselves in a learning environment. This made me think of how people back home often forget the value of having an education, and how lucky we are to go to school everyday. After being at the school for a little while, we went back to the site in La Colonia and worked for the rest of the afternoon. The road in the neighborhood grows hour by hour. It is amazing to see how far we have come since day one, and watch the community come together to work towards one common goal. Day after day I am feeling more love and for this place, and a sense of family. The kids bring so much joy to everyone. I can definitely speak on behalf of everyone else on this trip that we can never get enough play time, hugs, and laughter from the kids and families. It is gives us a purpose to continue our work, knowing that we are making a difference in their lives, and they are making a difference in ours.
Day 4 by Orli Glickman: In the beginning of our day in La Colonia, a couple of I traveled with a couple of other students to the top of a mountain to visit the part of the community where a group of students built steps last year. The most amazing feeling flooded all of us when we were greeted by running, smiling kids. The love that these kids radiate, even to strangers, is incredible. We spent the morning playing games, like jump rope and a simple meditation activity. The kids enjoy taking pictures with us, and their reaction when they see their faces on a phone screen is adorable. We traveled up the mountain more to visit other families, that greeted us with warm hugs and smiles. We watched Alex, the boss of our road project; show us his talent of carving turtles out of bone and making jewelry. Back at the work site, the other students were filling in the side of the road with dirt and rocks, and dug a canal on the side. We all continued to pass cement buckets in our usual assembly line down the mountain to building the road. Then, half of the group left to go snorkeling, while the other half of us stayed to work. In the afternoon, the cement machine stopped working temporarily, so it gave all of us a chance to connect more with the kids. I met a girl named Anna, and she is learning English in school. We were having conversations back and forth; she taught me words in Spanish, and I helped her translate words to English. For about an hour, a group of Honduran girls and Penn State girls were bonding on a wooden ladder in the side of the mountain. We all laughed and communicated, even with a language barrier. They love us even without knowing us, and they have such pure souls. I’ve noticed that the kids in La Colonia have amazing imaginations, and can entertain themselves with something as simple as a box. They pretended its a ride and dragged each other down the road we just built. It was incredible watching them make their own assembly line opposite of us passing empty buckets up the hill, while wearing pretty dresses. At the end of our day at the work site, the cement machine was working again, we were all extremely tired, but continued to pass buckets of cement with the community members. Even when I’m struggling to pass the buckets, the people standing next to me are so supportive and have smiles on their faces. This place and these people have opened my eyes to another small part of our world. We are changing lives by being active in this small community, and showing them how to come together to accomplish a task. I am enjoying and taking in every second I have in Roatan, and realizing that we are the world to these people.
Day 3 by Michelle Kaplin: As we close out day 3, there is an overwhelming feeling of love on this island. To start this incredible day, we arrived at the work site in which we were handed shovels and pick axes and immediately got to work on the road we worked so hard on yesterday. For a couple of hours, the group of Penn Staters worked tirelessly alongside of the community members of La Colonia. We immediately got back in the swing of our work and made incredible amounts of progress on the road. While all of that was vital to the project, today was more than just making progress with cement and axes, today showed so many of us that pure team work and love for a community could be so effective and powerful. As we added more and more to the road, it no longer was just our group doing the work, the entire community played a role (including the children) in this project and everyone was willing to give 100% of them to our work. Today we saw that among both sides, there was no selfishness or greed, but simply a desire to help and be a part of the community as a whole.
After a few hours of work, our lovely friend Luis drove us all to the top of the mountain, showing us the most beautiful site most of us have ever seen in our lives. As we looked around us, not only did we have an incredible view of the entire island, but we looked at the beauty of ourselves and each other. We talked about what it meant to fully take in a moment and fully take in each other’s power. By taking a moment to just be silent and feel the presence of Honduras and this incredible trip, each and every one of us returned back to the work site filled with so much love and gratitude for our experiences here. We took this absolutely amazing moment and directed into our work here by organizing and passing out all of our men’s donations. This small action proved to be so impactful as we watched the men of La Colonia take a piece of our homes back with them and to their families. The excitement and gratitude that was expressed by some of our amazing new friends cannot be unmatched, and was the perfect way to end our day at the site.
To close out such a moving day, the group of us went to dinner at the home of some very important people to not only Scott but to Roatan as a whole. As we ate incredible pizza and talked with Valerie, Emily, and Jane, I felt the group feel an overwhelming sense of love and power from these beautiful women. They told of their stories and impact on this island and their success with HIV/AIDS programs as well as providing education and childhood care for community members. As the dinner came to a close, Jane’s two beautiful children sang to us, resulting in the entire group clapping and singing along. This final moment of true togetherness proved just why we’re here and continue to serve this fantastic island. At the end of the night, Scott said “when you’re in Roatan, expect serendipity. If you just wait for one second, Roatan will provide for you”. On just day 3, Honduras has given so much to us in ways most of us can not yet explain. I have felt more love in these 3 days than I do in weeks at a time at home and I can’t wait to continue spreading my love and passion not only throughout the island but throughout the world.
Day 2 by Anna Ciambotti: Today has honestly been a whirlwind. We started out the day by arriving in La Colonia at 8:30am. It was still only five of us, the rest of the group would be arriving in Roatan shortly! In the morning we stood around for a little bit as we got instructed on what to do. For the morning we had the job of digging up an old landslide to make room for the road we would be building. We would start by breaking up the dirt, and taking buckets and wheelbarrows full of dirt down the hill in order to move the dirt out of the way. This was quite the experience, at first the buckets were so full and heavy and we were struggling to carry them down the hill. The locals were AMAZING and helped us so much. Literally anyone who happened to be passing by would stop for a while and help us carry buckets. It was honestly awesome to see the kids help the most. The buckets were incredibly heavy and these little boys would carry full buckets of dirt on top of their shoulders. We would offer to help them, but they would refuse. The little girls were also so amazing. They brought their own little buckets and fill them up with dirt. It was the littlest way to help, but was honestly so incredible. It was so touching to see anyone taking time out of their day and free time to help us. At one point this morning one of the older men in the community, Saul kept talking to me! Despite my lacking of Spanish skills he still engaged in conversation and made the effort to get to know me, it was truly so welcoming. After this the rest of our group finally arrived. It was so amazing to see them arrive and immediately start interacting with the kids. All afternoon we worked on building a road for the community. There were so many people helping with this. We formed a circle assembly line passing heavy buckets of cement. Similarly, to the morning the majority of the community was helping. It was so impactful to see that we could all work together and get such a big job done. Literally everyone had a job, and everyone was needed in this process. Everyone has a purpose in life, whether it be helping with big or small tasks. Making those little connections always works. Overall, today I was nervous about interacting with the community. I was scared I would not be helping them in the right way, or what they would think about me. But this community is so full of love and understanding that it doesn’t matter to them what you do, as long as you show them that you truly care about them and want to help them. Anything you do to connect with them and love them, they are incredibly grateful. I want to try and use this in my everyday life. It doesn’t matter what others think of you, as long as you show full buckets of love, everything will be okay. I have truly loved being in this community the past couple of days. Just being in this extremely humid weather, dripping sweat, getting dirty, not looking at my phone, reminds me that I am alive and that this world is awesome. I can’t wait for the rest of the week!
Day 1 by Adam Schwartz: I truly cannot express in words how today felt. Today I went from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. To start the day, I was anxiously waiting at JFK for both groups to arrive. As they were updating me and their ETAs kept creeping closer and closer to take off time, my heart was beating faster and faster. I have been planning this trip for the past year and it felt hopeless that such an unexpected event could happen and there was nothing for me to about it. As you all know, one group made it in time and the next group will be flying out tomorrow morning! After our stressful morning, we made our connection in beautiful San Salvador and then to our final destination of Roatan. Once in Roatan, we were picked up and driven to our hotel in West End. We quickly settled in to our rooms and then met up with Scott Fried! He brought us to an authentic Honduran restaurant and it was absolutely incredible! We all agreed that this was one of our best meals ever. Thank you, Scott! After our meal, we made our way to the community of La Colonia. We first went to our site where we will be fixing a road that is currently unpassable. Fixing this road will create a second way to enter the community and will impact everybody greatly. After we went to the site, we were walking around the community to take a tour and to visit people from previous years. As we were walking, kids would run down the hill into our arms remembering me from last year and hugging our new people as well. I have been creating this moment in my head of seeing the kids that I formed a relationship with and it finally happened today. It was an incredible feeling. Once one kid ran down, they would travel with us through the other parts of the community until we had a huge group of people walking with us. This was an amazing feeling because it showed that our presence means so much to the community. By showing that we care gives them hope. After we left the community, we were on such a high. We had a great afternoon and as we were leaving we heard the news that the other group will be flying tomorrow morning! After this, we went to get gelato on the beach. Later we went grocery shopping for the week, ate at another incredible restaurant (thanks Scott) and have great reflections and bonded greatly as a group. Scott led impactful talks and watching how the community responds to his presence is inspirational. Today was a truly amazing day, full of stress which then turned into a day of laughs and happiness.