Alternative Winter Break – Roatan, Honduras – 1/2 through 1/9

Alternative Winter Break – Roatan, Honduras – 1/2 through 1/9

Day 1:

It’s Sunday in Roatan. For residents of the island, it is a day for going to church, doing the week’s laundry, and relejando, relaxing. For our group, it means a delay in building Fernando and his family a new home. So what else are we to do on a beautiful island covertly sickened with poverty?

We start by holding our own kind of service: a beachside powwow blended from Native American and Hebrew influences. Scott attempts to ground us, asking us to cast aside any anxiety we have about the trip, and instead focus on the work we set out to do. We are prompted with a deep question, “What is a gift you can provide to the community that they could not get otherwise?” Most of us feel that’s something we’ll discover over the next week.

As we reach the afternoon, we take a snorkeling excursion to the second largest coral reef in the world. This hidden community is full of vibrant fish, lush seaweed, and the occasional jellyfish. This is the only “vacation” day we have, so we make the most of it. As we speed back to our end of the island, we catch glimpses of mountains, resorts, and piers lining the coast. The sun bursts out from behind passing rainclouds; it’s a gorgeous day.

After a beachside lunch of rice, beans, and iguana, it’s finally time to visit La Colonia, the mountainside village Fernando and his family live in. As many of us found out, it was quite different from anything we expected. As we step out of our collectivo, the communal taxi, we are instantly struck with the inequitable standard of living between the resort side of Roatan and the side we now find ourselves in. Some of us are angry: angry at the children running by with bloated bellies, the trash overflowing onto the streets, and the lack of adequate living spaces for the people. As we will quickly find out, there is always something more to do. Every time we stop to meet another friend of Scott’s, they ask us to start another project – a new corrugated metal roof to replace one that is close to caving in, digging a channel to divert septic waste from a rainwater gulley…the list goes on and on.
This is a wake-up call for many of us, shifting our perspective on real needs versus those we perceive at home in the States. It’s hard to see people live this way, but we are filled with determination to continue Scott’s “tapestry of goodwill”, a growing testament of love he has built over the past decade. 500 concrete steps, a second story of a house, and now, a home to replaced one that crashed over the side of a steep ravine.

The best part of the day, hands-down, is meeting the people of La Colonia. There is immense love here; everybody knows everybody, and when someone is lacking, the community comes together to help them. As we pass by, we are met with smiles and hellos. On our way to the work site, people run up to greet Scott, and we stop by the homes of his adopted families. He has seen many of the adults here grow up since the time they were kids; all greet him with exhilarated hugs. When we reach the cliff where Fernando’s house once stood, we’re greeted by Fernando and his family. We are working with two jefes, or foremen, and after they take dimensions, they write up a bill of materials we’ll need to construct this house. Word gets out that we’re here, and we’re swarmed with ridiculously adorable kids. It’s beautiful how quickly we connect with our new friends, despite a language barrier for most of us and the fact that we’re complete strangers. According to Leah, PSU Hillel Staff member and our trip leader, “a spark ignited among this group when we reached La Colonia.” It’s clear this spark will drive us through the week of work ahead.

As our first visit draws to a close, Scott heads up with most of the group to check up on a good friend, Roberto. As I wait at the bottom of the hill he’s climbing up, Alejandro, a resident of La Colonia approaches me.

“You’re working with Scott, right?” he asks me in Spanish.
“Yes,” I reply, “we’re here to build a house for Fernando with him”

Alejandro goes on to say how happy he is we are here, and raves at how Scott’s previous work has improved the community and the lives of many people in it. He wishes us luck, thanks us for coming, and says goodbye.

Soon after, Scott returns with heavy news. Roberto has gone with his father to the mainland, infamous for having the highest murder rate in the world. He is deeply concerned for his friend, and having made our initial connections to these people, we are empathetic to his worry.

We can’t fix all the problems La Colonia faces, and honestly, it’s not our place to. Our goal is not to condition the community into expecting outside help to solve all of their issues; it’s to solve one pressing issue among the thousands, to ease one hardship in a place of many, and to weave our portion onto Scott’s tapestry of goodwill for this village, and to weave it with love.

– Sam Viknyansky

Day 2:


It’s Monday in Roatan. The weather was a little less in our favor today since it started pouring while we began the process of building the house. Scott and one student on the trip, Juan, left around 6:30 in the morning to buy supplies for the house from the hardware store. Around 9:30 a.m, the rest of the group arrived at the site. We were greeted with huge smiles and laughs from all the children who live near Fernando’s house. It was an incredible start to the day because the children have become very comfortable with many of the students and even took some of us on an adventure to see the guava trees. These trees were incredible, and many of the students found it fascinating that the children would take the guavas right from the tree and eat them whole (even though they were very sour when you take a small bite of it).

Right before lunch began, we passed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as Oreo cookies to the children and families of La Colonia. There is never enough to eat in this community which is why as a group we decided to pitch in extra money to make and bring extra sandwiches and snacks every day. They were absolutely thrilled by this treat as their faces lit up with outstanding excitement. After lunch time the supplies arrived to build the house. Our main task was to bring all the pieces of wood from the top of a steep hill to the bottom for where the foundation of the house would lay.

Scott Fried said, in regards to this task, “Never have I seen a group work as hard as this. You guys would not stop working, and even when I wanted to take a break none of you wanted to. You just wanted to keep on working, and I am beyond proud. It made it seem like I wasn’t working because of how hard you were.”

As we were finishing this task of bringing heavy pieces of the wood down the hill to lay the foundation of the house, it began to rain. This made it a little bit harder to bring the wood down but as a group we kept on going through with it. With the help of everyone in the group and many of the local men of La Colonia we were able to finish this task in less than an hour. It was remarkable to see the effort that many of the students had throughout this grueling task, as they kept pushing themselves till the task could be completed.

Afterwards, we began the process of creating the cement for the foundation of the house. The creation of cement was completed by a mixture of sand, water, and cement solvent. We gathered the sand by forming an assembly line from where the foundation of the house will be all the way to the bottom of the hill to where the sand is located.

One of the students, Robby, shared his thoughts on this task when he said, “As we were bringing sand up through the assembly line, Erlin (one of the local Honduran men) and I began forming a musical rhythm without even thinking about it. It was incredible because we had a complete language barrier between one another.”

Scott discussed with us later in the day that Erlin use to be some-what of a trouble maker. The fact that he is here this year and is determined to work, is extremely beneficial for his well-being and character as he is growing up.

Another student, Amanda, shared her experience as she was helping with the assembly line. She said, “When it started to rain, one of the locals began singing and expressing how he loved the rain. We need more of those type of people in the world, who just enjoys having a great time like that.”

As it started to pour rain while being in the assembly line and laying down the foundation of the house, Juan expressed his thoughts on his experience. He said, “I thought everyone was taking cover since the workers did but I noticed that the entire group just kept working and I realized I should probably keep working too.”

It’s safe to say that the entire group of this trip is made up of many determined individuals who know we can build a house for this amazing family in less than a week. As we were wrapping up our work day, Scott decided to teach the local children the “We are….Penn State!” chant! It was one of the most unbelievable activities for the children and they were beyond ecstatic to learn this chant. It really makes the whole group feel that we are bringing every part of the Penn State community to the families of La Colonia. As the day concluded we passed out the rest of the extra cookies we had in our bags for the children of La Colonia to eat and enjoy themselves as much as they could for the rest of the day.

– Alice Polonsky

Day 3:

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Tuesday came and went, even though we were soaked to the skin since 7am when we arrived at the site this morning. The rain did not stop all day, but for some reason, none of us cared. We were the first to get to the spot this morning, and the rest of the workers soon trickled in. They got to work right away, and us Americans felt a little incompetent at all the construction work we were having trouble doing, and the local men could do it in their sleep. When it began to poor extremely hard, the people in the house below our site kindly offered us on their balcony to take cover and let us put our muddy, wet bags in their house. One of the students on the trip, Sam, mentioned that the generosity of these people was just incredible. They so selflessly offered their house up to complete strangers, with a smile on their face, and that is not something you find everywhere.

As the morning passed, most of us got a better hand on a hammer. Sooner than we knew it, we had created a floor of the house! It was such a great feeling to finally see something coming together, something that we could stand on top of. But this was just the beginning.

At first, the men said they had to cut wood but they couldn’t do it in the rain so we all took a little break to see if it would stop raining. We gathered on the balcony in the house below and did not really know what to do so we decided to sing! Being a musical theater major and having three other singers in our midst, we thought it would be a good idea to sing some acapella to kill some time. We landed on “Lean on Me”, and the more we sang, the more people slowly came out of hiding from the rain to listen. Leah described it as our smiles were spreading to them, and it felt incredible.

Despite the still pouring rain, Jimmy, Redi, Johnny, and all the other men and boys from La Colonia just kept going. While this was happening, Erica, David, Scott and I went on a little adventure to the other side of the island to visit a woman whose house we promised to look at because she needs a new roof. As we soon discovered on this adventure, every single person needs something fixed. We passed countless hills of broken sandbags and trash heaps that desperately need to be made into stairs, and at least five families who noticed Scott and asked him to look at an element of their house that needs fixing. There is so much that needs improving in this town, and we are only here for a mere seven days.

On the way back from the woman’s house we ran into a little boy named Christian who Scott described as his “little shadow” from previous years. He was ecstatic when we asked him to come with us back to the site. Soon after we got back he told us it was his birthday and we decided we should spoil him just for one day so we asked his mother if we could take him with us to eat and spend the night in the hotel with us (something he will probably never get to do again). You could see the huge amount of joy the spread across his face when his mom said it was okay to come.

Back at the site, one wall is done and we all gathered together to stand it up. All ten Americans, the five or so men in charge of the project, and countless teenage boys, hands on the same wall, in the pouring rain and mud, lifted it up together. 2 more walls later, we had a foundation of a house! We ran out of wood for the day and needed to purchase more so we had to end a bit early. We worked ourselves until the very end, shivering and hugging each other for body heat by 4:00.

This is when we got to take our little monkey, Christian, back to our hotel with us. We loved being able to feed him, get him clean, and just give him a little treat. He was so happy, my heart just explodes every time I look at him.

And with that, our day is over. 2 days down, 3 to go. We almost have a house, but we all have new family. I already know it’s going to be so hard to leave this place.

-Amanda Silverstein

Day 4:


This morning we were woken up with sunlight streaming through our hotel windows, beckoning us to come outside and begin our fourth day. Accompanied by Joonji, a Roatan resident we met at the hotel who shared our passion for Tikkun Olam, we set out to Sandy Bay in our collectivo. We picked up Elsie, a mother in La Colonia infected with HIV, and visited Familias Saludables, a support group for Roatan residents infected with HIV. There we heard from other locals living with HIV, sharing their struggles with health, discrimination, and the effects of HIV infection in their everyday lives. Their stories brought tears to the eyes of many in our group, and resonated with certain members in particular, fostering personal reflection and empathy. This proved to be one of the most meaningful experiences of the trip, and the emotions and stories expressed by Elsie, her son Fernando, and the other women have left an indelible mark on us. After a brief lesson about HIV/AIDS with Scott and some staff of Familias Saludables, the group wandered through the town, picking up a snowman piñata for Friday’s fiesta, before then boarded another collectivo, and headed back to La Colonia to continue construction.

The locals had already gotten to work by the time we arrived. The house looked incredible! Four walls were standing and the frame of the roof was in place. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and with excitement we climbed up to the rafters to resume hammering! For lunch, we were welcomed into the home of one of the residents of La Colonia, Leslie. She prepared the most delicious pastelitos, fried pockets of chicken topped with a blend of vegetables and spices, for us! One thing in particular that stood out to members of the group was the hospitality of the Roatan residents. We were sweaty and grimy from our construction, yet we were invited to not only come into their home but to sit on their beds and eat their food from their very limited supply of plates and glasses!

After lunch, we resumed work. The children ran into our arms, delighted to be able to spend more time with us! As the roof was put in place, the local construction workers took over, allowing us to spend more time with the children. After playing a short round of keep-away, giving piggy-back-rides, and more, we split up. Most went to visit Cristian and his family, while David and I had the opportunity to hike up to the uppermost vista of La Colonia. The views were absolutely breathtaking. Before us, the entire island was laid out. We could see the waves crashing on the beaches on both sides of the island, the cruise ships coming in and out, the thousands of houses (not unlike the one we were currently constructing) built into the mountains, and the beautiful foliage of the island. Genesis, the wonderful young woman who accompanied us up the mountain pointed out a few landmarks, and we took pictures and headed back down to rejoin the group.

After finishing up and saying our goodbyes at the construction site, we walked to the house of the founder of Familias Saludables. We were greeted with a delicious assortment of homemade pizzas and friendly conversation as we relaxed for the evening. Valerie spoke to us about her life and experiences in social work throughout the world, and the work she currently does for Roatan. She told us about an opportunity to sponsor a Roatan child’s primary education, and her experience dealing with HIV on the island and the ignorance of discriminators. After a both physically and emotionally exhausting day, we shared our thoughts and feelings during our nightly check-in. Today was one of the most fun of the trip, and I can’t wait to finish the house tomorrow, ahead of schedule!

– Robby Ost

Day 5:


As we wander around the sandy main drag of West End in the cool morning air, muddy shoes strapped to our feet, I clutch a black garbage bag filled with my dirt encrusted clothes searching for a laundromat. We reach an ice cream shop which operates as a dry cleaners during the day. I explain as Juan translates that we have been building a house for a family that lives in la colonia for the past five days and we are in desperate need for a few more clean shirts so we can put the finishing touches on the house and finally give Fernando’s family the house they deserve. Before we leave Juan insists on standing on the beach and dipping his toes in the ocean.

We hop in the collectivo and head to the site as our advisor, Leah, blasts our trip’s de facto anthem (Osmani Garcia’s ‘El Taxi’ if you didn’t already know) in order to keep us in good spirits. We split up, half of us heading to the department store to pick up paint with the other half picking up groceries for the fiesta we are throwing for the community tomorrow. My group went to the department store, but instead of being greeted with overly pushy Home Depot workers and endless swatches of different shades of light blue we found ourselves face to face with garbage cans full of axes and an entire rack of machetes being sold right next to the rakes. We really aren’t in State College anymore.

We leave the department store and carry our buckets of paint, rollers, pans, and brushes by hand from the department store to the bus stop, however we don’t make it there without taking a very important visit. Scott stops us outside of a hospital on the way back begins trying to describe to us the conditions inside, but we simply do not understand. He decides to take us all inside with him . At the door we are greeted by an important looking man with a cellphone in hand he turns to Scott.

“What do you want?” he asks in Spanish.
“I am here with med students from the University of Pennsylvania” Scott lies as he turns around and gives us a knowing look. “Do you mind if we look around?”
“Go right ahead” the man responds.

This white lie got us past the front desk, and we saw firsthand how true Scott’s words were. In my life in the United States even my worst hospital visit paled in comparison to this one, around every corner you saw another shocking sight. Dim florescent lighting, gurneys covered in rust, cribs that looked like equipment from a 1950’s insane asylum, old floor tiles dyed brown from years of use, and gaunt solemn people standing in lines throughout the facility. We left with a new view of the community, in the US we think ‘If all else fails at the very least we can go to the hospital’ which simply is not the case for so many across the world. We retrieved our paint supplies and headed to our partially finished house, determined to continue our work.

On the site today we were actually lucky enough to be offered two meals, lunch and dinner, from families in the community we’ve grown close with since being here. I believe I speak for the entirety of our group when I say these were some of the most delicious meals we’ve had in our lives. Anytime we are invited into one of the homes of the residents of this place we are overwhelmed by their overabundance of hospitality. Handing us helping after helping of c

hicken rice and beans on their nicest plates as children insist on taking out backpacks for us. To quote Scott, ‘It’s like the less they have the more they want to give’. Our group certainly has a lot to learn from our new families.

At the end of the day, we took a step back and looked at how incredible it is that we were given the chance to meet the amazing families we’ve met on this trip, let alone be invited into their houses for food and to get to know them so intimately!

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings

-David Zaremsky

Day 6:


“I don’t want to be rude and hold up the group but I have to go say goodbye to Juan Carlos.” Those were some of the few words Erica said today. Long goodbyes are plain awful; they’re sad, way too emotional, and awkward. After spending a week on the island of Honduras, it is really hard to let go of the community we’ve made here. Seeing the house complete was one of the most bittersweet feelings I have ever felt. On one hand, it was heart-filling to see all that the hard work we put into this project is tangible, but on the other hand, it also means that our time in this community is done.

We celebrated the completion of the house with a fiesta  – it was incredible. There was so much emotion from everyone from the little kids, to the adults like Johnny and Dona Panchita. We ran out of time, we ran out of time to build more houses, we ran out of time to change more of these people’s lives, we ran out of time to meet more of the wonderful people that La Colonia has, we simply ran out of time. Knowing that we ran out of time is terrifying because we want to keep being the light we have been this week to these people, in the same way they have been to us.

As the week came to an end we all tied our loose ends in one way or another. Some of us got some quality time with the kids who we didn’t have much time to spend with, some of us got a chance to do some manual labor and talk a little more to the people that spent their entire time hammering and drilling. Ending the day on the beach where Robby scored three amazing goals against what are some of the best soccer players I’ve seen, seeing this new side of everyone post-construction was the perfect sunset of this week. Before this trip happened, we had no connection to these people. We had no feelings toward this neighborhood which Scott had described many times as was many would call a G’d forsaken place. We simply could not comprehend the lives of these people who we didn’t know but we heard so much about from Scott (for some of us, a stranger still) on speaker phone in our pre-trip meetings because we didn’t understand how someone doesn’t have stairs, electricity in their home, or a bathroom that has to be flushed by dumping a bucket of water into the toilet. We still don’t understand how someone can live like this, but what’s most important is that we don’t understand why people as beautiful as these have to live like this. What is it that made us change our question from how to why? Its love; the love we felt when we were greeted by strangers with smiles, with a hug, and with looks full of hope and illusion. It is love that we feel, for every single person we met, no matter how briefly it was, and for each other.

It’s scary to leave, maybe because we are all leaving a little something in this island that we can’t really explain. It’s scary to leave because we see so much potential in these kids and we would hate to see it lost because they didn’t have the resources so fully exploit it, but it is mostly scary because we will be going back home, where everything works, where we don’t swallow our pride and ask for help, where we will have to now help ourselves and see people have so much but yet so little. I’m going to miss seeing these kids’ joy when they’re playing with weeds and rocks. I’m going to miss all this love, this love for strangers that are not scared to ask for help, strangers who take care of us when we are sick and ask for nothing in return.

I hate long goodbyes, and this one has been long enough. I knew before we got out of the plane that this week we were going to change someone’s life. Little did I know they were going to change ours.

– Juan Martinez