From the Mouths of Babes
A mission trip to Honduras imparts a closer view of God.
By César Antonio González
Ileaned toward the window, crowding the passenger next to me in an effort to get a glimpse of the approaching Honduran coastline. It was beautiful—emerald green mountains emerging from clear blue Caribbean waters, hillside fields of fruit dissected by lazy rivers flowing by thatched-roof dwellings.
An hour later we were driving away from our arrival city, San Pedro Sula, headed for the small town of Santa Barbara in the northwestern region of the country. After several hours of lurching through mountain roads in a particularly valiant school bus, we arrived at El Hogar de Niños (The Children’s Home), sponsored by REACH International, Inc., a humanitarian aid organization based in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, that focuses on providing help to children.
PRAISING GOD: In their praise during worship time, the children seem to forget the tragedies in their lives and sing as if they understand that God is their most prized possession.El Hogar is an unassuming place, just off the main road into town, perched on the side of a hill surrounded by mountains. Built like a large hacienda, the concrete block structure houses almost 50 children between the ages of 7 and 18. I was there with other members of my home church—Washington Spanish Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States—to help construct additional living spaces and do other much-needed maintenance to the facility. As I walked up the dirt driveway, lined by palm trees and leading from the road to the compound, I had no idea this place would change my life.
El Hogar originated with seven children 12 years ago, when director Nelson Rodriguez witnessed the dire need after returning to his hometown following six years in the United States. Even today, several babies are left at the local hospital every month by mothers who cannot take care of them. At first Rodriguez focused on the children’s immediate needs—food, clothing, and other basic necessities. But as the children began to grow, Rodriguez realized another essential was education. Finding no elementary school to fit the bill, however, he decided to establish one just down the hill from El Hogar. That school now provides affordable education to the region and serves nearly 200 students.
Eventually, as the children’s education progressed, a high school was opened in a nearby government-abandoned facility. Almost 150 students are currently enrolled—and the school continues to expand.
About two years ago, the high school launched an accredited nursing program. Rodriguez, a licensed nurse anesthetist, spearheaded the initiative so career options would be available to the older students when they leave El Hogar, which the law requires them to do when they reach the age of 18. The first class of nurses will graduate in April 2008.
But Rodriguez could not stop with El Hogar and the three schools.
“People kept asking us to take care of their children for just a couple of days, but we were just not set up to do it,” Rodriguez says. So after getting permission to utilize yet another unused government property, Rodriguez launched a day care center in the town. Remarkably, every weekday at about 10:30 in the morning children as young as 4 years just start showing up at the center—many by themselves. Caring staff feed and care for them, and teach them the alphabet and numbers. The children also play together, learn songs, and hear Bible stories. Then late in the afternoon, they head back to their homes.
THE REASON FOR THE SACRIFICE: The children’s home houses almost 50 children between the ages of 7 and 18.Watching a 5-year-old wandering off into the hills alone is an experience I won’t soon forget, but that’s the way life is for them. With a 40-percent unemployment rate, those parents who have work are the lucky ones, and they are very grateful to have a center that cares for their children.
El Hogar is at once the happiest and saddest place I’ve ever been to in my life. A child can find refuge there for one of only three reasons: they must be orphaned, abandoned, or abused. Because of this, one might imagine El Hogar as a dreary place—but the reality is far from it. Energy that is difficult to describe abounds. Life there seems pure and powerful, undiluted by distractions and superficial commitments. I lived while I was there.
In speaking with the children it was not uncommon to hear about the life-shattering events that brought them to El Hogar—parents killed in accidents or by thieves; mothers involved in prostitution and not capable of caring for their children; older children from a previous relationship abandoned after a new marriage; or reasons much worse. But the good that El Hogar is doing is evident in every young face.
On my first evening there I met Manuel—or rather, he claimed me. I was sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda, minding my own business, when he came walking by and just sat on me, as if we were old friends or I were a piece of furniture. We talked a bit, and then he wandered off.
Later I learned how Manuel came to El Hogar. As a deathly ill baby he was abandoned at the day care center. Erica Russell, an American volunteer working at the orphanage, took on the task of caring for Manuel, both day and night, until he recovered. Today Manuel is thriving and more precocious than most; he can usually be found climbing the nearest tree.
Caring for and feeding so many children is a difficult challenge shared by a small but wonderfully dedicated staff and led by sisters Maria Jose and Maria Jesus Hernandez from Spain. It costs only US$20 dollars a month to care for one child.
The children are not idle. So much work needs to be done that the children themselves spend much of their time doing chores. The boys work hot afternoons in the fields, where they grow vegetables to supplement their food supply. The girls do most of the daily cleaning and laundry. The children also clean the schools after class, help in the kitchen, and wash an endless pile of dishes after every meal. I often remember one young girl whose job it was to haul a wheelbarrow full of wet clothes from the laundry to the hillside to be hung up to dry, her tiny arms straining but a smile always on her face.
The spirit of these kids seems unbreakable. In the two weeks I was there I never witnessed a fight—or even an argument. They did their jobs without complaint. They shared everything they had. And the stronger ones looked after the weaker.
The memory I cherish the most, however, was evening worship. Listening to those children sing was a spiritual highlight of my life. Joy poured out of them in a way rarely witnessed and difficult to describe. In their praise they seemed to forget the tragedies in their lives and sang as if they understood that God was their most prized possession. Heaven and earth were in close proximity.
It was not only a privilege but a pleasure to give of myself to these children. Could it be that I, too, am so precious in Jesus’ eyes that He feels the same way about His sacrifice for me?
César Antonio González is initiatives coordinator of the North American Division Adventist Volunteer Ministries Network.