Do you ever find it helpful in risky situations to disregard worrisome thoughts and push yourself past tragedy, pain and danger?
Some call that approach denial. I call it exactly what I need as I rendezvous with volunteers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Mostly column readers, these people arrive on a humid Sunday afternoon in answer to my challenge for help with the Chispa Project to establish a library for an inner-city school.
Along with my daughter, Sara, Chispa director, I meet them at the airport where they’d flown in from across the U.S. From the terminal, Chispa employees bus us to the safety of a rural retreat center run by a Honduran cadre of Presbyterian women.
As we unpack, I can’t help but feel pride in my group. These well-seasoned travelers are fully aware of why this project shouldn’t work.
Murders occur so frequently here that the Peace Corps pulled out in 2012. The traffic is horrendous, motorcycles dart in front of cars like stray dogs and overloaded trucks menace the roadway. Roadside-trash buildup is stifling.
Education is so grossly underfunded that school staff must ration toilet tissue. Language and cultural differences raise the bar discouragingly high.
Nevertheless, we awake Monday to board our bus to Maradiaga School. During the drive, Earl Monroe of Montgomery, Ala., tells me he believes Chispa to be “a perfect pay-it-forward project because we should see the immediate effects.”
An hour later, a school guard admits us through into a walled compound.
Sara explains how each teacher will receive a portable library that will rotate between classrooms every month. But first, we must prepare reading corners appropriate for these new books.
Our group scatters to survey classrooms and divide project pieces among us. Terri Young of Sacramento, Calif., quickly notes the “flow” and says she’s “feeling blessed to be a part of something that makes books so accessible to the children throughout the school.”
Soon, we use two projectors to splash mural outlines onto corner sections of the walls.
Volunteers pencil-trace the projection, painting inside the pattern with bright primary colors that bring inspirational book characters to life. Kathleen Chobot of Charleston declares the mural to be “the first step in a thousand-mile journey.”
Outside in the breezeway amidst noisy recess games, children surround us, smiling with unrehearsed gratitude. Theirs are broad, cheeky smiles that go for miles and miles.
They hug Annette Pollard of Myrtle Beach so often they delay simple movement. “I’ve always said that if I can get 12 hugs each day, I’ve had a great day. I got that amount in 10 minutes.”
The first two days pass quickly as we assemble and paint book shelves, code each book with a sticker and pack the portable libraries into plastic tubs.
As we administer the tedious inventory task, Sherry Brakane from Glen Carbon, Ill., sees our effort as “one tiny thing to bring more color to their world.” Her husband Terry adds, “Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.”
The school suspends classes on Wednesday while Sara trains the teachers in methods that will encourage students to read.
The value of the teaching seminar is quickly noted by our volunteers. Katie Doyle, Chispa board member and retired librarian from Denver, observes, “We are improving the education that’s already in place by investing in teachers.”
Bob Smith of Walterboro pinpoints it. “The students seem eager to learn, but I’m most impressed that teachers are so receptive.”
On the last two days, Chispa hosts the library inauguration, a sort of all-day birthday party where children rotate among classrooms for hands-on fun with puppets, experiments and storytelling.
In one class, a little girl reads “Peppa Pig” aloud to Laurie Mullinax of Charleston. “The girl turned each page as fast as she could,” Laurie tells me. “Reading is the spark of learning.”
As the week draws to a close, everyone gathers in the courtyard where children dazzle us with a cultural dance in swirling dress. On a final note, they unfurl a banner spelling out their gratitude:
“Thank you for making our school a better place to learn.” The banner is bracketed with two U.S. flags.
Why did we do this? Deny our fears and push against the worrisome odds?
Lisa Dobeck of Sacramento, Calif., suggests that “You never know how touching someone’s life will change them, but you do the right thing because that’s what your heart tells you to do.”
Melissa Rush of Charleston adds a benedictory thought. “The end result proves it’s worth the risk. We need to risk it for the children. Risk being afraid. If the children can read a book and see something beyond their neighborhood, I can put up with discomfort. We come for a week, but they have a lifetime.”