A school bus scorched down the dirt road in San Pedro Sula on a stifling hot July day. Dust choked the exhaust as it rumbled through the city. Motorbikes and cars sped by, narrowly passing between the shoulder and the bus. Inside the bus’ open and dusty windows, twelve other people and I looked out at the scenery. We were on our way to El Progreso, a small town just outside the city, where we would be staying for the next week.
I’d visited Honduras only once, in January. As a member of Students Helping Honduras, I spent the week helping construct a library by shoveling cement, laying the bricks for the wall, and meeting and playing with all the kids. In that week’s time, I experienced a sense of happiness and belonging that I’d never felt before. I bonded with the kids, and promised myself that I would come back as soon as I could. In May, I received a call from my SHH Chapter president asking me to come down in July for Leadership Week. I quickly accepted and then counted down the days until I would see my kids again.
Forty-five minutes later, the bus pulled into Villa Soleada, a tiny part of El Progreso with about thirty small houses, a bilingual school, and a home for orphaned boys and girls. When we got off the bus, the boys and girls from the home came running towards us. I hurried off the bus, trying to take in all their faces. Ariel, a soft-spoken, green-eyed boy with an interest in karate, looked up at me thoughtfully.
I knelt down next to him. “Me recuerdas?” I asked him (do you remember me?). It’s normal for the kids to forget faces because so many volunteers come from all over the US to help throughout the year. “Theresa. Towson.” I said.
Ariel looked at me, still a little confused. But when I said Towson, his face lit up with recognition. “Towson? Sadie?”
I smiled. Sadie was the SHH President. “Sí!”
Ariel smiled and gave me a hug like he’d known me for years. “Hola!”
After situating ourselves in our rooms, we went for a walk out to the huge soccer field, where everyone in the village gathered at four to play a game or just chat with each other. I found Paola, a girl who I became close with in January, and all of her brothers and sisters. We walked down the dirt path past the houses of the villages. People peered out of their doors curiously, or raised their hands to wave happily at us.
People were beginning to gather at the field. In Honduras, soccer is just as important as religion. Soccer brings a community together, no matter if you played the sport or not. SHH has also organized a soccer rehab program, which allows youths who are in gangs to spend time playing soccer, attend weekend school, and participate in job training in order to hopefully make a better future outside of gang violence. Soccer is also a great way to end a long day surrounded by people who feel as close to you as your immediate family.
Walking onto the grassy field that was dwarfed by the mountainous backdrop, I couldn’t help but stop and stare in awe at the beauty of this country. The mountains were covered in green; so tall that it scratched the sky and scattered clouds. In Maryland, the mountains looked like anthills compared to the ones here.
As I turned my gaze back to the field, I saw two little boys running across towards me. One of them I recognized immediately. The taller one was Jeffrey, a five-year-old who lived in the village that I’d met in January. He was always energetic and a little troublesome, but could get away with anything with a flash of his sweet smile. The smaller boy I didn’t recognize, but he looked an awful lot like Jeffrey with his matching buzz cut and big brown eyes.
Jeffrey spotted me, and his brow furrowed.
“Jeffrey!” I called. “Me recuerdas? Theresa? Towson?”
Jeffrey grinned widely. “Theresa!” and ran towards me.
I knelt down, and in two seconds he bounded into my arms. I picked him up and swung him around, so happy to see him after six months. He laughed and hugged me tight around the neck. I set him down, and the smaller boy looked at me warily with his big eyes.
I gave him a smile. “Hola,como te llama?” (What is your name?)
The little boy shied away a little, looking down at his bare feet.
“Jean Carlos” Jeffrey answered for him. “Mi hermano.”
I didn’t remember Jeffrey having a little brother in January, but they definitely looked related. Not wanting to make him uncomfortable, I just smiled and waved at him. He inched closer to Jeffrey. Jeffrey grabbed a hold of my hand, and motioned Jean Carlos to hold my other hand, insisting that I was nice. Carefully, Jean Carlos held on to my pinkie finger, and we made our way to the other side of the soccer field to watch the game. The more we played, the more Jean Carlos warmed up to me. By the end of the game, he was laughing and tackling me with Jeffrey and some of the other kids. When it began to get dark, I started to walk back to our hostel.
“Hasta mañana?” Jeffrey asked. (See you tomorrow?)
I nodded, and he and Jean Carlos grinned before running back in the direction of their house.
For the next few days, we learned about the violence that has arisen in Honduras due to gang violence and the crisis of children migrating to the US border in an attempt to escape it. In Honduras, the gangs MS13 and M18 have taken complete control of whole cities, and the people in it. If one lives in the “turf” of a gang, they are forced to pay a tax to the gangs, which can be up to 90% of their salary. If they pay it, they are given “protection”. If not, they must leave or the gang will kill them. A week before I arrived in Honduras, a twelve year old was killed by his fellow classmate who was in a gang because he did not pay him a fifteen-cent tax.
The gangs also recruit youths as young as eleven to join, promising to provide for them as well as their families, and give them a “brotherhood”. Due to lack of an education system and employment, youths have little choice or opportunity in order to provide for their families. However, being in a gang comes with the fact that at any instant, they could be killed. While 20,000 children have come into the US by migrating, I can’t help but think about the children who didn’t make it here. Coming to the US illegally involves travelling through the country into Guatemala, where they must travel on top of a train for weeks before they reach Mexico and attempt to cross the border either by land or through the river. It is estimated that only a third of those children attempting to migrate make it to the border.
Being so close to the murder capital of the world, I always wonder why I’m not more scared about my safety than I am. But most of my concern is not for myself, but for the kids here. This is their life, and they can’t just hop on a plane in a week and sleep in a warm bed with air conditioning and know what tomorrow will hold. I worry most for these kids, both the ones I have met that have been impacted by SHH, and those who have not.
After a long day of training, we returned to Villa, tired and sore. I wanted to just take a nice cold shower and fall asleep. But it was 4:30, and soccer was going on. I made my way to the field. They hadn’t started playing yet, and I met a lot of the teenage boys who played. I met two twins, Kevin and Orlin, who were identical but whose personalities were so polar opposites, and Luis, who was soft spoken but had one of the kindest hearts. They all told me that I had to play soccer with them sometime, even though I have a better chance of tripping myself than kicking the ball.
Once the game started, I sat in the grass and watched. Jeffrey wandered over to me and sat on my lap, playing with my bracelets. He told me about how his favorite soda is Coca cola and that he loves to swing in hammocks.
After awhile, Jeffrey turned to me. “Qieres visitor mi casa?” he asked. (Do you want to visit my house)
I smiled. “Sí Jeffrey. Vamanos.”
Jeffrey took my hand and I followed him past the soccer field and onto a small dirt path. Chickens clucked at us as they wandered freely, and a skinny stray dog loped by, looking for food. Jeffrey confidently led me by the hand. We passed by several houses until we stopped in front of one. All the houses in the village were built the same: gray concrete blocks, metal roofs, and only three rooms. But I’d never been inside one; no one had ever invited me.
Jeffrey pushed a cloth/makeshift door aside and led me inside. It was dark from the windows being draped with cloth, and the floor was hard and cool. There was nothing hanging from the walls, and the only furniture in the house was a small plastic table that held an old coloring book.
Jeffrey put his hands in the air, presenting it to me. “Mi casa!” He said proudly, the same way people on game shows reveal the grand prizes. He turned to look at me, and then quickly ran into one of the rooms. When he came back, he was struggling to carry a plastic chair. “Sientas aquí.” He instructed me (You sit here). “Tu consigue el major asiento.” (You get the best seat)
I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say, I was so overcome with emotions. This child, who lived in a house that many people in the US would make a tool shed and who had so much less than me, was offering me the only seat in the house. I didn’t know how to explain to him the humility and sadness and love I was feeling all at the same time. I slowly sat down in the chair, and was so choked up that tears began to fall.
Jeffrey looked at me worriedly. “Que pasa?” He asked me.
I tried to put myself together. “Nada.” I said, “Estoy honrado.” I said brokenly, trying to explain how honored I was to be in his house.
Once I left Jeffrey’s house, I walked to a more isolated place and started to cry. It really made me take a step back and evaluate my life. It made me question what I always did when I came here: how can these people, who have every reason to be sad or hopeless, are happier than people in the US who have opportunities that they don’t even realize they have? The moments like this, where a child’s smile could light up a whole room because he has a roof over his head and a home, are what motivate me and make me proud to be a part of SHH.
The week ended with sore muscles, note-filled textbooks, and strange tan lines from being in the Honduran sun and heat everyday. The hardest part though was saying goodbye. I thought it would be easier knowing that I would be back in six months, but it took all of my strength to hug the kids goodbye and give them reassuring smiles when inside my heart felt like it was breaking. I said goodbye to the teenagers as well, and they promised me that they would continue to study hard and show me how much they’ve improved in January.
I rode the bus to the airport at five in the morning. As I looked out the window, I saw the sun begin to rise and kiss the tops of the mountains. It was something so beautiful but I would have to wait to see it again for six months. And in six months, who knows what the situation in Honduras will be? It seemed impossible that things would get better anytime soon. But Shin Fujiyama, the founder of SHH, always says, “Nothing is impossible. If you work hard, impossible is nothing.” And that’s exactly what SHH is going to do. Through education, SHH will end gang violence and give children the hope that a new day brings with every sunrise over the mountains. Hondurans will overcome the obstacles. Honduras sobrevivirá
Three days after returning to the United States, I was informed that rival gang members murdered one of the 17-year-old players in the soccer rehab program in his home. He had been abandoned by his parents and grown up in a shack. His only option in order to feed himself was to join the gang. However, he had been on the brink of leaving the gang in order to join SHH’s rehab program. For a whole month, he trained with our soccer team instead of being with the gang. His first ever pair of cleats was going to be awarded to him during their soccer game, but his future was taken from him.
I cannot express enough how urgently Honduras needs aid. Parents send their children to the border because they feel the small chance of making it out is a better option than an almost certain death by a gang. The gang violence must be stopped, and awareness and the push for change will be elemental keys in improving life for the next generation in Honduras.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. Its not.” –Dr. Seuss