A little over a month ago I sat down at my computer and attempted to write this blog. I had just returned from my spring break service trip with Rochester’s chapter of Students Helping Honduras and wanted to write about my experience. But try as I might, I just couldn’t figure out where to start. I was still far too overwhelmed by all that I had seen and done to even begin to reflect on my trip in a coherent manner. So here I am at the end of the semester giving it another go. I could probably write a book about Students Helping Honduras, its history, and my experience with the organization over the past year, but this is neither the time nor place for that. So instead I’ll try to keep things brief and limit my rambling sentiments of admiration to a minimum.
The Students Helping Honduras (SHH) non-profit organization was founded by Shin Fujiyama in 2007. In 2004, Shin—then a college student at the University of Mary Washington—went on a service trip to Honduras. Inspired by his experience there, he spent the next couple years raising money back in the States to send to Honduran orphanages and charities. After graduating from college, he moved to Honduras and started SHH with his sister. Their goal was to build 1,000 schools across Honduras in an effort to combat widespread gang violence and poverty. Since the organization’s establishment, chapters have been founded in more than 100 high schools and colleges in the US that have sent thousands of volunteers to Honduras and collectively raised millions of dollars for SHH.
As an organization, SHH emphasizes local empowerment, sustainability, and sweat equity. Almost all of SHH’s staff members are Honduran citizens and the organization works collaboratively with local communities. While SHH provides the construction supplies needed for building its schools and brings down several waves of student volunteers throughout the year, the majority of the time and labor that goes into construction is done by Honduran community members. By providing jobs, or “hand-ups,” rather than “hand-outs,” SHH helps to support local economies and foster feelings of empowerment rather than dependency in the communities in which it is active.
The SHH headquarters is located in Villa Soleada, a village built by SHH in collaboration with nearly 100 families who had previously inhabited the largest shantytown in the El Progresso region of Honduras (for more info about this incredible project, visit the SHH website!). In addition to its 44 homes, “Villa” includes an SHH-run private bilingual school, children’s home, and volunteer lodge. Currently, all of the schools built (or being built) by SHH are in close vicinity to “Villa,” but the organization plans to expand throughout all of Honduras.
My SHH History:
Rochester’s chapter of Students Helping Honduras was established just three years ago by a small group of dedicated sophomores. Since then, the chapter has grown tremendously and as its founding members rapidly approach graduation, they are leaving the group in the hands of their passionate peers with an active membership of roughly 40 students.
I first became interested in SHH near the end of my freshman year. I wrote an article about the organization for the Campus Times newspaper after the group returned from their annual spring break service trip, and every person I interviewed was extremely enthusiastic. The more I learned, the more impressed I was by the organization and was ultimately convinced that this was a group I needed to join.
I have therefore spent this past school year as an active SHH member and was recently elected Community Service Chair. Most of what we do as a club is fundraise for our service trip. We sponsor a variety of events on campus, sell cupcakes and the like, and are always open to donations. At the end of the fall semester we tally up everyone’s volunteer hours and divide up our funds accordingly to help our members pay for their trip fees (most of which goes directly to purchasing construction materials). All the money we raise in the spring goes directly to the organization’s projects. Our chapter also has a unique local community service aspect. Many of our members volunteer weekly at various Rochester bilingual elementary schools and we hope to expand our outreach in the future.
The Service Trip:
This spring break, our chapter sent 25 volunteers on our weeklong service trip, joining 50 other volunteers from schools around the country. Our journey began with a bus ride from Rochester to the Newark airport where we boarded a plane to San Pedro Sula. Upon arrival, we were met by SHH staff that helped us pack our belongings and ourselves onto one of the organization’s school buses—finally arriving in Villa that afternoon.
The next five days were largely spent at our work site in the village of El Porvenir where we helped with the construction of a middle school. Each day after breakfast at the Villa lodge, we spent four hours mixing concrete, stacking cinder blocks, and passing buckets of dirt alongside Honduran construction workers, teachers, and children. We would then stop for our hour-long lunch break—our delicious meals courtesy of local community members. Three more hours of work followed before it was time to get back on our bus and head back to Villa. Evenings were spent in the village playing soccer and visiting with Shin and the local kids. After dinner, we often had a group activity followed by a reflection on the day’s activities, showers, and card games before bed.
Throughout the week, our group activities included a screening of the film Sin Nombre, salsa lessons at a local bar, a cage soccer tournament, and a bonfire with the kids from Villa’s children’s home. Other special events included visiting the school our chapter worked on last year, making baleadas (a delicious Honduran dish similar to a soft taco) with El Porvenir community members, and learning what goes into preparing a meal of chicken (starting with the live bird). Every night during reflection we would also discuss different aspects of life in Honduras, such as politics, gang violence, and immigration. Our final day of the trip was “beach day.” After a closing ceremony and a speech by Shin, we all headed to Tela Beach where we ate lunch, played in the water, and relaxed on the sand. That night, we ended the week with dancing at a local club. The following morning, we packed up our belongings, said our goodbyes, and began the long journey back to Rochester.
I could not be happier with my decision to become involved with Students Helping Honduras. Our individual chapter is made up of incredibly hardworking and dedicated individuals who have grown into a fun-loving and supportive family. Tutoring at Rochester’s School #12 has been extremely rewarding and a wonderful way to get more involved in the community. Our many fundraising efforts throughout the year have also been enjoyable with everyone involved motivated by our common passion. As for the service trip, it was a truly extraordinary experience for so many different reasons. Yet, none of these things would be nearly as meaningful as they are if I didn’t so wholeheartedly believe in the organization and its mission.
International volunteering is not nearly as straightforward as many of us would like to believe. It often comes hand-in-hand with problematic power dynamics, cultural misunderstanding, and an air of colonialism, not to mention a focus on quick fixes rather than sustainable solutions. As a result, many organizations based on such work run the risk of doing as much damage in the communities they volunteer in as good. SHH, however, was created with these issues in mind and has worked hard to improve the international non-profit model. SHH certainly isn’t perfect, but they are continually looking for ways to make the organization better (such as their recent push for more volunteer education in Honduras).
As someone interested in non-profit work and as someone with the critical perspective of an anthropology major, SHH has both inspired and impressed me. It is my belief that there is almost nothing as important or empowering as education. In SHH, I have found an organization that not only shares this belief, but has acted upon it, using what I consider to be exceedingly admirable methods. I am proud to support this organization and can’t wait to continue my involvement in the years to come.