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Volunteers begin work rebuilding Honduras

BY MICHELLE TIRADO | HONDURAS | March 10, 1999

There are still no new homes in the Hurricane Mitch-ravaged Honduran

village of Doce de Febrero, but there is now a hotel. A sign on the door

to two army tents reads "Hotel Doce" and bears the signatures of the guests

who stayed there during the last week of February.

The guests named it themselves. They were first team of volunteers to

arrive in Honduras under a partnership program among the United Methodist

Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Church World Services (CWS), and the Christian

Commission for Development (CCD).

During a four-hour ride to the village, the volunteers saw

washed-out roads and the empty spaces where bridges had been, and were

overwhelmed with the scope of the damage.

Arriving in Doce de Febrero, they found many preparations for their visit

including two wells, that had been hand-dug by the villagers.

"They had done so much work to prepare for our arrival. They had dug

latrines; they had tents ready for us. They wanted to welcome us," said

Sarah Rath, team member and translator from Granville, N.Y. Another

volunteer, Bill Vanderminden of Queensbury, N.Y., was impressed by "how much

they had accomplished with so few resources."

Their 'hotel' had a dirt floor and some sleeping pallets. At noon, the

thermometer that hung inside often read 102 degrees. The volunteer team

worked to put platforms under the tents for the comfort of future work

teams. "We named the tents 'Motel 12'," said team leader Roger Ellis of

Granville, "because there were 12 of us and we were in 12 Febrero."

The team, labored side-by-side with the village men -- digging and pouring

foundations for three homes, fixing a broken generator and building a

"bodega," a warehouse for tools and supplies.

For the first three days, until a gas-powered cement mixer arrived, they

mixed cement by hand. They hauled wheelbarrows full of rock from surrounding

fields. Together with the villagers, they cleared trees and brush with

machetes and a chainsaw so trucks with supplies could get through. And they

added finishing touches to the camp that will house teams coming throughout

the year to assist in the rebuilding efforts.

A second volunteer team, says Paul Jeffreys of the Christian Coalition for

Development (CCD), arrived arrived earlier this month. Organized

by Wesley United Methodist Church in Bloomsburg, PA, the team will continue

with the foundation-pouring stage.

In Honduras, as many as 200,000 people still remain homeless. While CCD's

original plans included rebuilding 2500 homes, Jeffreys anticipates additions

to that figure. With nearly 40 volunteer groups having already promised at

least a week's worth of time and energy in 1999, he is confident that they'll

have the manpower to meet their objectives. "The calendar is filling up

rapidly. We'll have no problem getting 100, or more, groups this

year," he predicted.

But the effort, Jeffreys emphasizes, extends beyond constructing ceilings,

walls, and floors; it also serves as a reality check for the volunteers.

"If they can come and be changed by their experience -- to learn about the

reality of the poor here and some of the connections that it has to their

lives in the north, and the economic and political choices they make --

then it's worth the expense. And we'll build a few houses in the process."

Ellis, a livestock veterinarian and member of The United Methodist Church in

Granville, NY, was asked by UMCOR volunteer coordinator Nancy Osgood, to

assemble a group in January. He had visited Honduras three times before:

twice between 1988 and 1989 as a volunteer counselor with the Peace Corps,

and with Heifer Project International in 1990.

Within a week, he had enlisted his wife, Claudia, three teachers and one social

worker from Vermont, a store manager and retiree from Granville, a Hudson

Falls builder and a Granville builder, and a Granville furniture designer.

Ward Smith, an UMCOR representative from Columbia, SC also joined them. And

thanks to an article in a local newspaper, the team was able to raise

$3,000, which they presented to CCD upon their arrival.

Doce de Febrero, so named for the day the campesinos officially obtained the

land from the government in 1982, received nine heifers and one bull

through the Heifer Project in 1985. By October 1998, their heads of cattle

had multiplied to 75. With the profits they made the village -- 11

families and 65 children strong-- was able to purchase chickens, goats, and

horses. And then Mitch struck.

"When the flood came, they went to the top of the village's 75 foot-high

knoll, and stayed there, with the water all around them, for 10 days.

Although no one died, they did lose their homes, their crops, 40 cows, all

300 chickens, the goats, and five horses," Ellis explained.

When the water receded the families went to Los Angelitos, a neighboring

village, and took refuge in a school. Some of the villagers stayed behind in

the remains of their dwellings, to protect their land from Nicaurgans or other

Hondurans who might try to claim the land, now covered by two meters of silt,

as their own.

They decided to build their new village, where Ellis and his team camped out,

on an elevated, small plot of land they bought from Los Angelitos. "The old

village will be used for farming. They don't know what they'll grow because

they've just started testing it," Ellis added.

Only home for a week, Ellis is already considering taking a group of volunteer

veterinarians back to Honduras and, perhaps, another building group for the

program's second year. "It was an experience of lifetime," Ellis said.

"They have a lot to teach us, like how to basically survive."

For volunteers considering committing to the project, Jeffreys says, "They

can expect to work hard, sweat, be bothered by bugs, not

sleep well because of the noise the chickens make. But they will have a great

time, make new friends, and learn about their sisters and brothers here."

-- Holly Nye also contributed to this story.


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