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Volunteers bring hope to Honduras

BY GEORGE PIPER | GREEN BROOK, N.J. | November 5, 1999

GREEN BROOK, N.J. (Nov. 5, 1999) -- Hurricane-ravaged Honduras is

far from the relative safety and comfort of American suburbia. But Jim

Van Arsdale knew survivors of Hurricane Mitch needed help, even though a year has passed since the storm swept through Central America.

The banker and expectant father spent a week in the country, helping build what eventually will be a 95-home community near San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras. Though light on both carpentry skills and Spanish-speaking abilities, Van Arsdale contributed an abundance of care, and revitalized hope for people still suffering the long-term after-effects of the disaster.

"My idea of going down there was to show Hondurans that there are people in

the United States who really care about their plight and situation," he


The new village -- called Faith, Hope and Joy: A Project for Living -- is funded through The Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief (Episcopal Church) and co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras. Since June, some 50 volunteers have helped 1,500 Hondurans construct cinder block and concrete homes. Another 500 people committed time next year for the project, and church officials hope to expand this effort to 500 homes and aid other communities devastated by Mitch.

More than 5,600 people died in Honduras after Mitch produced torrential rains for several days last October. While the region has escaped several major storms this year, in September flooding killed 38 people. Tropical Storm Katrina dumped more rain on north Honduras in October, though the country escaped serious casualties.

Nonetheless, even the slightest rains can heighten people's anxiety -- and the lingering needs are significant.

"When we spoke with (Honduran Bishop Leo Frade), he identified housing as a

real priority in the coming year," said program associate Abagail Nelson,

noting that some 40,000 Hondurans are still homeless. "It's been impressive

to see how much people want to get involved in this type of effort and spend

a week or two."

Episcopalians from across the United States contributed funds to buy

materials, and volunteered their labor to build houses for families who lost

everything in the floods. The support was so overwhelming, added Nelson,

that church officials launched a comprehensive development program instead

of more traditional individual grants to aid Central America. Workers

completed 20 homes through August, and the project is expected to last two

to three years.

Residents will pay a monthly fee ($25 monthly for 10 years) into a common

fund, from which they may obtain loans for home improvements, tuition, or to

start small businesses. The church is talking with the Honduran government

about acquiring land for additional communities with similar projects

planned for Nicaragua, Belize, and Guatemala.

A church and community center will provide a sense of place in the new

village. Dedication for the community's Faith and Joy church was held Oct. 27, with the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, the Episcopal Church's presiding

bishop, invited to attend.

With so many homeless, the housing work undertaken by the Episcopal Church

and other faith-based and secular relief agencies is in high demand. About

800 families inquired about the 95 homes in the Faith, Hope, and Joy village,

underscoring the housing crunch.

While the church provides an umbrella of funding and support, people like

Van Arsdale help keep projects alive through their work there and by spreading

the word back in the United States.

He discovered the project via a flyer while attending Holy Cross Church in

North Plainfield, N.J. With he and his wife expecting their first child

later this year, Van Arsdale figured he might not get a chance to help


Even before disaster struck, many Hondurans faced harsh living conditions. Prenatal care is practically nonexistent and infants face severe health risks compared to American counterparts. The threat of death to youths and adults alike seems constant.

"It seemed that they look at death very differently because they've seen so

much of it -- and close to home, too," said another volunteer, Suzi Zetkus, who is an office manager in the Episcopal Church's congregational ministries section.

Van Arsdale added that the whole Honduran experience showed him how important it is to aid people in time of need, whether it's traveling to a foreign country for disaster relief or serving meals at the local soup kitchen.

"I'm not asking people to make Honduras their mission," he said. "But if you

don't have one, make one."

While San Pedro Sula fared much better than the capital city of Tegucigalpa,

Mitch still made a tremendous impact on the area. Lush fields belie the fact

that heavy rains and flooding washed nutrients from the soil, and some

bridges destroyed last year are still not repaired.

"People need to remember that after disaster there is a flood of support, but

it takes years and years to recover from this," noted Zetkus, adding that

she's going back in February. "There are still things that can be done to

make their lives easier."

In addition to homes, Nelson said other goals include developing a good

water system and help the communities set up businesses. Opportunities

include selling potable water, raising crops, and offering childcare.

Many other faith-based groups have volunteered in the Honduras. Two church organizations received an award for their work this year with disaster survivors. The Honduran government's Human Rights Commissioner awarded the 1999 National Human Rights Award to the Christian Commission for Development, a Protestant Development Agency, and to Caritas Honduras, the social ministry of the Roman Catholic Church.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is continuing to collect donations to support volunteer teams involved with Hurricane Mitch recovery efforts. UMCOR, in partnership with its parent agency, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, developed an ecumenical volunteer project in cooperation with Church World Service.

Volunteers are still needed for next year, reported UMCOR and other coordinating groups.

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