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Volunteers bringing 'open minds, spirits'


Nearly six months after Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America,

faith-based organizations nationwide are sending volunteers to

Central America with the bare essentials: updated shots, a few Spanish

phrases, and an open mind and spirit.

The most effective volunteers see themselves as equal partners in solving

problems, not as people who have the answers, said Betsy Crites, who trains

volunteers for Church World Service and other organizations.

"One of the most common mistakes volunteers make is expecting things to run

on time and getting impatient with logistical challenges that face Central

Americans every day," she said. "Go with an open mind and spirit. Don't take

an agenda and don't assume your solutions will fit their problems."

Other common mistakes include overlooking the richness of the Central

American environment by making constant comparisons with the U.S., and being

insensitive of the feelings of people by taking photographs without their

permission or acceptance, Crites said.

The ideal volunteer, concluded Crites, is one "who listens and doesn't just

hear, who is content to be with and accompany the survivors and doesn't have

to be constantly performing tasks, teaching, and doing."

In its pre-trip guidelines, Church World Service cautions volunteers to

resist thoughts or comments such as, "If these people only had good 'ol

American technology and 'know-how' they could fix this situation they're


Guidelines for volunteers provided by Church World Service include tips on

everything from shaking hands with your neighbor to politely turning down

food that's risky for you.

Crites also tells volunteers to learn as much Spanish as they can. "Even a

few phrases will make things go smoother, and demonstrate a deep respect for

the people's culture and traditions," she said.

An editorial in Honduras This Week urged humanitarian leaders to resist

thinking of the Mitch-related devastation as the only uniform reality for

the Honduras. "This is a rather large country with diverse environments,"

wrote Erling Duus Christensen. "Very few people are in a position to grasp

the overall reality; each blind man describes the part of the elephant he is


Phil Rosburg, a youth director for the Adventist Carolina Conference,

recently led nearly 100 volunteers on a 10-day trip to the Honduras

coordinated through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).

Only one out of six people in the group could speak Spanish. But having an

ADRA director in the Honduras helped break down otherwise daunting language

barriers and cultural divides. Rosburg said that's one of many examples why

volunteers should coordinate through a response organization instead of

trying to plan their own way.

Glenn Rogers, work teams coordinator for Church World Service, has 54

reconstruction mission teams already scheduled to travel to the Honduras,

with another 10 headed for Nicaragua. Although some have scheduled trips as

far ahead as next year, Rogers said volunteers are still needed this year.

"Until now we have been primarily recruiting people with medical

backgrounds, but now we have moved into the rehabilitation and

reconstruction phase, and we're ready for work teams," said Rogers.

"With an emphasis on the 'work,'" he adds. Although volunteers don't have to

be professional tradespeople, some experience with volunteer building is

helpful. Participating in a Habitat for Humanity project is an ideal way to

get that experience, Rogers suggested.

The work isn't easy. Rosburg's group often scrambled to keep up supplies of

building materials, and the volunteers worked in hot, windy, and dusty

conditions. "We bought all building materials locally, and materials like

block, sand, and cement are in high demand right now. Companies that provide

them are strapped right now," he said. "Also, the dust was amazing to us.

It's the dry season right now."

Since some village roads are still inaccessible to large equipment, such as

backhoes, volunteers may find themselves digging foundations with smaller

equipment or by hand.

ADRA Honduras Director Walter Britton also stressed the importance of

volunteer groups paying for their own food and travel, allowing about 90

per cent of funds to go toward buying materials, with the additional 10 per

cent toward hiring local professional tradespeople. Volunteers can expect

to pay about $22 per day for meals and accommodations, which usually means

a tent.

Many faith-based organizations also add a missionary component to their trip

by offering vacation Bible school for local children or prayer groups for


Although the rainy season will begin in a few weeks, Rosburg said that work

will go on. "We were working in a small village in southern Honduras. In

that town alone, more than 3,000 families need houses."

Rosburg's group started 20 brick or cement block five-by-six-meter homes

which cost about $1,500 to $2,000 each to build.

"Every church organization that conducts mission trips could go there for

three or four years running and still not meet all the need," he said.

Response leaders estimate that recovery will take 10 years or more.

Donna Derr, acting director of the Church World Service Emergency Response

Program, said there is also a critical need for work teams willing to go to

Nicaragua. "The majority (of teams) seem focused on the Honduras, but the

need is just as great in Nicaragua," she said.

For more information about volunteer teams, Glenn Rogers at Church World

Service can be reached at 1-888-283-6113.

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