By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
May 21, 2009
Helping Hands, Transformed Lives
In order to graduate from Williston Central School, all students are required to complete an Eighth Grade Challenge. This year-long academic project requires each student to research a topic he or she is interested in, integrate an element of community service and formally present findings before peers, teachers and community members. Topics range from addressing hunger, to sports psychology, to drumming. Sound daunting? You bet.
Niles Trigg, a current eighth grader, was looking for a project engaging him in active volunteerism while satisfying his natural curiosity about foreign cultures. As a student of Spanish, he was excited to learn of a service trip to Central America, offering the chance to work on humanitarian building projects while testing his linguistic skills among native speakers.
“I’ve always been interested in volunteering,” Niles observed. “When the tsunami happened (in the Asian Pacific), I wanted to help. I thought it would be good to help folks outside of the United States. It’s hard to find international volunteer opportunities that kids can participate in.”
Niles’ mother, Joy, read a news article in January 2008 about a group of Vermonters traveling to Honduras to perform volunteer work through a program called Hands to Honduras (www.handstohonduras.org). The organization provides educational, cultural and humanitarian assistance.
“Every January, volunteers from Vermont travel with Hands to Honduras to the small Central American nation to build community centers and schools or to set up clinics,” Niles said.
On Jan. 24, following a careful year of planning, Niles and his mother flew from Burlington to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The weary travelers — a group of about 80 volunteers — piled into vans at the airport for a two-and-a-half hour trip to Tela, their first work site.
“Niles and I took this trip because we had enough of typical vacations,” Joy said, “and I sensed this would be a life-changing event for both of us.”
Through the windows of the van, Niles’ first glimpses of Honduras were surprisingly western. They passed a Pizza Hut and ubiquitous Pepsi signs as their caravan snaked its way out of the city. Fast-food icons of multinational corporations were soon replaced by endless banana trees and simple houses with roofs of corrugated iron.
“We passed lots of banana plantations. The roads were bumpy. We came to this one-way bridge where our van had to stop and wait. (Local) kids knew the cars had to stop. They came right up to the window to sell us coconut,” Niles remembered, a hint of surprise in his voice.
“Our hotel in Tela was very simple. Our room had a couple of beds and a tiny TV that sometimes worked. Our room was apparently the room with hot water — we were lucky,” Niles laughed. “We had to close our eyes and hold our breath when we showered — there were parasites in the water. We used a gallon of (store-bought) water to brush our teeth and wash our faces.”
Niles remembers eating lots of rice, beans and fish. The fruit included just-picked bananas and succulent papayas, some as long as two feet. Abundant, fragrant flowers seemed like oversized versions of plants he’d encountered in North America. Pepsi advertisements seeped into smaller towns and tiny villages. The syrupy soda appeared to be consumed with gusto in this nation lacking potable tap water. Niles observed blackened, rotten teeth among many of the children.
“Our group built two new school rooms at IHNFA, a government-run daycare center in Tela. We used cinderblocks and mortar. It was really hot and humid,” Niles recalled. “We started work around 9 (o’clock) and finished around 4:30 most days. It was hard work. I got used to it.
“The (Honduran) people were extremely accepting and welcoming. They were very proud to show us what they had. A few could speak a little English. I could understand a good amount of what they said in Spanish and learned to apply what I know,” Niles said.
“This one lady in Las Palmas (a rural worksite), she basically didn’t have anything at all. She lived in a stick and mud hut and used one sheet of metal to cook on,” Niles observed. “She saw what we were doing — building a schoolhouse and a library — she burst into tears, she was so grateful.”
An important element of the Eighth Grade Challenge is sharing something of one’s experience to inform and inspire others. Niles contacted Mary Jane Wirsling, his former teacher at Allen Brook School’s Vista Team, to arrange a screening of a short film he produced on location. Here are some comments from his audience of third and fourth graders:
Allie P.-R.: “Going to Honduras was a brilliant idea for your Eighth Grade Challenge. Now I know how lucky I really am … By the looks of the movie, you did a great job on building the school.”
Alexis M.: “I learned that Honduras is a very poor country … I’m more thankful for having fancy gadgets …”
Molly D.: “I think it was a very kind choice to choose helping a poor country as your Eighth Grade Challenge. It must have been kind of scary not knowing if you could get sick by taking a shower!”
Brigham F: “I think it is really cool how you went to Honduras and helped all the children.”
Maddie H.: “I never thought about how grateful I am to have everything I’ve always had until watching your video about Honduras.”
Reflecting on his experience in Honduras, Niles said, “I learned a lot about myself in the sense that we, as Americans, have everything we want at our fingertips. Still, we sometimes miss the smaller things in life that really matter, like cooperation and community. People in Honduras, even though they have so little, are really happy.”
“It is a priceless gift to be able help a desperately poor culture — to live, work and laugh among the people there for a week,” Joy observed. “Niles and I realized quickly that their lives are very rich with warmth and sharing. And, that it’s not things that make us rich — it’s experiences like this trip.”
Visit www.youtube.com and search for “Hands to Honduras 2009 Trigg” to watch Niles’ film.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at LittleDetailsCol (at) yahoo.com or editor (at) willistonobserver.com.