Diane Miessler: Bringing the universe to Honduras
Who knew a soggy volleyball could be so much fun?
My Honduran friends Camila and Dulce had led me to the puddled basketball court behind our living quarters. We’re playing a combination of basketball and soccer with our volleyball, soaked by a fierce rainstorm last night. And I’m feeling that little-kid happiness that’s so elusive for grownups.
I’m in Tegucigalpa, Honduras with Chispa Project, an organization that installs libraries in schools here.
Chispa means “spark,” which it intends to be, sparking a love of books in a country where recreational reading is mostly reserved for the wealthy. Chispa has installed more than 70 libraries across the country; this is the seventh this year, with five more planned.
Because to discover books is to discover a new universe, opening up whole worlds that weren’t accessible before.
I’ve spent the last few evenings labeling and scanning children’s books in Spanish – shiny, new, colorful books it’s hard not to stop and browse through. Others in the group cut and fold paper “passports,” which the kids will get stamped at various stations during the library inauguration in a couple days.
I had some qualms about coming to Honduras; it has a rough reputation due to drug cartels, but the area where we’re staying is peaceful and beautiful. And poor.
Reading books for fun is unusual here – the focus of school is more on rote learning and copying text with good penmanship. Part of the project is teaching teachers how to present books to kids; the idea that books are fun is foreign to many of them, too.
Chispa requires that the schools where it installs libraries be invested in the project, so parents and teachers have been fundraising and donating their own money, sometimes as little as 80 cents a month, to get this library.
And what a library it is! Professional muralists are painting an undersea scene on one wall. Local builders and seamstresses made colorful bookshelves that we’re assembling. The floor is lined with straw mats and cushions for cozy reading. The overall effect is one of exuberance. Kids on recess peek through the glassless windows, excitedly watching our progress.
A group of 15 people from all over the United States flew down (and paid) to volunteer for this; the majority of the group is Christian but I’m not, as I don’t believe God sends people like me to hell. But nobody proselytizes or judges or even talks about religion, other than to occasionally refer to it as a source of strength – it’s an extraordinarily friendly, kind group, a big part of why I’m loving this project.
We sleep three to a comfortable room with bathroom, and all our meals are provided. And delicious – think handmade tortillas.
Besides making a library, we’re painting little murals in each classroom, with the help of an overhead projector. We’re a curiosity, to say the least. The kids are polite and friendly – they yell “Buenos Dias” when we walk into the room and “Thank you! I love you!” when we leave.
The day of the library inauguration is one of great ceremony. Kids and teachers file through the library, delighted. Educational dignitaries line the outdoor stage. We are each escorted to our seats by solemn kids in their Tai Kwando uniforms; my eyes water the tiniest bit.
There’s a Tai Kwando performance, guided by teachers from South Korea, then a song led by a teacher with a guitar and a performance of traditional dancing. Educators talk about how long they’ve dreamed of having a library. Books are expensive there and money is scarce, but Chispa is able to buy books in bulk and with donations from people like us.
Sara Burkes, the amazing founder and director of Chispa Project who lives in Honduras, talks later about the discomfort we all feel with our affluence, largely a product of good fortune: being born in the United States, having parents who supported our schooling, growing up knowing how to act and talk “right,” which opened doors of opportunity. And having books, which opened doors to the universe.
Sara suggests that, rather than feeling guilt at our good fortune, we feel a responsibility to share it however we see fit. I was lucky enough to stumble on this way to share my good fortune. It’s been a remarkable week of good work, good food, and good companionship.
On our last couple days there, after working mornings in the school, we are treated to a chocolate demonstration — with samples — and a tour of the cultural center for the Honduran Garifuna/African population, featuring a history lesson about how they were brought there by the slave trade, and some amazing dancing. And, of course, shopping in a beautiful town outside Tegucigalpa. On our last night Chispa takes us to a fancy restaurant, which I enjoy immensely, and which reminds me again how randomly good fortune is doled out by the universe. Most of the people I’ve met here will never dine at such a place.
When it comes time to say goodbye to my now-beloved group, I feel excited to be going home to my husband and dogs and good plumbing and drinkable tap water, but sad to leave them all, and to leave beautiful, friendly Honduras. We promise to exchange emails and pictures.
Back home, I’m still marveling at my good fortune and feeling, yes, happy. What a week.
If you’re interested in donating or volunteering, google chispaproject.org. It’s a wonderful organization and a wonderful feeling.
Diane Miessler lives in Nevada City
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