BY JON HENES
"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty."
- Mother Teresa
On January 16, 2016, I found myself in El Progreso, Yoro, Honduras on behalf of the Foundation for Education in Honduras (FEIH). This charity, which I co-founded with Ramiro Ocasio, builds and refurbishes schools in high need areas of rural Honduras. On that day, FEIH's vision became a reality at the ribbon cutting ceremony for its first school - Santiago Morales.
I stood with the FEIH team outside of the hotel Casa Blanca, waiting to be picked up and driven to the ribbon cutting ceremony. It was morning, but the sun was hot and already shining bright, giving us an early warning of the oppressive heat to come. We sipped gray, watered down coffee, trying to fend off the exhaustion of travel. We proudly wore our matching FEIH shirts and hats.
Two pickup trucks pulled up, and we jumped in. They left the hotel driveway, kicking pebbles, and turned right onto a heavily trafficked paved road. I sat in the back left of the truck, my forehead resting against the window, closely observing the buildings, cars, and people as we drove by. It may have been the early morning heat or the anticipation of our day to come, but our usually raucous and joking group was uncharacteristically quiet.
Something immediately became apparent to all of us. The further we drove away from the city center, the poorer and poorer the communities became. The paved road turned to gravel, and the gravel road turned to dirt. Dust rose up in front of us like a morning mist off a lake, only less tranquil, engulfing the pickup trucks and impeding our vision.
We stopped suddenly. In front of us lay a dried out creek bed. It was the unofficial border of El Progresso and San Antonio del Sur, the community where the Santiago Morales School is located. The pickup trucks carefully maneuvered across the creek. We learned that during the rainy season, the creek fills with water and often overflows, preventing people from crossing the border by automobile. Fortunately, on January 16th, the creek was more welcoming.
As we emerged from the dust, we adjusted our eyes. All around us was abject poverty. We laid witness to stray dogs and livestock roaming freely, and children without shirts and shoes gazing at our pickup trucks with curiosity and wonder. I thought about Mother Teresa's words. We were in this community - FEIH was in this community - to do more than build a school conducive for learning and to provide a safe environment for the children... FEIH was there to assure that the poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for would not exist for the children of the Santiago Morales School.
As we kept driving towards the school, we noticed the houses on the left side of the street (though it would be a stretch to call them houses). These structures were concrete walls on one side, aluminum fences on the other, and makeshift roofs above attempting to keep out the sun on hot days and the rain on rainy days. I felt a lump rise in my throat and I choked back tears. I thought about the simple things in my life, and the things I take for granted: three meals a day, the clothes on my back, a job, and the freedom to travel and see beautiful places.
I wanted to get out of the pickup truck and gather the children together to hug them and tell them we would help make their lives better. No child should live in poverty. And while FEIH does not have the resources to rebuild the entire community or create a thriving economy in Honduras, we would let them know they were wanted, loved and cared for.
We finally arrived at the Santiago Morales School. We remembered the pictures we saw of the school prior to construction: two broken down rooms with dirt floors, no blackboards, no desks, no fans, no electricity, no ventilation, and a roof that leaked so that when it rained, the children couldn't go to school. It housed grades one through six, but with such limited space, the children went to school in shifts - they didn't even receive a full day's worth of education. The bathrooms at the school were so dilapidated that children wouldn't use them. The girls would often stay home. The old school was not welcoming.
This changed. FEIH, with the help of the El Progreso community, changed this. The new school includes six brand new classrooms with floors and beautiful desks made by local artisans. The school now has blackboards and electricity and fans and ventilation and new roofs and maps of the world. There are six new bathrooms and a playground and a water filtration system so the children can safely wash their hands and drink water. The new school is pristine, fresh, and what the children deserve - a safe and clean place conducive for learning.
FEIH provided the children with backpacks, school supplies, uniforms and new shoes. The children held on to these backpacks as if they were grasping life preservers after falling into the ocean unable to swim. In many ways, these backpacks are life preservers. They represent and contain the tools needed to receive a proper education. It is only with education that they can escape the poverty that has submerged them.
The Santiago Morales school represents so much more than simply a roof under which to learn; it represents hope and opportunity; it represents the compassion of the volunteers, who made sure that these children were keenly aware that they were loved, wanted and cared for; it represents the reason why FEIH will continue to embark on its mission to improve not just education, but ultimately the quality of life for the children in Honduras.
When I think about why we do this, why the FEIH volunteers, most of whom had no ties to Honduras, are helping and building schools and raising funds for the children of Honduras, a quote from one of my favorite television series, The West Wing, comes to mind:
"The reason we do it is because they are someone's children too."
Jon Henes is a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and a co-founder of the Foundation for Education in Honduras.