It had taken a couple of long, hard days, but the job was almost complete. Only one corner of the concrete structure remained unpainted as the two teenaged girls devised a strategy. Using only eye contact and hand gestures, they communicated their plan, the taller girl grabbing the extension handle of a paint roller while her partner selected a thin brush and a can of yellow paint. They knew that they were only moments away from completing their objective, and brush strokes and touch-up work were accompanied by smiles and laughter.
The two girls represent an unlikely partnership. One is a high school senior from Oak Cliff. Her normal days consist of Calculus class, wrestling practice and perhaps a Mavericks game. The other is a 16 year-old from Trujillo, Honduras. Her normal days involve caring for her younger siblings, working at a local crafts shop, and helping to rebuild her village, which was ravaged in a 1998 hurricane. But as the two girls work to paint a newly-constructed church, these differences become obsolete. They are neutralized by the shared mission of helping Honduras rebuild herself, one community at a time.
Since 2001, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas has worked with the people of Trujillo, Honduras, to address this rebuilding process. One development of this “Diocesan Sistership” is an annual youth mission trip. In the summer of 2005, a small group of Bishop Dunne students traveled down on the inaugural trip. Since then, the program has expanded to include students from Ursuline Academy and Bishop Lynch, and this past summer, 40 teenagers journeyed to Trujillo.
Several members of the Oak Cliff community were among the students on the most recent trip. Lauren Birks, Elizabeth Najera and Martin Arista are all seniors at Bishop Dunne High School. During the school year, they can be seen running cross country, wrestling, playing soccer, volunteering with Latinos Unidos or the Ecology Club, tutoring with the National Honor Society, or studying for their AP classes. For a couple of weeks last June, all of this was put on hold and their energy was united with that of the Honduran youth in Trujillo.
In October of 1998, Hurricane Mitch ripped through the middle of Honduras. The storm lasted only a couple of days, but her presence was felt. In Honduras alone, the death toll has been estimated at over 7000, while another 8300 people were reported missing. Along with the human casualties came infrastructure damage that will continue to affect the country for generations to come. Tens of thousands of houses were destroyed, almost 100 bridges damaged, and approximately 50 percent of the country’s agricultural crops were lost, according to Reliefweb.com. Today, as reported by EarthTrends.com, almost half of the population of Honduras exists on less than $2 a day while the country struggles to rebuild itself.
The experience that these students had in Honduras was marked by solidarity with the Honduran people. This began by embracing the mission of rebuilding the damaged communities in the Trujillo area. The dream of the Honduran people became the dream of the Dallas students. However, the unity between the two groups went beyond a shared vision.
During their time in Honduras, the students made an effort to “live like the people there,” according to Elizabeth. They were instructed to leave behind the luxuries they enjoy in their daily lives in Oak Cliff — their cell phones, iPods, and even their make-up. They ate the local Honduran food, anchored by daily servings of rice and beans. They slept on cots in simple cabins without air conditioning as temperatures hovered around 90 degrees with high humidity. At the end of a long day of work, the students relaxed through conversation, playing cards, or reading books, rather than through television or the internet.
Living this way allowed the students to form a strong bond with the people in Trujillo. This allowed them to work together as equals. According to Martin, “the companionship made the work feel more meaningful.” People forgot their own interests and concentrated on something greater.
The work days involved difficult physical labor. At several different sites, a Honduran would supervise and guide the work, whether it was mixing cement, painting or digging a trench. Language barriers meant little as most communication was done through demonstration or body language. What mattered was a person’s willingness to work, not his or her nationality. In one situation, efforts at digging a trench were halted when a large rock could not be removed. At first, they decided to divert the trench and adjust their plans for the fence they were going to build. Martin refused to give up, and he would not allow his coworkers to, either. After much effort, the rock was removed, and Martin unofficially became a worksite leader, continually turned to for advice or assistance by Hondurans and Americans alike.
The companionship and hard work grew contagious as the trip continued. Before long, the group’s Honduran bus driver joined in the work efforts. Elizabeth believes that this represented one of the most important roles that the Dallas students played in Trujillo. The students served as instigators for some of the projects, providing the manpower and supplies necessary to get things started. However, it will be the Hondurans who must continue and complete the work.
In a relationship built on solidarity, both parties benefit. The group from Dallas brought supplies, hard workers such as Martin, Lauren, and Elizabeth, and the inspiration necessary to take on a seemingly insurmountable task. However, Lauren believes that she and her fellow volunteers “received much more than we could have ever given them.”
The students returned with a stronger dedication to community involvement, and an understanding that happiness comes from simple things in life such as relationships, not from what they own. As Martin explains, “sometimes we think we know everything, but everyone offers us something to learn if we are willing to be open to it.” One thing that these high school students learned from their experience in Honduras is that when people come together, regardless of their differences, great things become possible.
Tim McManus teaches Theology and Anthropology at Bishop Dunne High School, and coaches varsity baseball. He’s served as an adult leader on the last two youth trips to Honduras, and is currently working with the diocese to develop a trip for young adults. Interested in contributing or learning more about the program? Contact Lydia Torrez of Bishop Dunne, firstname.lastname@example.org.