Imagine learning your ABCs and multiplication tables in a bar.
Couched between a pool table and a booth crowded with men and empty bottles, elementary school-aged children in Honduras learn basic education. The students are eager to learn and the government is enthusiastic to pay for teachers, but the developing country cannot afford to build proper school buildings. Instead, they make the best of wooden shacks, living rooms and bars.
Through the energy of Students Helping Honduras at Virginia Tech, however, this may not describe the academic future for Honduran children. The nonprofit organization strives to raise money and awareness, contributing to its ultimate goal of building 1,000 schools, one in each of Honduras’ 1,000 villages.
“They will become educated, and hopefully something will come out of that and they won’t be stuck in this poverty cycle anymore,” said Michael Driscoll, SHH treasurer and junior finance major.
Students Helping Honduras fundraises with two focuses: in the fall, they raise money in order to send students over to Honduras to volunteer; in the spring, they aim to send money to finish those projects. The trip to Honduras not only serves to make progress in construction, but also as a major source of inspiration for the volunteers.
“Going there is the best motivator,” said Mitchell Masser, SHH public relations officer and junior fisheries science major. “People read the news and see all these things that are happening around the world, but until you go to that place, experience and live there for a little while, you don’t fully understand the problems that are going on.”
The impact of visiting Honduras is most obvious in SHH founder Shin Fujiyama's experience.
While attending the University of Mary Washington as a sophomore, Fujiyama visited with his sister, Cosmo, in Honduras. In addition to Honduras’ beautiful mountain landscape, Fujiyama witnessed the daily struggles of those living in one of world's the poorest countries.
When fresh drinking water is hard to come by, education takes a hard hit. The thin wooden planks and barbed wire that enclose the existing schools are no match for the rainy climate, causing classes to be cancelled often. The lack of education has led to an increase in unemployment rates and gang participation among youth.
In 2006, Fujiyama created SHH, which has since provided six villages with school buildings and supplies such as desks and clean drinking water. The organization has extended to more than 100 universities, high schools and elementary schools in Virginia, and is continuing to expand.
“When I first joined the organization, we were about 20, maybe 25 kids,” Masser said. “Now we have consistently 90 to 100. We do a lot of advertising, but really [it’s] just word of mouth. [It’s] just people in the organization being so motivated, that’s what gets it done.”
Part of the organization’s allure is that despite the meager living conditions Hondurans face, they still have unfounded joy.
When the students get off the bus in Honduras, they are greeted by hugs and toothy smiles. While the families in Honduras may not enjoy the amenities we feel necessary for day-to-day survival, such as cell phones and a home with a roof, they appear to remain optimistic and grateful.
“Down there they don’t have so much, but at the same time they do,” said Melinda Tran, SHH co-president and senior marketing management major. “They have a lot of joy; they’re always happy.”
This joy not only instills a sense of hope in Honduras, but also echoes SHH’s atmosphere back in the U.S.
While fundraising is often considered a daunting task, SHH does not see it that way. Their efforts target the typical college student, fostering creativity and the utilization of a wide range of fundraising initiatives. SHH holds weekly themed bake sales, in addition to Madden tournaments, benefit concerts, and date auctions. They also sell merchandise such as shot glasses reading "take one for the kids." Their most recent endeavor was a Harry Potter Bake Sale, where donors were able to stop by 'Platform 9 ¾' to pick up cupcakes decorated with broomsticks and sorting hats.
“We find that those generate more interest and excitement than just the standard bake sale,” said Chris Yetka, SHH co-president and fifth year architecture major. “Last year we had an incredibly successful date auction. We raised $1,100 in 45 minutes.”
The fundraising efforts have already made a large impact on a village in Honduras. Last year, they raised $16,650, which, when coupled with money raised by the University of Maryland, enabled them to build an elementary school that serves 52 children.
The impact of their contributions reinforces the idea that small steps can make a big difference. What started as a penny drive at Mary Washington has
catapulted into a
nationwide effort to increase the quality of life for families all over Honduras. One village and one school at a time, they are not only working toward 1,000 schools, but toward an empowered, humane world.
“I just encourage people to get involved in the world and to help people in their community,” Masser said. “We can really tackle the coming issues in the world.”