El Hogar Graduation (November 2016) – A Farewell and Final Thoughts

I wanted to share some final thoughts as I wrap up this exciting week of graduation (and clausura) activities in Honduras.

Over the three ceremonies, the students of El Hogar have further reinforced my pride in the organization I work for. Many of them had tears in their eyes when they would talk about their experiences and how much El Hogar means to them. They are well aware of the opportunities they’ve been given in our care, but they are by no means complacent.

They work hard each day and utilize the resources at their fingertips to learn all they can and to make their dreams reality – a fact that our supporters should be very proud of. They also thrive on the love and support they get from our amazing Honduran staff members who work tirelessly each day to ensure that each and every one of our students knows – really knows – that they are special.

The students who graduated this week are taking the skills they’ve learned back into their communities. Some of them come from places that are almost completely cut off from the outside world, while others come from the overflowing streets of Tegucigalpa. Each of their stories may be different, but they all now have one important thing in common – they are all El Hogar graduates. As I said before, their roads will be filled with twists and turns, but they now have the skills and values to handle them.

For our elementary students, their clausura marked an important point in their lives. They’re moving onto their next phase at El Hogar to continue their education and to begin to gain the practical skills they will need to find success after they graduate in the years to come.

We celebrated the hard work of our students this week as the academic year at El Hogar came to a close, but that doesn’t mean our work takes a break. Many of our students will spend the holidays at our Elementary School in Tegucigalpa, because they either have no family to return home to or their homes are too unsafe. They will spend time resting and celebrating with their El Hogar brothers and sisters, and with the staff who think of them as extended members of their own families.

I’m proud to be a small part of that extended family. It breaks my heart to say goodbye to the amazing students I see in photos and write about to share their stories. It’s hard to leave Honduras, but I look forward to returning and seeing (or hearing) more stories of change in the lives of the children of El Hogar.

To those who support us and our work, thank you. For those of you who haven’t yet, we invite you to click here to begin changing the lives of these children today. The investment you make in them – no matter the amount – is an investment that will pay dividends for years and generations to come.

El Hogar Graduation (November 2016) – Clausura at El Hogar’s Elementary School

During almost each day of this trip, we’ve been traveling outside the city of Tegucigalpa to celebrate graduation ceremonies at El Hogar’s Agricultural School and Technical Institute. Today, we didn’t have to travel far for the last of the week’s celebrations – the Elementary School’s clausura. The clausura is a celebration for the students completing their time at the Elementary School as they prepare to enter one of El Hogar’s secondary education programs.

For those of you who have traveled to El Hogar, you know how the elementary campus is an island of calm and peace in the chaos of Tegucigalpa. This becomes immediately evident as you enter the gates from the streets. Once they close, you’re surrounded by greenery and children playing. It’s a stark contrast to the busy streets just over the walls.

We arrived and I immediately got to work taking the official graduation photos of the students. Each of them was dressed to impress – the boys in crisp white shirts with black ties and the girls in white shirts and plaid skirts. They were so excited and they asked me more than once to take silly photos of them and their friends. I had a job to do, but this day is about them and I was glad to oblige.

This year, the clausura was held inside the campus cafeteria. The walls were decorated with flowers and banners, while there was a large wooden bridge for each student to stand on as they were honored during the ceremony. The room was full of chairs and they quickly filled up with the honorees’ fellow students, family, friends, and other honored guests.

Speakers included Claudia Castro, Director of the Elementary School, the Rev. Matthew Engleby, Executive Director of El Hogar in Honduras, Liz Kinchen, Executive Director of El Hogar in North America, a representative from DINAF, which is a government agency in Honduras that looks after vulnerable children, and a former student. As with each of the speeches at the earlier graduation ceremonies, the speakers reflected on the hard work of each student and the promise they each have as they begin this next phase of their education at El Hogar.

The pride on each student’s face (along with some blushing as they had to stand in front of everyone) showed how much this day really meant to each of them. During the presentations, some of the students’ dreams were shared and they’re amazing. They want to be doctors, lawyers, and other respected professionals. They’re so proud of their accomplishments and it warms my heart to see each of them not just trying to squeak by, but reaching for the stars. But for all of their excitement, there was also a feeling of a changing dynamic among them.

Up until this point, they’ve all been on the same campus. That won’t be the case when the next school year begins. The boys will either go to the Agricultural School or the Technical Institute, while the girls enter the Virginia Sapp high school program and move to their new home in Santa Lucia. They’ll see each other at school-wide functions and campus visits, but it won’t be the same. Like those students before them and most families, they’ll still have strong connections to each other over the distance that will separate them. They’re one big El Hogar family.

I can’t believe I’m already saying this, but tomorrow I leave to return to my home in Boston. I’ll share some final thoughts about this year’s graduation tomorrow.

El Hogar Graduation (November 2016) – Graduation at El Hogar’s Technical Institute

The morning saw us once again traveling out of Tegucigalpa. This time, we traveled north of Tegucigalpa to the Amarateca Valley to El Hogar’s Technical Institute (ITSM). Driving along the CA5 – congested as it weaves its way out of the city – you look along the hillsides that line the road with their slopes filled with ramshackle houses of every color stacked on top of each other.

The further you go north, the hillsides become less congested and greener. Eventually, you turn off the highway and travel down a winding dirt road (sometimes being met by a herd of cattle) to enter the walls of ITSM.

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The time when the official graduation photos are taken – something that always happens before the ceremony – is very special. Each graduate poses for their photo and the pride they have is evident in their smiles on each face. These photos mark a moment in time that none of them will ever forget. It’s also a time filled with a lot of behind the scenes joking between the graduates as they each try to make the others laugh while photos are taken.

The photos are a more private moment caught in time, but the graduation ceremony is the complete opposite. Following a Eucharist service – something held before each El Hogar graduation – the graduates’ friends and family gathered in the ITSM auditorium for the ceremony.

Each graduate donned the bright blue gowns and caps, and sat on the stage as a variety of speakers lauded their hard work, gave sage advice, and expressed how the students would be missed. Lazaro Juarez, Director of ITSM, the Rev. Matthew Engleby, Executive Director of El Hogar in Honduras, and Liz Kinchen, Executive Director of El Hogar in North America, all spoke passionately – the care they have for each student evident on their faces and in their words. As each graduate received their diploma, their fellow honorees joined with their friends and family to applaud their accomplishment.

After the last diploma was handed out, it was time to celebrate with delicious food and conversation before the graduates left with their family members and friends.

In Honduras, there are small, three-wheeled vehicles called moto-taxis (also known as tuk-tuks) that serve as small transports through the cities or down very long side roads. As we turned out of the road to ITSM to travel back to Tegucigalpa, several students were waiting with their families next to the moto-taxis they’d taken to the road. Their faces were filled with emotions, but their smiles gave away their anticipation for beginning this next chapter in their lives.

Each one of them has a story filled with difficult beginnings, but they each also found hope at El Hogar. They take that hope and their potential with them as they enter the world as graduates.

Tomorrow, the El Hogar clausura at the Elementary School will celebrate the students who will be moving up to begin their next El Hogar journey.

El Hogar Graduation (November 2016) – Graduation at El Hogar’s Agricultural School

The differences between Tegucigalpa and Talanga couldn’t be greater. Tegucigalpa is thick with smog, choked with traffic, and full of people. On the other hand, Talanga is a sea of green with exotic birds singing, farm animals grazing, and vistas that show the natural beauty of Honduras. El Hogar’s Agricultural School, which is in Talanga, provided an unforgettable backdrop for the first of this week’s graduation ceremonies.

Pulling into the school after the long drive, we could immediately see the preparations that had been made. Streamers and graduation signs were hung throughout the open-air pavilion as chairs sat on the sawdust floor awaiting the friends, family members, and sponsors of the students who were being honored.

After official graduation photos were taken, it was time for the ceremony to begin. The graduates – dressed up with ties and wearing their blue gowns and caps – made their way up the aisle to their seats of honor at the front. Yony Aguilera, Director of the Agricultural School, and the Rev. Matthew Engleby, Executive Director of El Hogar in Honduras, both spoke and honored the graduates for their hard work over the years to reach this day.

For these students, this marks a turning point in their lives. This is when they have the chance to use the skills they’ve gained in animal care and crop production outside of El Hogar. As with each graduation, you could see an array of emotions on the faces of the graduates as they came to the realization that their lives were about to enter a new phase. But as the ceremony ended and the diplomas were distributed, all of their expressions turned to those of joy and excitement.

As the last of the graduates filed down the aisle, the ceremony came to an end and everyone in the audience rushed to congratulate their special honoree. This is one of the parts of the entire day that brings tears to my eyes. Families and friends were hugging the graduates with smiles on their faces and tears falling down their cheeks.

For many of these families, these graduates represent the first family members to graduate from school. As I watched each of them leave with their families, I thought about the hope and promise that they carried with them. Their lives – like each of us – will be filled with twists and turns, but they’ve received skills and values to help them handle them. They now can teach the skills they’ve learned to their families and communities. That’s how they bring positive change and break the cycle of poverty.

Tomorrow, we celebrate graduation at El Hogar’s Technical Institute in the Amarateca Valley.

El Hogar Graduation (November 2016) – A Great Welcome to Honduras

There’s nothing more exciting than getting on a plane to go and celebrate. This is especially true when it comes to graduation at El Hogar. Flying to Honduras is not an easy task – connecting flights are (mostly) required. However, the early morning alarm and long security lines are all worth it to see each of the students being honored on their special day.

After flying from Boston to Miami, then over Cuba and the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, we finally touched down in Tegucigalpa. After meeting with the other sponsors attending graduation and Matthew Engleby, El Hogar’s Executive Director in Honduras, we made our way to our home away from home for the next few days. After a short break to catch our breaths, we rode through the old colonial streets of Tegucigalpa to the Teatro Nacional Manuel Bonilla – an architectural treasure that first opened it’s doors on September 15, 1915. We had a special invitation to attend a cultural event that would feature students from various schools dancing traditional Honduran dances and playing some very catchy marimba music. Our El Hogar students were very prominently featured in the program and we couldn’t have been prouder.

As we entered the theater, some of the elementary students were selling delicious baked goods they had made earlier – the pan queso is not to be missed and will never be forgotten.

The students did a fantastic job as they performed and the audience responded with roaring applause and cheers. The boys and girls who performed from El Hogar did a great job, and it was a special opportunity to enjoy the other performers and to experience Honduran culture in a beautiful space.

It was an amazing evening, but this is just the arrival day! Tomorrow we travel just over an hour outside of Tegucigalpa to Talanga. It’s there at our Agricultural School where we’ll celebrate with each of our graduating students from that campus.

The first graduation of 2016 at El Hogar is tomorrow and I can’t wait to celebrate the accomplishments of those amazing students.

El Hogar Graduation (November 2016) – Preparing to Celebrate at El Hogar

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Jason Lang, El Hogar’s Manager of Marketing and Communications.

Graduation is such a special time for students and their families. No matter where you are in the world, the moment when that diploma is handed to the honored student marks the completion of years filled with hard work and studying. It’s the moment when the importance of the sacrifices made by families and friends to provide the support and help needed by the graduate can really be seen. Depending on the situation and location, some of those sacrifices can be greater than anyone can imagine.

Our students in Honduras come to El Hogar from situations that range from extreme poverty to abuse, unending hunger to neglect. Some of our students’ parents truly care about them and turn to us as a way for their children to break out of the cycle of poverty. Other students don’t know or have a relationship with their parents for a number of different reasons. No matter the situation, we provide all of the love and support they need to learn all they can and to eventually reach graduation.

I’m excited to be traveling back to Honduras tomorrow to be a part of the graduation festivities at three of our campuses. For the students at our Agricultural School and Technical Institute, it’s the moment they step into the world to use the skills they’ve gained to make better lives for themselves and their families. For our sixth graders, this is the moment they leave our Elementary school to take their next steps toward growing up and moving into one of our secondary education programs. This year’s graduation will also be the last before the first of our high school girls graduate and take their next steps toward adulthood.

I’ll be blogging daily about each of the graduation ceremonies and my time at El Hogar. It’s an amazing and humbling experience to be a part of each of these special days, and I want you to feel like you’re also there being a part of these turning points.

I hope you’ll take this journey with me and check back each day for updates. We fly out tomorrow!

School Supplies Aren’t Just Good to Have…They’re Essential

Gladys Jiménez is a third grade teacher at our campus in Tegucigalpa.
Gladys Jiménez is a third grade teacher at our campus in Tegucigalpa.

My wife is a teacher and I think she’s the best – no impartiality here. I’m sure each teacher’s spouse, significant other, family members, or friends feel the same way, and we each have a lot to be proud of. Teachers work tireless hours to ensure that their students get the fundamentals they need to finish the year ready to move forward toward success in school and life. Teachers are also a very creative group of people who find amazing ways to use everyday items to get their lessons across to students.

I recently came home to a pile of boxes in our dining room. My first thought was that we were preparing to open some kind of home-based business, but my wife informed me that all of those boxes were going to be used to create a bear cave for her students. It’s a creative use of ordinary items for her classroom, but there have also been times when she has had to take steps to provide the essentials for her students.

Most school districts in the United States are unable to provide some of the supplies needed by students in classrooms, which leaves teachers to often purchase those items with their own money. We’ve had moments when my wife has walked into a store and purchased hats, gloves, and scarves for each child in her classroom because their families didn’t have those items for winter. She has also purchased unknown numbers of pencils, crayons, notebooks, and other items that are essential for students to get the most out of school. That’s in the United States, but imagine what it’s like in Honduras.

Virginia Maradiaga teaches first grade students at our Tegucigalpa campus.
Virginia Maradiaga teaches first grade students at our Tegucigalpa campus.

In a country where many students often don’t even have the ability to regularly attend school, the students at El Hogar have a wonderful opportunity. They have teachers who truly care for them and who work hard to teach them everything they can to ensure they have chances to succeed in life. And just like students in the United States, El Hogar’s students need supplies to get the most out of their education.

Though they receive school supplies thanks to the generosity of our donors and supporters, there is always a need for more help. That’s where our Academic Essentials program comes in.

For as low as $25 per month, Academic Essentials offers people of any age or income level the opportunity to help us purchase needed supplies for our four campuses. These supplies range from textbooks to animal feed, computers to teacher salaries. For the price of one meal out, you can ensure that our students – children who come from some of the most impoverished and dangerous circumstances in Honduras – are getting the most out of their education.

A solid education offers the best opportunity for our students to break the cycle of poverty within their families and to make their hopes and dreams reality. With your support for Academic Essentials, our amazing teachers can ensure that their students get the best education we can provide.

For information about Academic Essentials, please click on the link below or contact the El Hogar offices via email at info@elhogar.org or by phone at 781-729-7600.

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A New Way of Thinking About Service Teams

El Hogar has been welcoming service teams, in one form or another, since the program in Honduras started in 1979. Over the years, we’ve revised the Service Team Program to better help us accomplish the goals we have for it.

Beginning in 2015, a task force was set up to work on revising the program and the materials that go with it. We launched the updated program this past winter for the 2016 Service Team season. We wanted to give you an idea of why we made the changes and what we hope to achieve.

Betsy Walsh is an El Hogar board member and was part of the Service Team Task Force. She also has taken numerous teams to Honduras and is one of the leaders of the Friends of El Hogar group in the Boston area. She kindly provided us with the blog post below:

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

 – Albert Einstein

For the past year, a committee of the El Hogar board has been engaged in reimagining and improving our Service Team Program. Past experience has pushed us to ask things like:

“What is the goal?”

“Is a work project the focus or even necessary?”

“What is the impact of service teams on the organization in Honduras?”

“How do we prepare teams for success in Honduras?”

We have researched the topic, have absorbed the current thinking about short-term missions and are more and more aware of the possible negative impact that can result if we are not careful.

Today, as a result of this work, I believe that our service team program is better than ever and the response has been great!

Most notably, we have shifted our focus away from “doing for” and away from work projects, knowing that locals have the knowledge and skill needed to do the work as well as the need for the job. We are moving toward “walking with” those that we come to know, to unpacking the context in which they live, to learning of the impact of politics, history, US involvement, and international aid. Through home visits and conversation, we learn of the daily trials of existing in conditions of extreme poverty and violence.

“Thanks for the cultural learning piece that we experienced on this most recent trip. We left with a greater appreciation for what is happening in Honduras…”

– Becky Taylor, Team Leader, Brookline, MA

When you visit, you will hear from several local Hondurans who may include: mothers who are doing the best they can to raise their families in the violence that surrounds them; young men who, in their desperation, run for the US border in hopes of a better life; young adults who talk about the pain of abandonment and the horror of glue addiction; or government officials and local police who discuss their work and their hope for Honduras. By hearing and listening, we learn and we see the world in a new way. Their plight becomes ours.

 “The biggest takeaway is the reality that all these issues of poverty and development are far more complicated than we often assume. I believe that my kids will go home and continue to look at these issues much more critically. On previous trips we only talked about poverty in pretty simple terms at a surface level.”           

– Alex Martin, Youth Team Leader, Cincinnati, OH

It is our desire that team members will better understand the context in which El Hogar exists and become better equipped to walk with the staff, children and families of El Hogar in breaking the cycle of poverty. In this, there is hope for tomorrow.

Other improvements include the hiring of Erika Skafel as our Coordinator of North American Relations, which includes hosting service teams. Teams find her to be welcoming, helpful and accessible and her presence as a real gift. New applications and timelines are now in place to help manage the administrative details and a Participant Agreement is now required, allowing us to address some of the cross-cultural and behavioral expectations we deem critical for positive impact on the ground.

At first glance, these improvements may challenge us because they ask us to question our motives, our goals, and ourselves and maybe they even push us to grow and to think differently. We invite you to come experience this deeper understanding of the world we share.

As Einstein encourages us, let’s learn from yesterday, live into today, have hope for tomorrow and never, ever stop asking questions. We, and the world, may just be better for it.

– Betsy Walsh, El Hogar Service Team Task Force

If you’re interest in taking a team to El Hogar, please visit this link: www.elhogar.org/get-involved/service-teams/.

Some helpful resources Betsy suggested are also mentioned below (just remember to purchase them on Amazon via our website to support El Hogar – www.elhogar.org/amazon):

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Toxic Charity, How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help by Robert D. Lupton

Doing Good, Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help by Connie Newton and Fran Early

Foreign to Familiar, A Guide to Understanding Hot and Cold Climate Cultures by Sarah A Lanier

Every Little Bit Really Does Count

“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” – Maya Angelou

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A photo of a family during a recent home visit by our Elementary Director.

Giving is an important aspect of life. Growing up, I was taught that lesson by my mother. We didn’t have very much money – she was raising me by herself after my father died – and she worked long, hard days to provide for me. But no matter how little we had, she always taught me the importance of giving. That last dollar in your pocket might mean a meal or a safe place to sleep for someone, instead of that cup of coffee you were planning to buy or that pack of bubble gum you have your eye on.

Working for El Hogar and traveling to Honduras, I’ve been exposed to the poverty that’s so intrinsically woven into that country’s society. There are very distinct class differences there – much more than in the United States or many other countries. The value of a dollar there takes on a bit more meaning when you consider the fact that $1 = about L22.   *L stands for lempira, which is the currency in Honduras. 

I don’t know if it’s because of growing up with very little money, but I have a habit of always picking up coins from the ground. It’s something that I’ve done since I was a young child and my friends have never understood it. Most of the time, the coins that I find are pennies – it’s a great day when you find a quarter or some other “big” money. Most people just throw away pennies as an unnecessary part of our currency here in the US, but not me. I’ve always had a coin jar around that those found pennies and other coins make their way into. As the jar fills, I look forward to the day when I can’t fit any more in and I roll the coins up to deposit at the bank. It’s at those moments when the real value of a humble penny can be seen and also when the laughs of my friends turn into looks of amazement.

I’m from the Mid-Atlantic and I knew about a well-beloved sculpture called “Penny Ben” in Philadelphia. This sculpture had been unveiled in 1971 and was covered in about 80,000 pennies – about $800 worth – collected by students in the city. It deteriorated over the years and was replaced in 2007 by a sculpture that incorporated keys and 1.8 million pennies – about $18,000 worth – from students. It’s another example of how powerful the humble penny can be!

Now, I’m not penny crazy, but I’m just trying to show how powerful small amounts can be when combined together. That’s the same way we work here at El Hogar. We have people from all backgrounds who give donations in a wide variety of amounts, both large and small. Those varying amounts combine to make our work in Honduras possible. Just like all of those students gave their pennies to make “Penny Ben” and his replacement possible.

I know that the summer is usually thought of as a time to enjoy some well-deserved relaxation. Here in Massachusetts, that usually means time at the beach or in the mountains. But I encourage you to make your summer count for more and to make it have truly lasting effects that will cross borders and oceans.

We recently launched a new monthly giving program at El Hogar called Partners for the Future, which gives people the opportunity to give a recurring gift each month to El Hogar in any amount that they’re comfortable with – $5, $25, $50… Those monthly gifts, like all of the other donations we receive throughout the year, add up to pay the necessary expenses each month to keep El Hogar going. Please take a few moments to make your monthly commitment to the children of El Hogar by clicking here.

Some people look for a way to make the summer last all year and this is one way that you can make that happen in a very good way!

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Breaking Free from the Cycle of Poverty

Poverty is a problem that knows no borders and it doesn’t target a particular group of people. It’s a societal problem that plagues people around the world and that traps them – many for generations – in a continuous cycle that can seem nearly impossible to break out of. This cycle becomes worse in developing countries that have no network of support programs for the poor and where unemployment is rampant, which is particularly true in Honduras. It’s this cycle of poverty that is one of the main focuses of El Hogar’s efforts.

By working each year with the children at our four campuses, we’re providing them with the education and knowledge they need to break out of this cycle of poverty. Our students come from backgrounds that have included homelessness, hunger, abuse, illiteracy, and many other factors that would otherwise work to trap them in this cycle that their families have suffered in. Education is a driving force behind them breaking free.

When a child gains an education, they have a necessary foothold to climb out of poverty. They finally have paths to choose from in life, which can include attending university or finding a good job. They’re no longer hindered by their past, but are empowered for the future.

I’m quickly approaching the completion of my first year of working at El Hogar and throughout this past year, I’ve been struck by the stories of success that have been shared with me about our past students. Though it’s very difficult in a developing country like Honduras to keep in close contact with all of our graduates, we’re excited about the stories that are shared by them when they check-in with us. These stories are evidence of how life-changing El Hogar’s work is for our students.

Mario with Elementary School program Director Claudia Castro
Mario with Elementary School program Director Claudia Castro

I’m reminded of graduates like Mario Mejia Sanchez, who came to El Hogar in 1998 from a home with a hardworking single mother and five siblings. His mother worked long days that began at 5 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. when she would arrive back at the family’s rented room to begin her housework. At El Hogar, Mario was able to get an education and to prepare himself for a bright future. According to him, “Graduation left us with a great sense of accomplishment and a certainty about our preparedness for life in Honduras.”

Mario now holds an administrative role in the Honduran military. His success has enabled him to financially support his mother and to purchase a home for her to live in. It’s success stories like Mario’s that show the difference that El Hogar is making in the lives of the most vulnerable children in Honduras.

I’m excited to share stories about our graduates – something I look forward to doing much more in the future. Their stories of success and of breaking out of the cycle of poverty make me proud to be a part of the El Hogar family.

I encourage you to also become a part of our family by providing support to our students and giving them a future full of hope and optimism. It’s not difficult and only takes a few moments of your time, plus maybe one less takeout meal per month.

When you do, let me be the first person to welcome you to the El Hogar family and to thank you for working with us to break the cycle of poverty.

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