BACKGROUND OF THE PROJECT AND OUR FIRST FEW DAYS (lots of photos below)
The village of El Cacao, the site of Las Sonrisas de los Niños, is slightly less than 20 miles east of the city of La Ceiba, which is the third largest city in Honduras. Honduras, like all of Central America, is primarily Spanish speaking, but geographically it's different with a land orientation east to west, so that its long northern boundary is the Caribbean sea, and La Ceiba in fact sits right on the coast. More about La Ceiba itself can be found on the page Why La Ceiba?, but for a number of reasons it proved to be an ideal location when considering a project such as ours. Initially as we started looking for a place to establish Las Sonrisas de los Niños, a project designed to help poor kids, we of course needed a place with kids that could benefit from our plans. Though within La Ceiba there is a fair amount of wealth (along with lots of poverty), outside the city poverty is quickly, and sometimes impressively, discovered. *text continued below photos: a couple of kids at their house in El Cacao; the population of El Cacao is perhaps 1,800 and it's located a couple of miles either way between the Caribbean and a mountain range; a gentleman from the village, Don Francisco, who passed away in 2009
Other characteristics we were looking for included the presence of tourists to hopefully serve as a volunteer base, but not an area defined by tourism. La Ceiba met this criteria as it serves as a jump off point for SCUBA divers on their way to the Bay Islands and it also has an infrastructure for eco and adventure tourism, but one can walk about town and rarely encounter another North American or European. Because tourism is important to the local economy, La Ceiba is generally safe and has an excellent airport with regular service by three small airlines. The project site and El Cacao are easily accessible through inexpensive local buses, which are actually old school buses from the US and are an important aspect of the society for those that want a full cultural experience.
We also wanted an association with a Spanish language school, a school designed to teach Spanish to tourists, missionaries, high school and college students, etc typically from North America and Europe (see Linguo-Tourism & Voluntourism- A Different Way To Go). On an early exploratory trip to La Ceiba we enrolled in the Central American Spanish School (CASS) and came to know its Director, Rafael Linares. We liked his school very much, and he was interested in our idea of a joint association- perhaps we could attract students to CASS that came to Honduras primarily to volunteer with us, and perhaps his students could work with us as volunteers (actually many of his students request volunteer work, some for many months, and CASS also serves as a kind of referral service for these people). As things evolved, Rafael proved to be one of the most important people in helping us develop Las Sonrisas de los Niños, and we hope that many of the people reading this will have a chance to meet him some day. For more information about CASS visit www.ca-spanish.com. *text continued below photos: Rafael on the right & Jesus Peña, our contractor, on the left discussing the construction of our project building; a horse grazing on our land
Another important aspect of our decision to set up in El Cacao was the price of land. Although we will gladly take any money you want to give us, all of our capital expenditures have come from our own resources (i.e. pockets), which are not unlimited. Throughout Central America there are inflationary pressures on land values, especially where wealthy Central Americans and people from the US, Canada, and Europe express an interest in purchasing property. Sometimes this is just a function of a local seller seeing if a someone is oblivious enough to pay the initial asking price ("gee, an acre in New York city runs in the millions but here it's only $30,000"), and sometimes it reflects real pressure as demand is increased. In El Cacao we were able to buy land pretty much at the local going rate, which allowed us to proceed with the overall project development.
The steps leading us to where we are now are as follows: 1) an initial exploratory trip in the Fall of 2004, during which we came to know the city of La Ceiba and some of the surrounding villages, and determined it was a viable area for Las Sonrisas de los Niños. 2) we returned in the Spring of 2005 and attended CASS. Very importantly we met and got to know Rafael, and we introduced the concept of our project and the idea of an association with him and CASS. 3) the next trip was a few months later in September, which was mostly devoted to locating a specific site for the project. With the assistance of Rafael we met with the Patronato (kind of the village board) of a village called Roma, and were close choosing that location until there was a sudden and significant increase in land prices, well beyond our financial ability. We also met with Honduran lawyers and followed their advice to form a Honduran corporation, which would allow us to purchase land within the legal framework of Honduras. On one of the final days of that visit we by chance ran into Rick, an American living in La Ceiba with a Honduran wife named Digna, and they quickly become instrumental, along with Rafael, in helping us realize our goals. 4) two months later I returned (Patricia stayed in the US) determined to find the place to set up. Through Rick and Digna's contacts, I met a guy that just seemed to know what land was for sale and for how much, and it just happened that El Cacao seemed to meet our criteria...affordable land prices, a population base that could benefit from our project (i.e. it was poor!), close enough to La Ceiba that future volunteers could travel to the site but far enough away to be truly rural, plus it's an attractive area. *text continued below photos: with Rick (sadly now deceased) and his brother-in-law Rene at the Cacao Lagoon, the single tourist attraction in Cacao, which leads via canoe to the beach and open ocean; cows are frequent visitors.
Over the next few months many e-mails were exchanged, a survey was done, deeds were revised, and in March of 2006 we became the owners of about 11 acres of overgrown pasture, forest, and a little jungle which lacked only water, electricity, sewer, and structures of any kind. The next month Patricia officially retired after 32+ years as a speech therapist and the only thing left before moving to Honduras was to sell the house in Tupper Lake, NY. It seemed simple enough, but apparently we were overly optimistic in regards to the local real estate market and the house remained with a "For Sale" sign on the front yard, until June 2008. As the Spring and Summer of 2006 wore on our conversations around town went from "good luck, we really admire what you are doing" to "I thought you all left by now," so we decided we needed to actually do something. 5) Hence, in mid-Sept. 2006 we returned to Honduras for two months with plenty of ideas but not sure how to accomplish them. Fortunately, thanks to a mix of planning, our prior networking, and some amount of good luck, we ended up exceeding our hopes for development of the project.
We had two major goals- establish a favorable relationship with the people of El Cacao and get an initial project building constructed (preceded by laying out the land and clearing the necessary areas). On our second full day in La Ceiba we, along with Lizzy (a young woman from Holland we had never before met but was looking for a project to help with and ended up being very helpful to Las Sonrisas de los Niños), walked to downtown Cacao (i.e. where there is a little pulperia- store- that sells rice, beans, and thankfully cold drinks), and asked if there was a member of the Patronato around, and the member we met was Mirian, a woman about 30 years old who ended up being crucial to all that followed. Mirian arranged for us to meet with the full Patronato, took us around the village to introduce us and our project to the people, arranged for local workers to clear the land (and did much of the clearing herself, outdoing me in all aspects of handling a machete!), and showed up almost everyday to assist us as things progressed. On our last day at the site, Mirian and Patricia had a tearful farewell such that they knew each other for years and not just weeks. Largely through the efforts of Mirian, we obtained a high degree of acceptance and support of the community. *text continued below photos: doing laundry in El Cacao; Mirian and Patricia by a mountain stream
The second major goal was to erect a basic structure to serve as the initial project building. For this Rafael was consulted, and he introduced us to el maestro (the expert in construction) Jesus Peña. With an innate skepticism of all contractors, we grilled Jesus in terms of cost, keeping within his estimate, quality of construction, and time frame, and we are thrilled to say Rafael’s assurance that Jesus was a fair and honest builder proved correct. From nothing, in around six weeks and without electricity or any motorized machinery to help in the construction, we had a functional and attractive block building of about 450 square feet including a full bathroom…and Jesus actually came in at slightly under his estimate! *text continued below photos: construction starting and the final product; looking from the main room into the kitchen area; Patricia-Mirian-3 young people from Belgium who volunteered to help Lizzy perform a demographic survey of Cacao, and a smiling Jesus; Lizzy at a well we dug; downtown Cacao
6) Return in March 2007 with the absolute goal of getting Las Sonrisas de los Niños up and running. After almost two weeks incapacitated by an illness we brought with us from the US, we got a storage building completed, personally introduced ourselves and the project to the families of the village, painted the interior of the project building, bought the equipment and supplies we thought we would need, found a house to rent near the project site and set up housekeeping, bought a very old but sturdy vehicle, cleared land (always clearing land!), hired local women as employees, and had some test runs of the project with real kids. Finally, on May 21st, 2007, we opened Las Sonrisas de los Niños, and we were even lucky enough to have a volunteer, Stephanie from Canada, present. Even better, Stephanie returned to volunteer again for 6 weeks in 2009!
*photos below: A sign announcing our opening; Volunteer Stephanie with Irma and Andrea on our 1st day; Patricia and Mirian helping kids draw on day 1; activities during the 1st week of operation; lunchtime during week 1; our 1980 Toyota Land Cruiser- someday perhaps you'll see the number of kids we can fit in this rather cumbersome but very dependable vehicle.