THE PROJECT (see bottom of page for a map showing the project area/village of El Cacao & a link to lots of pics )
Simply put, Las Sonrisas de los Niņos (The Smiles of the Children) is a project designed to help poor kids in and around the rural village of El Cacao in Honduras, Central America. We opened on May 21st, 2007, and are a project that combines pre school-aged childcare with an overall youth center for kids up into their early teens. Life in rural areas and villages in places such as Honduras is far different from the small town or country life we have in the "first world." In El Cacao the streets are muddy or dusty dirt trails, the houses are typically made of sticks and mud, many people are without the most basic electric service, and there is very little to do. There is a school but for a variety of reasons it is often closed and tends to be ineffective when open. Older children are often marginally literate at best and unable to comprehend such basic concepts as dates and calendars, the idea that there are different countries, cultures, and languages, and overall that anything exists outside of the village and its poverty. We once asked a group of 11-12 year-olds to name a country besides Honduras and, after some period of thought, one of them ventured the answer of "Jutiapa," which is a small town a few miles away. El Cacao is a typical poor village where many families sit around without hope for a better life, and the kids sit around in idleness, ignorant of the ideas that there can be a future and that life can actually be fun.
Las Sonrisas de los Niņos is a small, two-person project developed and run by Patricia and Reid (the "we" and "our" in this website), retired but youthful! from a small town in very northern NY near the Canadian border but now with a US residence in southern Alabama. Our goals are to offer an alternative to idleness, to provide a place for kids of all ages to come and have something meaningful to do, and all in all to make available the resources and opportunities for kids to be kids- hopefully kids with a brighter future. We operate Monday-Friday, 8am-4pm with our main facility being a 16x30 foot block building surrounded by outside play areas, a garden, and a couple of ball fields. We have gradually developed our facilities (starting with only overgrown pasture) and are proud to have running water, a full bathroom, a small kitchen, computer annex, and electricity.
Our day is loosely divided into two periods. The morning session is usually attended by kids of pre-school age, hence we function somewhat like a daycare ("guarderίa" in Spanish, and we are often referred to locally as "la guarderίa). Some of these kids are the children of our employees (we hire three, at times four, local women, chosen in part because they are poor with little kids), some are kids with parent(s) working or not around for various reasons and are left in the care of marginally older siblings (we often have the several kids from a single family in this situation), and some attend simply because it's something to do. The afternoon, after-school session brings the older kids to the project, though there are many days when school is not in session (either various holidays or for no reason obvious to us), or a particular class is cancelled. In these cases our morning attendance increases, often dramatically. We have had as few as four kids for the morning session and as many as 72 in the afternoon, but we commonly end the day with between 20 and 25 kids.
Our typical daily schedule is as follows:
Pick up the kids at the village center at 8am, a little bit of free play and especially coloring, then breakfast and tooth brushing.
At 8:45 or so we have story time, usually followed by music and singing- it is difficult to explain that books and stories are almost non-existent in the village and for most of the pre-school kids we are their only exposure to these essential elements of development.
At around 9:15 we'll have either games (remember musical chairs and duck-duck-goose?) or directed activities, especially in the realm of arts and crafts. As with books and stories, the idea of making things with your own hands is largely alien to the children, and arts and crafts activities are extremely popular, perhaps especially among the older kids. We love it when the kids make something they are proud of and take it home to show their families!
Between 10 and 10:30 we give a glass of milk to every pre-school kid present.
From milk time to lunch there is supervised free play and activities. Some kids want to continue their crafts project, some like to splash about in our little play pool, there is always lots of coloring, and many kids use this time to play with our toys.
Lunch is between 11:30 and 12, with our philosophy that they can have as much to eat as they want. One of our very satisfying moments was when we asked an older boy if he had enough to eat and he replied, with a contented smile, "I had three plates!" There is quite a bit of low-level malnutrition among these children.
After lunch every kid gets a vitamin and there is another story time and usually more music and singing.
Sometimes just before 1:30 we make a second trip to the village (about a mile away) to pick up the older kids and return some of the younger kids. Many times we have kids from another village filter in beginning around lunchtime.
The rest of the afternoon is usually very busy (or perhaps chaotic is more accurate) as the older kids engage in a variety of activities, including baseball, soccer, computers, playing games, playing dolls and dress-up, reading, drawing, and arts and crafts. We also show kids movies on selected afternoons, which is a real treat for those who have had little access to electricity and TV/movies.
With rare exception we have an English class every afternoon starting at 2:30-3. There is evidence that the two greatest predictors of future success for a Honduran child are knowledge of computers and English.
Finally, at 3:30 to 4 we load up the vehicle with the youngest and smallest kids and return them to the village (the bigger kids walk!)
Las Sonrisas de los Niņos is also a project designed to use a slightly different approach in terms of integrating humanitarian work/volunteering with tourism. There are many important and wonderful humanitarian efforts around the world and in Honduras. The average person from the "first world" can support these efforts by writing a check and, depending on the organization, may receive a photograph of the child they are helping. This can make a huge difference in the life of a poor child, but a photograph is no substitute for knowing the child in real life, in their real world. While Las Sonrisas de los Niņos is as grateful to receive monetary donations as any charitable organization, it believes many "first worlders," if given the opportunity, would discover the experience of a lifetime if they could actually play with the children, read to the children, and simply share themselves with the children. One of our primary goals to make hands-on volunteering accessible and truly meaningful...so that someone who has the heart and the desire will be able to help a child shed the burdens of poverty and just be a kid. We would like you to consider becoming a different kind of tourist , one whose travels or vacation will include a visit to El Cacao, and whose efforts just might help put a smile on the face of an impoverished kid
Below is a link to an on-line album from volunteers Gail and Becky during a trip in 2007 (they also returned in 2008 at a time we were not open but volunteered with our friends at Helping Honduras Kids, and they also volunteered with us in 2009 and Gail returned in 2010 with her daughter and several friends); about half of their photos pertain to the project and the remainder to their activities around La Ceiba, the Central American Spanish School, and island called Utila: