Overview of Las Sonrisas de los Niños
We (Reid and Patricia, retired, from the US) opened a small charity project in May 2007 near the poor village of El Cacao in rural Honduras, Central America, called Las Sonrisas de los Niños (The Smiles of the Children). Our goal was to provide the youth in our area opportunities beyond what they might normally experience. This included play and recreation, nutritional support, reading, exposure and instruction in English, music, and overall a chance for kids to act like kids. We were somewhat a mix of a day care center and youth center, and the ages of the kids that attended range from infancy to teens. One of our secondary goals was to make it easy for people to volunteer- no particular requirements, no official application process, essentially no cost. This proved to be very successful- in six sessions from May 2007 to late 2011 we had hundreds of children attend, served thousands of meals, had well over 100 volunteers from many different countries, and saw countless smiles.
Soon after our sixth session completed, a two-time volunteer (and Reid's son) was deployed with the Army National Guard to Afghanistan, this being in early 2012. We decided that having reliable access to communications, which are not available in Honduras, was paramount, so we pretty much put the project on hold until, with great happiness and relief, he returned safely to the US on News Years Eve of 2012. The next project session was completely different from the prior ones- it was shorter (March 13-May 15th, 2013), run by me alone (we decided that Patricia had done more than could ever be expected and that her place was near her grandchildren, not 2,000 miles and a world away), did not include any volunteers and, for the most part, did not involve the youth center concept. Rather we operated several different, targeted programs:
English Class- every morning Mon-Fri. It was extremely gratifying that 7+ people (mostly high school kids with academic potential and some adults) made the 2-mile round trip walk without fail. This was the real thing with grammar, verb tenses, etc and not limited to “how are you,” “I am fine.” Two of the students could be said to be truly conversational, with Felipe (known to many volunteers) approaching fluency and with excellent reading and writing ability.
Women’s Sewing Group- Two days a week in the afternoon for about 6 weeks. We provided the material and two machines. Each person made at least an apron (which we then bought from them), and many went on to make bags, clothes, and curtains to sell or for personal use.
Carpentry Class- Afternoons except on the days of the Women’s Sewing Group. 4-6 teenage boys, mostly school dropouts, participated and learned the basics of measuring, cutting (especially with a table saw and circular saw), and use of drills/drivers. We made 5 tables to donate to the poorest families of the village, and each boy made something for his own family- tables, benches, a bunk bed, and in one case a 2-wheeled cart. At the end we gave the “head” muchacho (Noe) a set of hand tools to (hopefully) continue in this field and share with his fellow carpenteros, as they began to call themselves.
Additionally, we support two meal programs in the village. An aside first- when we initially began this whole idea it was, to some extent, an experiment. We had what we thought was a good idea in an area where many children lived in true poverty, but we had no way to envision if our idea would turn into any kind of reality. Early on we simply said to ourselves, like the line from that baseball movie, "If we build it they will come." As it ended up, they did come, in very gratifying numbers. The other part of this enterprise was wondering what our presence might otherwise bring, in other words, once we ended the project (the original plan was to run it for 3-5 years), would we leave any kind of a meaningful legacy in the village. This has also been gratifying in many ways- several former volunteers have returned many times, sponsorship is given for higher education, and individual families have received support. The two children's feeding programs that are currently in operation, while autonomous, would not be there if we weren't there first- Richard, a Canadian volunteer from 2009, essentially moved to Cacao and runs a 3 day a week lunch program, feeding about 40 kids each time. This is called the Panza Llena (Full Belly) program. The other program feeds about 60 kids twice a week and is run by a Honduran pastor named Jeronimo, who moved to Cacao around September 2012. He spends most of his time interacting with and helping the poorest of the families in the village. He came to our village in association with an orphanage called Casa Cielo, which came to Cacao directly through our efforts. In the photos below the 2 on the left are Panza Llena (Richard and me in the middle pic) and Jeronimo's program on the right
We anticipate the future of the project will be in line with the seventh session- shorter duration and concentrating more on small group and individual interactions,. This doesn't mean we'll have no use for volunteers. While in "mini-session" there would be plenty for a volunteer to do in assisting with the targeted programs. Perhaps more importantly, people interested in volunteering but with their own ideas would be welcome to use our infrastructure, whether we are in session or not. This would, out of necessity, require a number of competencies, including pretty decent Spanish language ability and being able to interact with the community and individuals in what are often difficult circumstances, and also live without the many comforts and conveniences we are accustomed to in the "first world." If this has any interest for you, perhaps a church looking for a mission opportunity or a retired couple looking to do something different and rewarding, please contact us. It should be noted that Honduras has sadly become a notoriously dangerous place, often said to have the highest murder rate in the world. Of course, the chances are one will not become a victim, but this needs to be seriously considered by anyone thinking of traveling or living in Honduras for any reason. Curiously, our little village which previously was pretty crime-ridden (a number of murders, frequent robberies and break-ins, etc) seemed very quiet during the nine week "mini-session" March to May 2013. On the other hand, my errand trips to the city of La Ceiba every week or so seemed to require more vigilance than ever. Here is a link to read more about the security concerns in Honduras.
With all this said, note that we are otherwise leaving the "old" website intact- i.e. too many happy memories to delete all the text and photos that recall our five years of primarily running the project as a kid's center.
Above: phone call for Cesia; dia de los niños celebration; Palblito the clown; Cinderalla (aka Lupita ) in her fancy carriage on the way to the ball
A main emphasis of our project is volunteerism. It is absolutely wonderful watching these poor kids meet, develop relationships and friendships, and learn so much from our volunteers. And it is equally amazing seeing the volunteers respond to the kids. We have had volunteers from the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, Holland, Belgium, the UK, Denmark, and Ireland, ranging in ages from the pre-teens to the almost 80. We’ve had individuals, groups of friends, and whole families. In many cases volunteers have kept in touch with the kids or our local employees long past the time they were there, and many times volunteers have returned to renew their relationships and experiences- the current record is 10 trips. We try to make volunteering as easy as possible, with no applications or fees (we do maintain and offer hostel type housing for $25 a week, which seems to be pretty popular), and volunteers have been with us for a few days to 5 months. People thinking of volunteering and new volunteers should click here to read about how to travel to the project and increasing security concerns.
Below, volunteers: Kayla reading with Esperanza; siblings Johann and Karin getting palm prints; Stephanie and Rosalinda share a hug
We typically operate Mon. through Fri. 8:30am to 4pm. Since we opened in May 2007 we have run the project in "sessions," i.e. we’ll be in operation for 4-5 months, then close down for several months in order to live our US life (rest, visit friends and family, work on our small house and land in southern Alabama, etc). We would like to have more continuity, which prompted us to consider trying out what we termed on-site managers in our absence. This was never brought to fruition for a number of reasons, but our goal remains. Hence we have posted a request for operating partners, perhaps a retired couple that has been looking for a meaningful challenge and has the financial wherewithal to run the project in our absence. Please click here (the page about volunteering, then scroll to the bottom) to learn more about this concept.
Above: end of Session 4 party for las mujeres (i.e.our employees); Manuel and Santos came to the project on a horse; Mirian was put in charge of crafts during a time of no volunteers and came up with some good ones
In the summer of 2009, totally unrelated to our presence, a Canadian group called Adventure in Missions (http://adventureinmissions.com) opened a needed clinic in the village of El Cacao. We of course came to know each other and in the spring of 2010 they expressed an interest in trying their hand at running their version of our project using our facilities. As we closed out session 5 in October 2010 we handed them the keys and they have been active since then (this being written in May 2011). We will be returning towards the end of this month to open session 6 and we'll look forward to learning in-person of their experience.
Below left: Claribel at the sewing machine; Below center: many of the kids in this family attend the project- in front of their fairly typical house; Below right: Abi la princesa
We have a few additional goals for session 6. We now have two sewing machines courtesy volunteers from session 5 and hope to form a viable co-op for some of the older girls and local women. We also plan to purchase an industrial weed-whacker and form a co-op for some of the young men around that. Lawns like we are accustomed to in the US are uncommon in Honduras but rather in order for land to be usable it has to be constantly cleared, and this provides a significant livelihood for those few that can afford a weed-whacker (typically called a Shindawa in our part of Honduras). Machetes are often used but are very labor intensive and time consuming and power lawn-mowers are rarely seen and not efficacious for coarser land, so heavy-duty weed-whackers are the most viable and variable tool. Lastly we plan to (finally) offer instruction in carpentry, allowing those interested to build something useful- a shelf, table, stool, etc- while learning the basics.
Thank you for visiting our website. We hope it provides a lot of useful information, especially if you are considering volunteering with us. If you have any questions or want further information, feel free to contact us.
Las Sonrisas de los Niños is a project of United Charitable Programs (www.UnitedCharitablePrograms.org)– a registered 501(c) (3) public charity. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law. All funds raised by Las Sonrisas de los Niños are received by United Charitable Programs and become the sole property of UCP which, for internal operating purposes, allocates the funds to the Project. The Program Manager makes recommendations for disbursements which are reviewed by UCP for approval.