Friday, June 29, 2012

Race 4 OYE: La Maratón de La Prensa

Race 4 OYE Team

When I first applied for an internship position at OYE, one of the many facets that attracted me to the organization was their commitment to community involvement through several different media, one of which is sports.

Now, before reading any further, it might first be useful to know a little factoid about me that might explain my reluctance to participate when my supervisor first informed me that he had signed us up for the half marathon in San Pedro Sula this past Sunday to raise money for OYE. Having played soccer my entire life and now continuing it in college, I have never really been required to run for extended periods of time.  In fact, I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid runs over two miles whenever possible. As it turns out, I’ve been rather successful in this endeavor and with the exception of a very roughly estimated 7-mile jog through my home town during one particularly disappointing high school season – which was the first and last time I “hit the wall” and had to hobble around it – I have, up until last Sunday, avoided all long-distance physical assaults. I could fall back on the excuse that soccer is not, by any means, a sport in which you run for extended periods, especially as a defender, where short bursts are more appropriate, and that’s precisely what I intend to do.  Even when I was younger, and general athleticism was enough to succeed at most sports before puberty, sprints of generally no more than 30 yards were enough in football, baseball, and lacrosse.  It doesn’t look like that has changed much after puberty either.  This is why I became fascinated with long-distance track runners and their willingness to subject themselves to such an archaic form of self-torture – I figure it’s a result of some sort of traumatic experiences.  Why else would anyone voluntarily run for so long, if not to get away from some terror?  The only problem with this theory is that, at least in high school, they were constantly running in an oval so could never get any farther away from whatever demons were chasing them.

That being said, RACE 4 OYE not only presented an opportunity to get into better shape than ever before for my upcoming soccer season, but also served a much greater purpose.  Running in La Maratón de la Prensa for OYE was an opportunity for the staff and scholars of OYE to raise funds for the organization, funds that will be used to provide scholarships to a number of new and existing young students, funds that make it possible to expand OYE’s capacity to support these scholars financially.  So, while I knew my lack of training, not to mention my aversion to the Honduran climate during an event like this, might leave me withered and wasting away on the streets of San Pedro, the cause was definitely worth the physical trauma. Cue the dramatic music.

I am not quite sure what gave me the impression that RACE 4 OYE would be a lot like the 5K Proniño marathon we participated in a few weeks earlier, in which about 50 racers gathered by the park in El Progreso and most of whom walked down a dusty, dirt road eventually stopping at the orphanage (while I missed the turn to the finish and proceeded to run almost all the way back to the starting line only to be found later, half-dead, by my supervisor, Michael). No, the Proniño race did not boast quite the same environment as La Maratón de la Prensa.  Instead, last Sunday we entered a swarm of what must have been around 2,000 very diverse participants, ready to begin the race.  Where some runners isolated themselves off to the side to better prepare with various stretches and exercises, others took a more leisurely approach, chatting with friends while concealing their muffin-top figures in brightly colored spandex.  Nevertheless, this maratón was a much bigger deal than I had expected.  Decorated by sponsors and supporters, the event also showcased runners from all around the world, including the mighty Kenyans who would soon live up to their reputation as marvels of the running community.  Something in their unpurified water, perhaps.

Race 4 OYE Team

As the marathon began and my fellow OYE racers and I struggled to pin on our numbers, we could see the tension in Michael’s face as he waited patiently until everyone was ready before taking off through the sea of neon garb.  As for me, I took my time choosing a pace I thought I could maintain for 21 long, long kilometers only to later find out it would be impossible to sustain anything faster than a leisurely stroll for that distance.  However, being new to maratónes, this tiny detail eluded me at first and, as I passed other racers gingerly trotting in packs, I grinned, thinking about the pride I would feel after finishing.  When I reached the first mountain (and I call it a mountain because I never received the memo that there would be a number of steep inclines during a MARATHON, half or otherwise) my determination, my confidence, and my pace quickly faded.  Even as I jogged past a man in a wheelchair, an all too inspiring and impressive feat but never you mind that, I began to feel my legs give up around the second kilometer, which must be why it crossed my mind more than once to ask him for a ride downhill.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but you have to realize just how many uphill struggles I had to endure and, please, refrain from saying “so did everyone else” in order to fully appreciate the situation in which I had unknowingly agreed to participate.

But I was motivated to finish and with the hundreds of people scattered around the perimeter of the race, handing out bags of water, wet sponges, and encouragement, how could I not? Well, I’ll tell you how.  It was the memory of those annoying hills that did it. For what seemed like a lot of time to be deliberating whether or not to begin the second lap after completing the first 10.5K and having a little fuel left in the tank, I nonetheless deliberated whether or not to begin the second lap. My consideration was soon overpowered with the realization that, although I could run somewhat longer, no way could I finish another 10.5 kilometers running through the rollercoaster streets of San Pedro. My talents were better suited to drinking free water, eating free bananas, getting a free Icy-Hot leg massage, watching the attractive dancers on stage, cheering on the other runners crazy enough to continue, and waiting patiently for the OYE family to arrive.  After reuniting with Erick and Pao, who must have had similar sentiments, we awaited the victorious, albeit tired, face of our fearless competitor and leader, Michael, to reach the end after a grueling 21 kilometers.  And though he didn’t beat the Kenyans to the finish line (as for myself, I’m just glad I wasn’t lapped by them), I expect it was only because he got a late start after lingering while the rest of us took our time to suit up.  We’ll compare times when they’re released, just to make sure.

Although some of us could not overcome the heat, or the distance, or the mountains to finish the full race, we won where it mattered most – the reason we ran in the first place.  Because, although running La Maratón de la Prensa is complete, the race continues.  As a team, the members of RACE 4 OYE have raised a total of $2,175 so far, for which we thank our generous contributors from around the world.  OYE truly appreciates the support of its past and present enthusiasts who have helped to provide scholarships and better opportunities to our young scholars.  Our supporters continue to donate to the cause and all are encouraged to do the same, if you can.  And, honestly, I’d be pretty relieved if OYE receives more contributions without my having to run another race.

Pao Canales and Erick Estrada

Chris Benedict is a Politics major at Princeton University and a summer intern at OYE.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

KM2 Solutions Donates 3 New Computers to OYE!

Vanessa Faraj, James Moran, Walter Molinari, Marisol Fuentes and Michael Solis
Many thanks to KM2 Solutions and LUFERGO for donating 3 brand new computers to OYE. The computers now form part of OYE's Salón Creativo, or Creative Room, where youth can use them for a study space, homework, writing, or their projects in art, radio, journalism, and sports at OYE.

Special thanks go to James Moran, Walter Molinari, and Vanessa Faraj from KM2 Solutions for their tireless efforts in supporting OYE. Over 70 people from KM2's staff have already decided to donate a small portion of their monthly salary to OYE, which will benefit OYE's scholarship program. And now KM2 is thinking about how their employees can provide emotional support to OYE, aiding us with capacity building on the ground and with specialized training sessions for youth in San Pedro Sula.

Mil gracias a todos de KM2 Solutions. Your efforts are producing truly positive change at OYE, and we are forever grateful.

Friday, June 15, 2012

OYE's 7th Anniversary...So You Think You Can't Dance?

If you were to ask someone who knows me well, or at all for that matter, or probably even someone who merely caught a glimpse of me as we passed each other on a busy sidewalk, you can bet that person would not immediately peg me for the dancing type.  They might say I’m too stocky and not svelte enough for the dancer’s build, lacking the proportions conducive to the intricate and fluid movement of choreographed dance.  They’ll likely say I look like an average American college student.  They might go as far as to say I look like an athlete.  And they might even be bold enough to call me a fútbolista, especially if my boss introduces me as such, which has become customary in this country where the game means so much.

But I have never been mistaken for a dancer.  At my university, I am a student first and an athlete second, but never a dancer.  In Honduras, I am a football player sometimes, and a gringo all the time, but never a dancer.  I am a brother, a son, a coworker, a friend, a stranger, but never a dancer.  Unless, of course, a very precise mood strikes and then I become the Chris Brown or Michael Jackson of the dance floor (perhaps the Fred Astaire for an older generation?), or at least that’s what I tell myself.  On June 8th, however, OYE’s 7 Year Anniversary party gave me the opportunity to showcase the hidden skills I thought I didn’t have. 

On a day that began with hours of set up as the OYE staff, volunteers, and students helped assemble the stands, which would later sell various necessities in the heat of the day ranging from soda to snacks to meat dishes to flan, and construct the tents blocking them from the blazing sun, many of the same people would soon transform into performers.

OYE staff and students set up stands and sell food, drinks, and portraits to raise money
Students became singers and dancers, and my boss, Michael, remained an artist, he just changed his medium.  He morphed from an illustrator, skillfully sketching portraits for a price, to an entertainer, fusing the poetic lyrics of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face” with original choreography to create an act only Broadway could fully appreciate, for free.  One might call it an eccentric gift to an otherwise dull world.

Michael Solis, a Program Coordinator for OYE, displays his many talents during the show

After learning my experience as a dancer, or lack thereof, would be put into use well   before I was ready to display such a personal expression of mind, body, and soul, I was reluctant to commit to Michael’s “choreographed” dance number.  Only after much coercion and prodding did I rather unenthusiastically agree and so I set out with my four comrades from the United States and an unexpected young local to show the city we would not be confined by the limitations of normal behavior. 

As the Honduran sun beat down on my pale, gringo neck and the heat of the afternoon made it evermore difficult to stay outside watching the performances of the talented young artists, let alone participate, it became difficult to determine whether the climate or the threat of my unavoidable routine was the greater contributor to my sweat-soaked t-shirt.   After Michael’s solo rendition of “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” was eclipsed by Oriel Díaz’s, an OYE student, acoustic masterpiece, he was determined to outshine in the only other dance performance.

As if a dance battle exploded between rival groups, my gringo team attacked first with a series moves to the song “Drive By,” primarily focused on upper body activity.  We framed our faces with wiggling fingers, we flew sideways through the air as if carried by Superman, we shook commanding index fingers, and we cruised confidently through the performance.  At some point or another, and often not in unison, we teased our audience and we taunted our opponents.  Whether or not they knew we were competing, we had victory within arm’s grasp.

OYE staff and volunteers steal the show as Michael Solis' backup dancers
Our squad retired to the sidelines, panting and dripping with the promise of victory, and awaited their retaliation.  The girls of OYE’s radio program struck hard, featuring a variety of suggestive movements in which they somehow managed to move their torsos as would the hypnotizing waves of the Caribbean.  While their complexity and harmony rivaled that of the Rockettes, we could tell their desire and drive faded each time the chorus of Souldja Boy’s “Crank That” boomed from the speakers, a common effect of this “song.”   OYE’s prima ballerinas could now rely on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to inspire the movements needed to be triumphant.

As we took our places and I wiped a drop of success from my brow, everything went black.  All I remember is gliding around the stage like a fish through water, trying to be the best damn zombie El Progreso has ever seen.  I remember clawing at the air and at the other dancers, trying to mimic what our choreographer decided to improvise due to our lack of practice.  I remember laughing.  I remember the amusement.  I remember making a fool of myself.  I remember not caring.  I remember an encore.

Team OYE dances to "Bad Romance," followed by deafening applause
Then I saw the video.  Alas, it turns out I was correct in thinking I lacked the skills needed to perform even a very unstructured and improvised dance routine.  And yet I didn’t lack the ability to lose myself in hilarity and delight.  In fact, I excel at dancing.  Perhaps I fail at entertaining an audience with the beauty of extremely precise and elaborate movements, but I’m the Babe Ruth of dancing for pure pleasure.  Analogies are a different story. 

Chris Benedict is a Politics major at Princeton University and a summer intern at OYE.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

OYE Documentary: Cipotas Empoderadas

Please enjoy the 10-minute documentary Cipotas Empoderadas: Stories of Transformation of Young Honduran Women, by Richard Lakin. Many thanks to Richard, who spent three weeks in Honduras filming the lives and stories of OYE youth. To hear what Richard has to say about the piece, please read below.

Commentary by Richard Lakin:

This is the story of four extraordinary young women. It’s easy to slip into hyperbole when writing an editorial like this, but “extraordinary” is the appropriate description. Occasionally you come across people who make a lasting impression on you, and that was the case with OYE scholars Neris, Rosa, Sandra, and Oriel during my three-week visit to the Organization for Youth Empowerment in El Progreso, Honduras.

Neris’ diminutive physical size (well under 5′) and infectious laugh belie her personal intensity and her desire to complete her education. Often in my travels, I see some pretty tragic circumstances. Neris, however, has a positive family environment and lives in one of the most beautiful areas that I’ve ever seen. Campo Monterrey is deep in the plantation region of Honduras. We drove an hour and a half through miles of banana, sugarcane, and palms (used to make palm oil) to her family’s modest home that is also a convenience store. Surrounded by tropical greenery, there is the sense of an idyllic family life. Nonetheless, attending public school is not a given in Honduras. It takes money, as well as transportation from the isolated community where Neris lives. Thanks to her family’s support and a scholarship from OYE, she is on her way to a business career.

Rosa is shy and unassuming, her voice cracking because she was a little nervous being interviewed. Due to her family’s economic circumstances, she was not planning on attending high school and was headed for a life of very limited opportunity. Thanks to her mother’s perseverance, and financial support from OYE, both Rosa and her brother are able to continue their education and break the cycle of poverty that is so common in Honduras. Rosa is very focused and is excelling in her studies. A rooster adds its voice to Rosa’s mom’s interview. One of the things I remember most about the trip is the daily chorus of rooster crows that started with one and then swept across the town for miles. You miss it when you leave El Progreso.

Sandra is a pragmatic realist who had considered leaving Honduras due to the lack of opportunity. I’ve conducted a lot of interviews with, and about youth who have been characterized as “at risk.” Sandra is the first student that I’ve ever heard discuss the stigma of such a characterization from her own viewpoint. Having witnessed much gang violence, she was tempted to just give up, but now she’s attending college and has a personal agenda of assisting her family to find a better life.
Oriel’s original posting on our blog was our most visited entry, and was shared all over the world. She is all sweetness and light. Her mother had passed away just a few weeks before our visit and she had assumed the responsibility of raising six younger siblings. Despite her grief and her newly acquired responsibilities, she had the time and energy to participate in an event to raise money to end hunger in Africa. The determination in her voice when she discusses setting an example for her siblings is very memorable, and I knew that it would be last words of the documentary as soon as I recorded it. When you’re having a tough day, think about Oriel’s upbeat demeanor.

These four young women are just a few of the youth who are transforming their lives and their society through participation in the Organization for Youth Empowerment program. I hope you will find inspiration in their stories, hit the share buttons, and contribute financially to assist them in their important work.

-Richard Lakin