Friday, August 23, 2013

Honduras 4 OYE - "How do you feel?"

As we piled art, easels, magazines, and ourselves into the NGO pick-up truck we really didn’t know what to expect from the day. Months of planning and groundwork were about to come to a head. Together with Km2 Solutions and Seattle International Foundation we were about to host our first public conference on youth development.

Volunteers from the National Beverage
Co. Collect signatures from guests.
The event, Honduras 4 OYE, served to both celebrate the new alliances OYE has formed with private businesses in San Pedro Sula and promote our philosophy of youth development. The event was born from a conversation between Walter Molinari and Mauricio Vivero during a conference hosted by SIF in Guatemala, forging new relationships with the Honduran business community and some of those businesses most active in youth development.

Left to right; Walter, Yarli, and Mauricio

Walter, a new member of the OYE Board of Directors, has grown close to the organization through his role as Corporate Social Responsibility Coordinator for KM2 Solutions, which took the lead in sponsoring the event. 
We arrived at Altia Business Park, where the event would be hosted, with plenty of time to explore the scene and prepare for the event. The event took place in the Music Salon on the second floor of the park’s Recreation Center, Recxen. The building, modern, flashy, and comfortably built, is a breathtaking change of scenery from anything an OYE student is used to. The Rec. Center is an unparalleled candy shop for young-adults, housing video games, pool tables, and even a lounge with complimentary iPads. The words culture shock might be used to describe the first reactions OYE students had upon arrival, but I would suggest another word, perhaps, awe, bliss, or joy. No sooner had the students dropped their boxes of art and magazines than they began posing for pictures.
Having visited the building myself, I half expected the excitement of the OYE students and allocated 2 hours of preparation time to ensure that everything went smoothly.  OYE displayed paintings and magazine issues created by its civic engagement projects and projected a playlist of inspiring OYE videos.  In pairs of two, OYE scholars and staff awaited the guests on the first floor. We welcomed business leaders and representatives from Cargill, Unitec, Dermalaser, Altia, the National Brewing Company, news media, and other NGOs.
Guests included students from Unitec, staff from the NGO PASMO, and
many more.
Yarli Brizuela, a member of OYE’s Radio program, served as the Mistress of Ceremony, inaugurating the event, thanking the guests, and introducing Mauricio Vivero. Mauricio, Seattle International Foundation’s Executive Director, addressed the crowd with kind words for OYE, as well as his perspective on youth development. His inspiring presentation captured the attention of the audience and set the pace for the rest of the event.
Maria de los Angeles Mejia followed Mauricio, highlighting how OYE works to empower youth. She emphasized the unique nature of OYE’s hands-on education in youth leadership and civic engagement, where youth beneficiaries contribute to their own projects and work to engage and empower other local youth. As she concluded her presentation she introduced a product of OYE youth development programs, Sandra Fiallos.
Sandra shares her story.
Sandra stole the show. She shared her personal story and testimony as an OYE scholarship student. Those present experienced a range of emotions as she remembered the powerful changes OYE has caused in her life. Describing the shy, timid, frustrated girl who arrived to OYE, it was hard to recognize the capable and eloquent young lady standing before us. Sandra’s five years of formation in OYE have produced a strong leader and an engaging individual, whose honest account of OYE and her personal growth left the audience speechless.
Luckily, Walter Molinari, KM2’s Coordinator of Corporate Social Responsibility, was ready to pick-up where Sandra left off.  He emphasized the importance of engaging and empowering youth, explained the unique nature of the Honduras4OYE event, and presented the dynamic relationship formed between KM2, OYE, and Seattle International Foundation. He followed the emotional account by Sandra with examples of concrete actions that can be initiated to unite the for-profit sector with the non-profit to build a stronger society. 

Mauricio, Walter, guests from OCAD, and Representative
 from Cargill.
After the representatives from the four sponsoring businesses spoke, everyone retired to the terrace for refreshments and a chance to socialize. OYE Radio students animated the reception and recorded brief interviews with the guests. Representatives from the businesses had to chance to mingle with OYE students and see for themselves the potential of the youth their donation will empower. 
At the end of a long but enjoyable day we packed everything back into the pickup and headed for home, a much trickier proposal than most can imagine. First we dealt with inclement weather and then unloading at the OYE office. Once all was safely stored in the office, we faced the striking reality that sets the lives of the OYE scholars apart from those fortunate enough to live and work in San Pedro.

The journey back to the houses of scholarship students was precarious to say the least. El Progreso is a small town with a population of nearly 300,000. Population growth vastly outstrips the expansion of infrastructure not to mention security. A general rule states that the more isolated a neighborhood from the center, the more dangerous that neighborhood will generally be. The neighborhoods of most OYE scholars are very isolated.  By 8 pm, taxis stop running to a significant number of the neighborhoods, especially those on the margin of the town. This creates obvious problems for students studying in University or working in other cities. Students need to arrive before the last taxi or bus leaves, and the danger does not end there. Upon arrival to their community students continue running the risk of assault or robbery.
Neris, an OYE student of nearly 5 years, is a special case. She lives in former banana plantation territory, well outsider the geographic area that composes El Progreso. Arriving to her house by car is an hour-long affair down isolated dirt roads, over thin bridges, and through mud. By bus, you can double the travel time because there are no formal stops. Any passenger can signal for the bus driver to pullover and drop them off stretching a lengthy trip into an excruciatingly long trip. Neris has made that journey twice a day every Saturday to participate in OYE. She leaves two hours before she needs to arrive in the morning and is always prompt to return home on time.
Neris posing with Mauricio
This year, Neris enters University and assumes greater responsibility at OYE. She must now travel to El Progreso nearly everyday to coordinate the Radio Project, and when she has classes in San Pedro she will have to add another two hours of round-trip travel to her routine. It takes grit and dedication for someone like Neris to stay in school and stay involved.
Neris did not believe that she would be able to attend the event Honduras 4 OYE due to her rigid travel schedule; the last bus leaves Progreso at 6 pm. I insisted she attend offering to play chauffer and drop her off at her house afterwards.  After all, the event was to celebrate youth empowerment and the opportunities we are generating for deserving youth like Neris. She acquiesced, attended the event, and had the great time that she deserved.

The trip to Neris’ house was much more than I anticipated. Gerald Velasquez, Yarli Yanez, and Alex Clark-Youngblood joined me on my quest to drop Neris off. As we bounced along the dirt roads further and further into the countryside, we each slowly came down from the high of the event. Passing countless crops and villages of farmers we began talking not of the ping-pong tables and video games at Altia but of Cantarito, the country’s version of Hide and Go Seek. Yarli, who lived in the country till she was 8, and Neris talked about the early bedtimes and4 am wake-up calls. We were entering a different world.
I pulled into the small but well kept yard of Neris’ family. It was defined by a short but well made wooden fence, I imagine more for aesthetics than to keep anything in or out. Unlike the city and its margins, Neris and Yarli emphasized the tranquility and peace of country living. Neris invited us to join her for dinner. We ate beans, tortillas, cream, eggs, and hot dogs - the staples of many Honduran diets. The experience was pleasant but in a very surreal way. The food was good and we chatted along, but Gerald had asked me something while we washed our hands before dinner that I couldn’t shake from my head. 

“How do you feel being here after Altia?,” Gerald had asked.  I understood that he packed a lot of meaning into that question. He, too, comes from a small village, possibly even more remote than the one we were in, and the tone of his question was cutting. But, what a great question!
How did I feel, how do I feel now, what was I doing in either of those places? I didn’t and still don’t
know how to answer the question that Gerald asked me because it cuts to the core of development. Last Friday, I saw two different cultures separated by a vast development gap. There is no question that structural inequality has a strong presence in Honduran society, or rather is responsible for a rift between distinct elements of Honduran society. The Honduran state is rife with weak institutions and fails to guarantee the rights of its citizens.
Nearly 50% of Honduras’ population lives in rural areas with inadequate infrastructure condemning the population to violent patterns of migration or likely cycles of poverty.  Over 60% of Honduras’ rural population lives in poverty (IDB). Rural youth are trapped between migration to the dangerous marginal communities surrounding urban centers or a structurally limited education that produces unskilled agricultural workers (campesinos).  Only 13.4% of Honduran youth between the ages of 20 and 21 years had completed high school in 2009 compared with 42% of urban youth within the same age group. Nobody is boasting that 42% of 20 to 21 year olds graduating from high school is a great achievement, but when compared to the rural option it looks pretty good.
So, how did I feel traveling from the modern palace of Honduras’ advanced communications to the rural home of an OYE scholarship student? Well, quite frankly I felt humbled. I continue to feel that way knowing that each one of the students that steps through the doors of OYE is an incredibly determined powerful person who has decided to dedicate their time with the determination to change their life and the lives of their family, friends, and community. They understand the barriers that exist and by being in school or by not having children, they know that they are an exception to the norm and are taking the first steps needed to institute that change.
Gerald said to me, “To us, this is normal, but how do you feel.”
For me it was an extreme juxtaposition and one I’ll never forget, but, at the same time, it is an inequality I will never accept.

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monu yogi said...
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