TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Denis Antonio Mendosa Funez lives in a new, small, wooden building with an outdoor courtyard for his kitchen. In his one interior room sits a mattress and a simple wooden desk.
Piled against one wall are boxes of clothing and denim backpacks. Every day, Mendosa, a 17-year-old math and accounting student, volunteers five to eight hours to speak with poverty-stricken neighbors and to distribute aid from a U.S.-based charity to 65 needy children and some 25 elderly people who live in his small community of Betania.
He is one of about two dozen other mostly teen-aged volunteers from his parish, St. Joseph the Worker in Suyapa, just outside Tegucigalpa, who have been working to deliver additional assistance to hurricane victims and to rebuild homes destroyed by floodwaters and landslides since Hurricane Mitch hit Central America last autumn.
The storm left at least 9,000 dead and 13,000 missing in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In Honduras, 12,000 were still missing, and 1.2 million people were still in need of food, shelter or medical assistance as a result of the storm as of late February, according to Kerry Hodges, communications associate with Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore.
During the hurricane, rivers and streams expanded to 10 times their normal size, wiping out entire blocks of houses and buildings and 90 bridges in Honduras. Some 70 percent of the country's agricultural production was destroyed or severely damaged; public water and sewer systems and electrical systems were disrupted or destroyed.
Throughout this country of about 5.6 million inhabitants, just slightly larger than the state of Tennessee, large swaths of mud, rubble, debris and sand still plague areas surrounding major and minor waterways, leaving a frozen picture of the destruction caused by deep, fast-moving water. Aid officials estimate it will take five to 10 years for Honduras' agriculture industry to regain its 1998 production capacity.
In the aftermath, Catholic organizations like Catholic Relief Service; smaller, independent aid organizations; and individual churches have been working through employees and countless volunteers like Mendosa to rebuild hope, human dignity and social justice along with homes, water systems and bridges.
In Honduras, particularly, much hurricane aid has flowed through organizations like the Catholic Medical Mission Board, Caritas International and Catholic Relief Service, as well as smaller aid groups like the Kansas City, Kan.-based Christian Foundation for Children and Aging.
Before Hurricane Mitch, St. Joseph's parish had been working with Christian Foundation for Children and Aging — the same aid organization which is helping families in Mendosa's neighborhood with food and clothing for children and elderly — for about 10 months. The parish, served by three diocesan Spanish priests and a lay parish council, has 110,000 members who meet at 11 churches in the Suyapa area. They also work with charities in Spain and elsewhere.
The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging has donated more than $23,000.
The ‘Clowns’ Who Help
In a short tour of his small neighborhood, Mendosa gestured to the new homes built with cheap lumber (actually, scrap planks of lumber, with bark intact) and tin roofing, donated through St. Joseph's parish. As of late April, volunteers at the parish have helped build 21 new houses, and are working on 23 more.
Meanwhile, in the U.N.- and Red Cross-operated transitional shelter known as El Trebol, also in Suyapa, parish volunteer Roger Espinale helps deliver aid for about 55 children — up from about 12 children sponsored by Christian Foundation for Children and Aging before the hurricane hit — in his home community of Colonia Kuwait.
“We deliver uniforms, shoes, books, mattresses and school supplies,” said Espinale.
While his volunteers have little more than those they help in terms of money and material resources, “they can still collaborate with their time and their commitment,” Father Patricio Larrosa said. In addition, “many of these young people have also lost everything (in the hurricane), so they have a good understanding of the problems people face.”
Caritas Honduras estimates 76 percent of the country had been living in poverty before the storm. “Now, they are even more poor,” Mendosa said.
Father Larrosa calls his volunteers an inspiration for their community.
“To help here is considered foolish; therefore, these young people are considered clowns,” explained Father Larrosa, a diocesan priest from Spain who has been working in Honduras for six years. “It is hard work, going to school, and then going throughout the neighborhoods and getting a lot of criticism from people saying, ‘you're looking for fleas,’ or ‘you're doing priests’ and nuns' work.'
“It is very hard to find people who want to help others, and above all, to help those who will never thank you.”
No Time for Soccer
Recently, Mendosa took a day off from school to help another Christian Foundation for Children and Aging volunteer, Leanna Kozeliski of Gallup, N.M., distribute 500 pairs of shoes to schoolchildren.
“I like this work,” Mendosa said. “Here, many people have nothing, so it is good to be working for them and with them. I take advantage of all my free time.” Sometimes his friends want Mendosa to join them for a game of soccer. “But I feel like I should be helping people here, instead,” he said.
Espinale, Mendosa and other parish volunteers — mostly secondary school students — keep detailed, handwritten lists describing in as much detail as possible each potential aid recipient. They also help aid recipients to write letters to their sponsors in the United States.
While the volunteers are unpaid now, Christian Foundation for Children and Aging hopes to fund scholarships for those attending school in the near future, group president Robert Hentzen said.
Parish workers help make decisions about who will receive aid. “It's difficult,” said Marco Antonio, treasurer for the parish. “You may have a family living in a house with four beds and 12 people, but another family may not have any beds, so they are more needy.”
Three Moves Since Mitch
Among the 2,130 displaced people living in El Trebol, where Espinale volunteers, are Maria Brigida Espinar Osorio and her four children.
So far, Espinar said, she has had to move three times: once from her home, destroyed by flooding; then, for six months she lived in a tent city in Suyapa. For the past two months she has lived in El Trebol.
“They bring us milk and cornflakes,” Espinar said of the Red Cross. She and other refugee families live in small, fiber-board, dormitory-style rooms. Asked where she cooks, Espinar gestures to a flat-topped rock on the hard-packed, dusty ground, as she and her children sift through a pile of dried corn. She will bring the corn to a neighbor to make into tortillas, she said.
The land where El Trebol was hastily built is being rented from its owners by international aid agencies. The lease expires in February.
The situation of Espinar's family and that of thousands of others has been exacerbated by the storm, said Father German Calix, national director of Caritas and coordinator of the National Social Pastoral Work of Honduras (similar to Catholic Charities in the U.S.).
Most families lived on rented land or were squatters where they lived, Father Calix said.
He estimated that before the hurricane, Honduras was already about 700,000 housing units short. Since the hurricane, those whose homes were destroyed are being asked not to rebuild in the same places where they had lived, compounding an already difficult land distribution problem.
A City Without Homes
The situation is particularly bad in Honduras' crowded capital area, where very little land is available for housing.
According to Father Larrosa, foreign governments have offered aid to build new homes throughout Honduras. “By working through Caritas or some other aid agency, we were hoping the government would give us the land,” he said. “But as far as the government is concerned, there isn't any land (in Tegucigalpa), so they did nothing” to facilitate aid to rebuild homes.
Concerned about homeless parishioners, St. Joseph's parish distributed scrap lumber and tin roofs for about 100 families who wanted to rebuild.
“Unfortunately, in the places where they had been living, it was forbidden to build anything, and the government didn't do anything to solve the problem. So rebuilding homes is very provisional,” Father Larrosa said. “But then, life here is also very provisional.”
In December, priests working in the barrio of El Mogote outside Tegucigalpa distributed 200 tents and about two weeks'worth of food to people who had lost their homes.
The group tried to resettle where they had been living, but police arrived, saying that someone claimed ownership of the land and wanted to evict them, Father Larrosa said. According to parishioners, the police arrived, poured gasoline on the food, set it on fire, and chopped up the tents with machetes.
—Liz Urbanski Farrell, who writes from Buffalo, N.Y., recently returned from Honduras.