Westport Sends Aid to Honduras
JUST who gets more out of an exchange between several villages in Honduras and some residents of Westport may be arguable. Residents of isolated villages near the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa are getting a much-needed emergency medical center. But a group of Westport teen-agers are getting invaluable life experience.
The exchange is sponsored by the Kingdom Builders, an organization that might be described as a cross between Habitat for Humanity and Outward Bound. The group — which was originally organized by a Congregational minister, the Rev. Annette Nielsen — helps teen-agers raise money and go to a distant community where need exists, and then build something to address that need.
Six years ago, when Ms. Nielsen relocated to Virginia, John and Jeri Skinner, and their adult son, Craig, of Westport were asked to keep the group going. On March 13 they will lead 42 high school students on an eight-day trip to El Jicarito, Honduras, where they will build a small medical center. The $50,000 needed for expenses and all necessary supplies and building materials will have been raised by the young people — $1,200 a person is the goal. All work will be completed by the group, who look to have one of the more remarkable experiences of their lives.
”There’s a very strong bond that you grow between all the different kingdom builders, and it’s something very special that doesn’t happen anywhere else,” said 17-year old Lucas Anderson, who made his first trip last year with the group when they went to Brazil to build a school.
In part that bond grows out of a dependency the students have on one another in a foreign land. But even before the trip begins, fund-raising helps bring the students together. And that’s one of the most important elements of a program that encourages students who live in one of the most affluent areas of the United States to earn their own way.
”They need only have a desire to go, and they have to be willing to work hard to go somewhere to work hard,” said Jeri Skinner, 60, who runs a conference planning conference business. ”Mother and Dad aren’t allowed to pay,” she says, ”so it’s a serious commitment.”
Despite the hard work it takes to get there, the Skinners have a waiting list of students who want to participate. They say they take only as many young people as will fit on one bus, allowing space for the nine adult chaperones who accompany the group.
Adults from various walks of life (though no parents of participants) join the group, which in recent years has gone to Brazil and Ecuador as well as to Louisiana and Virginia, working on projects including a family crisis center, a day care center, a homeless shelter and a school.
”We’re mostly just adults there to be responsible for the minors,” said Craig Skinner, 36. ”We don’t really assume a real leadership role per se, as we try to let the kids lead themselves.”
Self-direction, he said, it part of what enables the young people to learn and grow. ”It’s a phenomenal thing that happens,” he said. ”These kids really learn more than you could from a book or from a film.”
”I joined as an advisor in 1991,” said John Skinner, a 62-year-old airline pilot. When Ms. Nielsen, the Congregational minister invented the program, it was more focused on building houses in faraway place. When she left for another job in 1993, the students who had traveled to Mexico the previous year begged Mr. and Mrs. Skinner to take over the program. ”We just adopted it more for building projects that benefited the community, rather than individual homes,” said Mr. Skinner.
He praised the opportunity for students to learn self-discipline, as well as other things. ”They learn they can do something they didn’t think they would do,” he said. ”Many of them have had no close relationship with a hammer. They learn to work as a group. And they learn to do something that’s not for themselves.”
”Everyone usually is really, really thankful that you’re there,” said Andy Hanflik, 17, who will be making his third trip with the group. ”Everyone’s really appreciative.”
He said that one of the most important benefits was the opportunity to learn how different life is in other places.
”What we see every day is people going to New York, people going to work or whatever,” he said, unlike the agricultural economy he encountered in Brazil. ”I’ve learned that just because something is the way we see it every day, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing it.”
He spoke of one disturbing, yet fascinating experience he encountered on the last trip, where he watched farmers slaughter a pig for food. ”It really was an eye-opening experience,” he said. ”It really puts things in context.”
Katie Mason, 16, was also moved by her experience with the group. ”Going to Brazil really made me appreciate Westport,” she said, ”but it also kind of made me look at it in disgust in a way, because there’s so much we have that is unnecessary.”
Katie Peterson, 16, was still surprised to find in her two previous visits with the group that a lack of wealth didn’t keep the people in these areas from being happy.
”They’re really happy and they’re so friendly,” she said. ”It’s just amazing to me. People here are so mean. And they’re so privileged and they just don’t realize it.”
”Fairfield County is not the real world,” said Mrs. Skinner, who cherishes the opportunity to show young people how big the world really is.
The Skinners hope to expand the program into other towns. Recently Julie Kelsey, a Fairfield resident, began trying to replicate the program for adults in her church, hoping to organize 25 to 30 people to go to Honduras in April to pick up where the students leave off.
”It was something I felt called to do,” said Ms. Kelsey, who would like to organize a group for Fairfield teen-agers the following year. ”I believe that lives are changed by something like that. In this area we are so blessed, so it’s important to share what we have.”