Trip was opportunity of a lifetime - Catholic Courier

Trip was opportunity of a lifetime

EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph DiMino, executive director of Catholic Charities of Livingston County, recently returned from a trip to Honduras, where he visited the child he is sponsoring through the Christian Children’s Fund.

We are so blessed in our country; afforded opportunities to learn, achieve and prosper that are unparalleled in most other countries. Our great nation is often referred to as the “Land of Opportunity.” Parents and teachers school their children about the opportunities life has to offer them. The media tells us about opportunities to travel to wonderful places, eat at fine restaurants and drive the best vehicles. In 1994, Sally Struthers offered me the opportunity of a lifetime.

It was a late-night commercial for Christian Children’s Fund. The opportunity was to sponsor a child somewhere in the world who did not have the basic life necessities of food, clothing and shelter. Sally delivered a compelling message to me that night. Forever typecast as the compassionate and sensitive Gloria on “All in the Family,” she expressed how I could make a huge difference in someone’s life for $20 a month, “less than $1 a day.” I called CCF the next day.

Soon I became the “godfather” of Angel (pronounced “on-hil”) Levi Amador/Isidro, a 6-year-old boy in Reitoca, Honduras. Reitoca is a village of about 9,000 people in the southern mountains of this Central American country, near the border with El Salvador. Angel would write a letter to me every month or two, informing me how much CCF was doing for him and his family. A latrine installed in their back yard, potable water piped to their home, immunization shots and health education were some of the benefits they had received. In each letter, he thanked me for sponsoring him; often he said how he prayed that some day we could meet.

That day first came in February 2004. CCF arranged a trip to Honduras for 50 or so sponsors. We were bused into the center of the country, to the village of Santa Barbara. Sponsored children from throughout Honduras traveled there to meet us. It took Angel and his father Victoriano two days to reach Santa Barbara. It was Angel’s first time on a bus, and he was suffering from motion sickness. We talked, through an interpreter provided by the Peace Corps, about our families, homes, lives and futures. Angel loved music and playing soccer, but struggled in school. Victoriano hoped Angel could graduate from high school with a major in metal fabrication. I told them if Angel finished school, I would attend his graduation ceremony. Our time together was only four hours. It was difficult to say goodbye.

Angel and I continued to correspond via mail. He was trying harder in school, and with each letter said how special our meeting in Santa Barbara was. Angel would close letters with “Godfather, I pray that you will be able to visit me and my family in Reitoca when I graduate.” Angel graduated from school on Dec. 1, 2006. I had the opportunity to be with him and his family that day, a day of joy and excitement equaled only when I witnessed the birth of my first child 29 years ago.

My flight arrived in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, at 1 p.m. on Nov. 30. Greeted at the airport by CCF employees Pedro Aguilar and Lissien Chang, we headed south in a heavy-duty Toyota Hi-Lux diesel four-wheel-drive pickup. The luxury of paved roads ended after an hour; narrow dirt roads, with deep ruts carved into them by flooding, were the norm for the next two hours. We saw few vehicles on the dirt roads, but frequently came upon men with bulls or donkeys, or women carrying on their backs firewood used in their stoves for cooking. We arrived in Reitoca about 5 p.m. and went to the CCF office. Angel greeted me at the door with a hug and a smiler, escorting me into the building. There I saw Victoriano and met Clementina, Angel’s mother. A band of five men began playing guitars and other string instruments, singing a song of welcome to me. The CCF Reitoca coordinator gave me a tour of their modest facility, where children would gather for medical exams, preschool classes and to learn such crafts as tailoring. After the tour, we were off to Angel’s house.

The walk through the village was wonderful. The streets were full of people of all ages. I would smile and say “hola” (hello) or buenas tardes (good afternoon) to everyone and always received a smile and warm response. Suddenly, the skies opened with a downpour of rain. By the time we reached the family’s home, we were soaked, but it did nothing to dampen the spirit of the moment.

The house was a simple masonry structure with three rooms: a family room, bedroom and kitchen. Angel’s younger sister Catherine and his niece Jennifer greeted me. Their faces looked like those of angels. With dark eyes and hair and gleaming smiles contrasted by dark, tan skin, their beauty was striking. The room would light up whenever they smiled, as they did often. Gloria, Angel’s oldest sister who is 28, was there as well. We all sat down to a traditional meal of enchiladas. Marista, another of Angel’s older sisters, walked in around 8:30 p.m. She was Jennifer’s mother and worked for CCF in a village 20 miles away. Marista had walked home, a 4{1/2}-hour journey through the mountains, at night. She usually leaves for work Monday morning and stays until Friday, but came home a day early for the graduation. I was stunned by her work ethic, commitment to family and strength. Gifts were then exchanged. Angel gave me a shirt with the emblem of his school on the front and my name on the back. I gave him an American football and a fishing pole, both of which he had no idea what they were or how to use them. I also gave him a graduation card (in Spanish) with 2,000 lempira, which equals $105 dollars. Lissien, my interpreter, explained how I wanted Angel to save this money for either his education or for tools he would need for his trade.

The family response was overwhelming. Gloria began to weep. Victoriano thanked me for the support (health care, educational fees and books, clothes, etc.) CCF and I had provided Angel over the past 12 years. This enabled him to concentrate on his other five children. Clementina held my hand and very emotionally expressed thanks to God for sending me to help her family. She asked me if I liked chicken, and when I said yes, she said she would make one for me the next day. Pedro, Lissien and I left at 9:15 p.m. to get some sleep in our rooms at the Villa Francis.

Dozens of roosters began their calls at 2:30 a.m. and performed continuously the remainder of the morning. Their calls dominated the silence of the night, except for the heavy snoring from the men in rooms on either side of mine. Exhausted from the previous day’s travel and excitement, these sounds did little to keep me awake. That would change at 4 a.m., as I heard the sound of a large diesel engine approaching Reitoca, straining to climb the final hill then downshifting as it entered the village. It finally stopped next to the Villa Francis, which is located in the center of Reitoca. After idling for a few seconds, the driver activated an air horn as loud as those on a train. The deafening noise caused my body to stiffen and seemingly levitate over my bed. The snoring next door stopped and even the roosters seemed quiet. With eyes wide open in my pitch-dark room, I wondered what that was about. Then it blew again and yet again, a total of six times until 4:10 a.m., when the vehicle pull away. I heard voices in between air blasts, but could not figure out the reason for this early morning commotion. The roosters started again, as did the adjacent snoring, but my day had begun. I had enough rest to carry me through what would be one of the greatest days of my life.

As soon as the sun rose at 5 a.m., I ventured to the communal bathroom at the Villa. Remembering Pedro’s instructions of “don’t forget your toilet paper, wear sandals in the shower and use bottled water when brushing your teeth,” the bathroom experience went well. Only cold water in the shower was an invigorating way to start the day. Pedro and Lissien picked me up for breakfast at 7 a.m. There are no restaurants in Reitoca; we ate each meal at the home of a neighbor of the CCF office. I asked Pedro about the air horn at 4 a.m. “That’s the bus to Tegucigalpa; it picks up workers and students each day for the 3{1/2}-hour journey to the city. It will return around 8 p.m. tonight,” he said. Breakfast was rice and beans, an egg, a hard piece of cheese and tortillas, and a sweet cup of strong, black coffee. It was delicious.

Next stop was the school for the graduation ceremony. Eighteen young men and women were graduating with a major in agriculture, and four young men, including Angel, with a major in metal fabrication. Victoriano asked if I would sign the school register as Angel’s godfather, a custom to verify that the student had successfully completed his studies. I proudly accepted. We visited the metal shop at school; all the equipment was old and outdated by 25 to 30 years accordingly to U.S. standards, but it was state-of-the-art to them. From here we returned to Angel’s house for lunch.

Clementina made a chicken soup that was outstanding. In the soup were whole pieces of chicken and hearty pieces of carrot and potato, along with plantain, green banana, baby corn and cabbage. The prevailing spice was cilantro. What a dish! After lunch, Angel and Victoriano took me on a tour of their house and property. A few years ago they built a house next door for Marista and Jennifer to live in, a small, two-room dwelling with a nice front porch. So their combined houses had two bedrooms, two living rooms and a kitchen, with a latrine and shower in the back yard, for nine people. To provide for his family, Victoriano farms about two acres of land behind his house, plus he is a mason. However, heavy rains have washed away the seeds this year. The reason they are poor, he told me, was their dependence on farming, which is vulnerable to washouts and droughts. Hurricane Mitch devastated this region in 1998, destroying their crops and many of their hammock bridges. After Mitch, Victoriano worked with others in the community to replace one bridge over the river. This project took many months, but saved some children from walking an additional five miles to school. Later that day, I crossed one such hammock bridge, as the entire family went on a picnic to the “hot springs.”

The bridge was probably 300 feet long, over a gorge that was about 200 feet deep. Many planks were missing, with a frightening view of the rocks and river below. The Reitocans walked across fearlessly. Lissien and I were very reluctant, especially as the bridge would bounce with our weight and sway in the wind. I held the cable firmly in my right hand, put on the bravest face I could muster, looked strait ahead and watched the children giggle at my fear. The solid ground on the other side erased the queasy feeling from my stomach quickly.

I noticed the women were carrying bags during the trip, but I was unaware of what was in them. We walked down the gorge to the riverbed, where I saw some rocks that had a white scale on them. The temperature was the hottest on the trip, probably 90 to 95 degrees, with the sun beating down like a hot lamp in a tanning salon. How did it get this hot so quickly? The hill on this side of the river was spewing boiling hot water from its side. As we settled into a spot on the shore, the women open a bag with seven freshly laid eggs; Victoriano placed them in a pool of water that was probably 210 degrees Fahrenheit. The kids and women waded into the river and passed a soccer ball to each other. Ten minutes later, everyone enjoyed a hard-boiled egg with coarse salt and their choice of Pepsi or Sprite. I had experienced a Honduran beach party.

As we drove back to Reitoca in the Toyota, Pedro picked up three kids and let them ride in the bed of the truck, to save them the four-mile walk. We pull up to Angel’s house, where Pedro sat in front and spoke with these kids, ages 11 to 13. One of the kids had recently dropped out of school. Suddenly, Lissien began to laugh, telling me that Pedro told the dropout “Your life is going to suck when you get older! You have to have an education to have a good life. Go back to school.” Lissien told me how much Pedro loves children and his job at CCF, which he has had for 25 years.

In the house, Angel and I began a conversation about his future. I asked Angel where he saw himself in 20 years. After much thought, he said he hoped to be a professional. When quizzed about what type of professional, Angel said an engineer. We talked about what it would take, and I agreed to help Angel make this dream a reality. When he graduates from his university studies in Tegucigalpa, I’ll return to Reitoca for another celebration.

Pedro, Lissien and I then headed to the CCF office to kill an hour before the graduation. The office was filled with children, and they also played in the yard. I asked Lissien to explain which children are chosen first for sponsorship. One requirement is a permanent address; those that move from town to town are ineligible. Next parents must commit to put their children in school and keep them there; if the child drops out, they are out of the program. That is a great motivator for parents to persist in keeping their kids in school instead of pulling them out in order to have them help on a farm. There are around 100 children awaiting a sponsor in Reitoca. I asked if I could meet a few, to bring their pictures back to the U.S. A young mom, Belinda, walk in with her two girls, Helen and Dareila.

Dareila is 1 year old and appears to have a severe case of chicken pox. Helen is 2. Belinda looks to be 20 years old or so. The possibility of sponsorship made her smile so brightly, I wanted to commit myself at that minute. But a good sponsor writes their child every month or two, and I knew I could not commit to that. So I told Belinda I would search for a sponsor for her. Again, she smiled. Then a little boy, Hector Josue, entered. He needs a sponsor also, so he could be a part of CCF.

Sponsorship is a great opportunity to develop a relationship and share your gifts with a child in need. Twelve years ago, it was the gateway I entered to a most exciting and fulfilling experience. Please consider sponsor Dareila, Helen, Hector Josue or any of the unsponsored children in Reitoca, Honduras, or any place in the world CCF provides this wonderful opportunity. You can give help and hope to a child for less than $1 a day.

My digital camera was a magnet for children. They were fascinated to see their images shortly after taking a picture. The CCF office soon filled with many children, curious to see what was happening. One boy stood out; Monchito filled the room with his smile and energy. At 11 years old, he was less than 3 feet tall, but is a bright, witty kid. The CCF staff did not know what condition Monchito suffered from, but when I met his mother later that day, I realized she suffered from a mental illness.

As evening approached, it was time to get ready for Mass at the Catholic church. All the graduates attended, with girls in beautiful dresses and boys in coats and ties. One problem: The boys did not know how to tie a tie. So I tied four or five ties before Mass, in front of the church. During Mass, Monchito showed up and sat between Lissien and myself. He was as cute as a bug, but very restless. “Take my picture, take my picture” was his continual request. When I snapped a close-up, he settled down. After Mass, it was off to the graduation ceremony. About 1,500 people gathered to honor the graduates. Pedro, Lissien and I stopped at the CCF neighbor’s house for dinner first, a mistake I would soon regret.

It seemed like the entire village of Reitoca gathered in a field on the school grounds. There was a large stage that everyone faced, and in front of it, the head table where all the town dignitaries sat: the mayor, school principal and a large man in a tuxedo named Ricardo Rojas. Each family brought tables, chairs, food and soft drinks. We arrived about 10 minutes late from our dinner. Victoriano approached us with an anxious look on his face, the first time I have seen him appear stressed. He told us that my place was at the head table, in front of the stage. It was announced to the crowd, but when I did not come forward, they began the program without me. I was most embarrassed. We sat with the family at their tables, around 20 of us all together. Angel’s brothers and sisters, nieces, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all joined in this celebration. Victoriano asked me once again to accompany Angel when he receives his diploma. I agreed, but realized I was not properly dressed for this occasion, still wearing the jeans, shirt and sneakers I wore to the hot springs. Oh, how I wished I had gone to the Villa to change clothes instead of going to dinner.

One by one, the speakers went up on stage to congratulate the students, encourage them to work hard and wish them the best in the future. In the beginning, Lissien is translating each speech, but then converts to simply telling me who is speaking, since most are giving the same message. When they call on Ricardo Rojas, he is referred to as Don Ricardo Rojas. Rojas was born and raised in Reitoca, but now lives in Miami, Fla., and runs a successful business. He has never forgotten his roots, supporting the school with donations for equipment and supplies and returning annually for graduation ceremonies.

Once again, Monchito shows up, this time with a friend. He wants to hang out with us. Pedro says Monchito is like a ghost following us around. Since he is so friendly, we start to call him Casper. Lissien explains to Monchito who Casper is, and the boy smiled with approval. The speeches seemed to be coming to an end, when suddenly Lissien said they were talking about me. She listened closely, telling me they were going to give CCF an award for all it has done for the school and community. I hear “Don Joseph DiMino,” and then Lissien said they have called me to the stage. I asked her to join me. They presented me with a beautiful wooden plaque, engraved with the landscape of Reitoca, as well as my name and CCF’s name. In Spanish, I told the audience “Good evening” and “I don’t speak Spanish.” I then thanked everyone for the plaque and said how proud I was to be a part of CCF and that the people of Reitoca are warm and friendly. Receiving the award was a nice surprise.

When Lissien and I returned to our table, Monchito’s friend asks Lissien if I can bring him home with me. She tells him that is not possible. I am trying to find out who this boy is and if CCF sponsors him.

Clementina, Angel’s mother, had prepared a meal fit for kings. The entr√©e was sliced beef, with rice, vegetables and beans as side dishes. Serving beef compares to us serving a delicacy like lobster. Unfortunately, I could not eat a second dinner. I nibbled a bit, and then pushed my plate away. I felt as though I was insulting Clementina, which was breaking my heart. Pedro could not eat his either, but he slyly slipped his plate to Monchito and asked him to go to another table to eat it, which he gladly did. I noticed Victoriano trying to eat with his free hand while holding his granddaughter, Jennifer, who was sound asleep. I asked if I could hold her while he ate, and he agreed. While holding this little angel, I realized that Victoriano may have been financially poor, but he sure was family rich. I held Jennifer until we left, about 45 minutes later.

Packing up was a family affair, for sure. We had three tables and 20 chairs, plus the accessories and leftover meal items. Everyone worked together to carry everything back to the house, which took about 45 minutes. When we were finished, the entire family, Pedro, Lissien and I sat in a circle in the family room to talk and say our goodbyes, as I was leaving at 9 the next morning. First, I asked Victoriano’s permission to give all his children and grandchildren Christmas presents, and he approved. I had exchanged too many U.S. dollars and decided I would rather give the kids 200 lempira ($10.50) each than stop at the bank the next day. Besides, these kids were part of my second family, my Reitoca family. Then I told them how much they meant to me and how glad I was to know them. It got very emotional and sappy at this point: Gloria wept, Clementina and I held hands and Victoriano spoke about how my sponsorship of Angel through CCF effectively provided for all of his needs, enabling Victoriano to focus on the needs of his other children. One by one, every family member spoke, and I responded. I will never forget the warmth and love I felt. We left for the villa at 11:15 p.m. Pedro had saved two beers for us, to sip before bunking at midnight, after what was one of the most memorable days of my life.

At 7 a.m., Pedro, Lissien and I headed to the CCF office to meet with the project leaders. I wanted to know what the major needs of the Reitoca project were, to see if I might be able to assist them. The coordinator, Tedore Reyes, was there along with Odesa Rodas, an educator, and Wilmer Martinez and Doris Cardona. The needs of the project are in five areas: health, nutrition, education, safety and youth programs to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. The No. 1 health problem is providing potable water to outlying homes in Reitoca. Some families have to walk two hours to find water. Can you imagine that? How far do you have to go to find water? The other issue that got my attention is hammock bridges. Odesa said the bridges I crossed “were the pretty ones.” Many have planks missing across the entire width, and the people have to jump over the gaps. I asked her to contact the mayor about working with CCF to address these two issues; I would match whatever the government would contribute.

During the meeting, Angel, Clementina and Victoriano walked in, along with Catherine. I did not expect to see Catherine again, only Angel and his parents. Did you ever know someone who could light up a room with their presence? Catherine did that, so I was thrilled to have one last opportunity to be with her. We all went across the street for breakfast, which was the traditional egg, rice, beans, cheese, tortillas and strong, sweet coffee but also included a fried banana and fresh fruit. Delicious! An elderly woman, asking for food, walked into the room from off the street (the doors are always open in Reitoca). Pedro asked for a paper plate, put some of his breakfast on it and passed it around. It was overflowing when it came back to Pedro, and he gave it to the grateful woman. They take care of each other so pleasantly and willingly, I thought.

It was now time to say our final goodbyes. I told Angel I would return for his graduation from university. He said he thanked God for bringing us together, along with many other kind words that made my eyes well up. Clementina and Victoriano also were emotional and thankful; there were many tears. I hugged Catherine, said “goodbye, my Reitoca family,” and Pedro, Lissien and I drove off to the Tegucigalpa airport, where I said goodbye to these two good friends.

One of the great joys in life is sharing what we have with others. Until I visited Reitoca, I did not appreciate how much I have to offer. It was a powerful experience, an opportunity of a lifetime.

If you are at a point in your life where you are looking for opportunities to share your time, your treasure or your talents in a new way, I encourage you to:

* Sponsor a child through CCF. It has changed my life, and those of many fine people in Reitoca. You can choose a child in Reitoca or anywhere in the world. There is a great need for sponsors of children living in Africa. Visit www.christianchildrensfund.org for more information or, contact me at (585) 658-4466, ext. 13, or at jdimino@dor.org.

* Get involved in the works of a charitable organization. Whether it is CCF, Catholic Charities or any service agency whose mission you believe it, the more you know and appreciate their services, the more you will want to share what you have with them.

And thanks to Sally Struthers.

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