By Tim Simard
A week of sun and warm temperatures can do a world of wonders for someone tired of winter in Vermont. Combine it with helping to build a classroom in a poor country, and someone can do a world of wonders for others.
Williston teen Brittany Mount, 13, had the opportunity to do just that in January when the eighth grader accompanied a local aid group, Hands to Honduras, to the Central American country. Mount and a volunteer group of 35 men, women and children – including Mount’s grandparents, Dave and Fran Mount of Burlington – helped build a new classroom in a very poor town.
“It was a lot of work, but it was so much fun,” Mount said.
Mount traveled to Honduras as part of her eighth grade challenge project at Williston Central School. She also collected over 150 pounds of school supplies from both Williston Central and Allen Brook schools, as well as from a local Girl Scout troupe, to donate to the Honduran school.
Hands to Honduras has been in existence since 1998, after Hurricane Mitch destroyed much of the Honduran Coast. The program was created under the umbrella of Rotary International, but the Vermont program, run by the Charlotte-Shelburne Rotary Club, distinguishes itself from others. According to club member Linda Gilbert, the Vermont Hands to Honduras Tela Program, named after the town they visit, has been aiding in construction, medicine and other needs since 2004. This year, over 70 local volunteers traveled to Honduras.
“Our youngest volunteer was 8-and-a-half and our oldest was 78,” Gilbert said. “Everyone is a volunteer and everyone pays their own way.”
Mount’s grandfather, Dave, suggested Brittany take part in Hands to Honduras for her challenge. Dave Mount volunteered in Tela in 2007 and was changed by the experience.
The Mounts were part of the first group traveling to Honduras this year. They arrived in the country on Saturday, Jan. 26, for their weeklong service. They traveled an hour by bus from the airport to get to Tela. Once there, they had a day to relax before work began.
Mount’s group was assigned to build a new classroom in the rural village of Jazmin. To get there, the group had to take a “really, really bumpy road,” she said.
Mount said the classroom they were replacing was tiny, like a hut with no walls, and a grass roof. Past Hands to Honduras groups had visited Jazmin and built other, better-standing structures for the school. The 2008 group continued that effort.
Mount was surprised at the level of poverty in the region.
“They were super poor,” she said. “They lived in small shacks, sometimes with 20 people living in a small room.”
The group’s job in the first days was laying the foundation for the new classroom, as well as moving huge rocks to make way for the building. Mount played a lot with local children early on, until the heavy lifting was done.
“Every day we had over 30 children playing, jumping rope, playing cat’s cradle,” she said. “I tried lifting one of the big rocks one day, but it didn’t work out so well.”
Once the foundation was finished, she collected small rocks to fill in the gaps between mortar and bricks.
Mount said that the classrooms did have blackboards, some paper and school supplies, but her collection of 150 pounds of pens, paper, rulers, and more was a great help. The Mounts traveled with extra suitcases to make sure they could carry all of the supplies.
The supplies were given to the school principal on the last day of work. In an effort to avoid a “small riot” from the locals, Mount kept the goods in the suitcases to avoid attention.
“There were always lots of people around the worksite,” Mount said. “A stuffed animal fell out of my backpack and I was swarmed by close to 50 people all wanting one. I gave away the five I had, but disappointed the other 45.”
Besides building another classroom, the Hands to Honduras group helped repair the home of an elderly woman. Mount said the woman lived in a run-down shack, and couldn’t get around well due to a bad leg. Because of this, she was badly malnourished.
The group was initially told not to rebuild the house, since it would be considered an insult to help. Still, the group felt obliged, Mount said.
“We ended up completely rebuilding her house as a bonus,” she said. “Once the neighbors saw what we were doing, they helped out, too.”
The group also chipped in to buy the woman a new wheelchair to help her get around more easily.
Understanding the locals
Mount said she takes Spanish at school, but only understood a little of what people were saying.
“Sometimes you understood what they said and they were very relieved,” she said.
Despite the language barrier, Mount said she was invited to two local homes for snacks. At one, she ran into a translation issue.
“They kept saying ‘cocoa’ and asking if we wanted some,” she said. “We said sure, thinking it was chocolate. It wasn’t chocolate. It was coconut.”
Mount said she tried it, but didn’t like the native Honduran coconuts, preferring the kind you can find in a supermarket.
“I found out it doesn’t look like it does in the movies,” she said.
On the last days of their trip, Mount and her grandparents visited Mayan ruins and a butterfly palace, but she got sick partway through the sightseeing.
“We were supposed to go to Macaw Mountain, but I was too busy throwing up,” she said. “That part wasn’t very fun.
She said the experience was an amazing one and that she can’t wait to travel again in the future. Mount’s grandfather is thinking about next year and the help he can bring. He’s proud of Brittany’s work and knows she learned a lot from the experience.
“She really got an opportunity to see the Third World,” Dave Mount said. “We saw a lot of Third World situations.”
Brittany Mount also sees it as a life-changing experience and, like her grandfather, looks to next year, as well.
“I’d like to go back and see the friends I made and help out people in countries that are less fortunate,” she said.