Earlier this year, two MPOWERD employees (Scott Klimcke, Art Director, and Joe Rappaport, Director of International Sales) had the opportunity to join our friends at the nonprofit Abundant Life Foundation on an impact trip to Roatán, an island 40 miles off the coast of Honduras. The following is Joe’s firsthand account of their experiences meeting some of the people who make up the under-resourced yet generous, hospitable and unique communities that call Roatán home.
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The Abundant Life Foundation (ALF) was formed in 2007 by Austin, TX locals Brenda and David Dachner to focus on three specific areas of growth in Roatán: education, community and conservation. Melissa Sehlhorst, the Executive Director for ALF contacted me after our first collaboration in late 2016, and as we were chatting, I threw out the idea that we could join them on their next trip. Melissa was thrilled about the offer, telling me all about Brenda and David, and I began scrambling to put the plans together. We had about 2 months to plan everything.
Monday February 20th & Tuesday February 21st Scott and I had a packing party one night in the office for the 1,000 EMRG we were bringing. We hopped on a 5:45 AM flight on the 21st and were on our way! After a quick stop in Houston for breakfast we landed in Roatán early Tuesday afternoon. After settling in we were introduced to ALF's local team in Roatán.
Wednesday February 22nd After our tour of the offices we headed to Los Sueños, the site of ALF's flagship community development project, including housing for working class residents, a school, and a church. We first stopped at the school, and watched as students arrived one by one, greeting us and hugging “Miss Brenda.” Scott and I then taught a class on solar energy and received great questions from the students about Luci, MPOWERD, and even “Why is New York called the Big Apple?” which we had to look up (it has to do with some old horse race). They were curious, intelligent and excited about getting their own lights.
After a quick lunch, we travelled to the first of three communities we were visiting: Isla Bonita, a small, majority Spanish-speaking community. We met the “Patronados” (community leaders) at a cute little gazebo and hung up some lights in preparation for our light distribution. Every time a name was called, there was an applause and one could feel the excitement rising. As the sun set, the pastor suggested we leave a single lit Luci hanging from the top of the entrance to the gazebo as a beacon for the community.
Thursday February 23rd My birthday! After a bit of down time, we went to Crawfish Rock, a predominantly English-speaking community, for the next distribution. There we met the same students we had taught the day before at Los Sueños - they had generously volunteered to help with the distribution. We strung up lights again, and Scott and I gave a product demo to attendees. They surprised me with a great rendition of Happy Birthday - it was really touching! We spoke with some local women about how they would use the lights - one even invited us to her home to demonstrate how useful they’d be around the house.
Friday February 24th After quick bite at sunrise, we set off on a 2 hour journey to an unassuming little dock on the northwest side of Roatán. On the way, we passed a house with a paved driveway - a rarity since most roads in this area are dirt. Brenda told us the story: every time a car drove by or a big gust of wind blew, dust would fly into the house, and the wife had had enough. After pleading with the local government to pave the road, the husband, a doctor, hired a private company to do it. That’s just how things work Roatán, they said. First, you ask for help. When you don’t get it, do it yourself.
We boarded a small motor boat named the “Sea Breeze” past the miles of uninhabitable mangroves that separate Roatán from St. Helene, and then through a tiny channel to the south side where we docked.
There we met Darla Pandy, a teacher/living legend from the north side, and followed her throughout the day. Since there’s a shortage of space and staff, the school day is split into two sessions: young kids in the morning, older kids in the evening. This allows the older kids to help provide for their families. We caught up with them during PE, as the kids played tag, spun tops and did calisthenics outside the school, all under Darla’s watchful eye. After PE came lunch - a government provided serving of rice and beans - and then math class and dismissal. It was amazing to watch Darla, as she had an incredible command over her students. It was clear how much they loved and respected her.
After school came a teacher meeting, followed by a 25 minute walk back to the north side of the island with Darla and her niece. Along the way they played an adorable game that’s become like a daily ritual: who could spot the most lizards in the foliage along the dirt path.
Arriving home, a whole host of kids (all members of Darla’s family) came rushing out to greet us. Now it was our turn for lunch, an amazing feast cooked by Darla’s mother, all with local plants and animals. Darla took us to the well where they get their water and wash their laundry, and then to the school named after her and built by ALF. She also showed us the church where people sheltered during a large hurricane that hit a few years back. A lifelong resident, her pride in the community was infectious.
As the sun set, we sat down for dinner (the most delicious, fresh lobster I’ve ever had) to the roaring din of the generator that powers the houses. It had actually exploded a few years back, seriously injured someone - sadly a not-uncommon issue for Roatán residents. The generators are loud, dangerous, polluting and expensive, running mostly on diesel and spewing noxious chemicals. For that reason, they’re only used for a few hours each night so the people can eat dinner.
After the meal, Darla brought us on a night fishing adventure. We went out on her father’s boat with some locals with a few spools of fishing line wrapped around plastic bottles. Living in New York for so long, seeing the open night sky was incredible. We left a Luci Outdoor 2.0 on the boat for Darla’s dad, for which he was very grateful.
Saturday February 25th We woke up at 5:30 with the locals to meet the resident artisans, a group of women who weave plastic shopping bags and materials from local trees into beautiful beach totes. There are a few steps to the process: first, you weave multiple strands of the bags together into what they call “plarn” (plastic yarn) much like knitting. Then you carve the button fastener and attach it to the bag. The women have made it their livelihood, and ALF helps them sell these bags as an added source of income for their families.
The North side community had received lights a year prior, so we were excited see how Luci had become an integral part of their daily lives. For the women, the lights help them continue making the bags throughout the evening. For an enthusiastic Luci fan named Charlie, the lights are crucial to his time spent in the kitchen. While cooking, Charlie gums the Luci’s strap in his mouth, shining it on the food. We supplied him with a newer light and can’t wait to check back in with him to see what he comes up with next!
Overall, our trip to St. Helene exceeded all expectations. They made us instantly feel like part of the family. As ALF arrived, we said our goodbyes to Darla, Kayesha and the rest of the community and departed.
We returned to the hotel for a minute before heading to our last light distribution in the mainly Spanish-speaking community of Mi Esperanza. Upon arrival, we noticed the whole community already waiting for us in the church. With help from ALF's local team in Roatán we strung lights from the rafters and began the light distribution. After it was over, we headed back to the hotel for our final night.
Sunday February 26th & Monday February 27th Brenda and David insisted we take our last morning to explore the amazing Mesoamerican Barrier Reef right offshore. Equipped with snorkel gear, Scott and I dove into what clearly used to be a booming coral reef system. The fish and plant life were beautifully vibrant but were clearly not as abundant as they once were. That’s why ALF has created a Coral Reef focus project to rebuild them from the pollution and tourist destruction. After our adventure, we headed back to Los Sueños and then to the airport and said our goodbyes. A 12 hour layover in Houston and one 7 AM flight later we were back in New York. We can’t wait to see what we do with ALF next!
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Want to get involved? Head here to donate directly to ALF’s joint program with MPOWERD in Roatán, and stay tuned for the next installment in our series!