…of the series “For Me, Christmas Came in April This Year”

by Jeanne Jacoby Smith, McPherson, KS

Day 2 – Choluteca, Honduras

The journal entries in this series will give readers a glimpse of why Christmas, for me, came in April this year. While I continue to thank God for Bethlehem’s Child in December when life is bleak, in Honduras life is bleak nearly every day of the year for those who cannot walk.

Ilma, polio victim (before)

Ilma on PET, with Kirby (rt) and Sam

Anul Jose Ruis arrives with his sons in a homemade bike to receive PET from PET-Kansas

Anul Jose Ruis, in his PET, is a happy man

After our rendezvous with the Pacific last night, we left Tegucigalpa and traveled in darkness to Choluteca, the fifth largest city in Honduras. We spent a few hours assembling PETs, the Personal Energy Transportation wheelchairs built in Moundridge by Kirby and Christine Goering of PET-Kansas.

Geovanny, Oscar, and Josué, student ministers from Baxter College, joined us.  Geovanny would translate for us over the next seven days. Anel and Nery navigated the roads while Josué photographed and cataloged PET recipients. The mix was great – gringos and mestizos, poverty and poetry, working in solidarity. Together we intermingled to create a fragile miracle – providing PETs for Honduras’s disabled.

That first night in Tegucigalpa I bunked down on my cot and, warm as it was, nervously curled up in the sheets. What about tomorrow? What might it bring? Might it change my perceptions of life and living, or my concept of giving? I wondered if the experience would, indeed, change me.

Before I awakened to daylight on Friday, recipients for PETs were beginning to gather. By the time their commotion rose to my window, people had formed a long line for PETs.

PETs are built for the world’s indigent, especially persons in developing countries.  Thus, PETs are given to them free of charge. Along with self-ambulatory PETs that operate using the strength of one’s arms, we brought 40 new Push-Pull Pets that the Goerings invented for persons without that capacity. Ashley Williams, who was instrumental in organizing the trip, suggested we try both the Push-Pull and regular PETs and let recipients see which one they could handle.

At 9:00 a.m. sharp the iron gates to the compound slid open. Avir Enriqe Pete, a stocky man in a red and white shirt, claimed our first delivery. Next came Enrique Néñez García, an elderly man with a severely enlarged foot, likely caused by Macrodactyly. Enrique rolled his PET out the door, ecstatic with new-found independence. A local TV station that got wind of our activities sent out two reporters.

As PETs rolled into the streets of Choluteca, the line for recipients grew longer. Though the warmth of April enveloped our hearts, I had never seen such a spectacle, nor had the people. I thought to myself, “This is better than Christmas!”

And then I saw her.

Through the wrought iron bars of the gate was a woman named Illma Lisseth. Illma had no legs. One of her feet protruded from her trunk, and the other was merely a foot, enlarged. Smiling, she sat in the line on the concrete, waiting patiently for a PET.

Josuė from Baxter College photographed and cataloged all of our PET recipients. As he recorded their names and PET numbers, I jotted down notes on their heart-wrenching stories.

Aligning my lens with Illma, I tried to snap her picture but couldn’t. The camera wouldn’t focus. I lowered my camera and then thought to myself, “It’s not the camera; it’s me. How can I take pictures when I’m crying?”

In the background, Kirby caught a glimpse of Illma and his voice rang out, “This is what PET-Kansas is all about!” This was a moment of triumph for Kirby. He and Chris had worked hard all year to make these miracles happen.

Matt and Sam, Theo and Ashley worked at full speed, riveting PETs together in masterful fashion. Kirby made final adjustments for recipients.

The lineup continued for several hours. One man rolled in on a plastic lawn chair bolted to bicycle wheels on a chassis. The thought made me ponder – Is this how our country would look if we had no recourse to medical reprieve? Why were we so fortunate, and not they? If we were in their situation and they in ours, would we not want them to reach out to us? These were “rise up and walk” moments for me.

A television cameraman showed up with a reporter to capture the news in Choleteca. These specialty wheelchairs were “rolling miracles,” they said. They interviewed Illma and then left for the station.  Just before Illma drove her PET from the compound, I conjured up enough high school Spanish to wish her well and give her my blessing. “Illma, ahora usted puedes caminar!” (“Illma, NOW you can GO!”)  She chuckled a soul-ful laugh. This was a day we would never forget.

Later, one of our group slipped out for a break. He returned with the news, “PET-Kansas was on TV in the store!”

In the garage next to our distribution center, Sherylyn distributed coloring books to a group of young children. On the front cover was printed, “Ha Resucitado, An Easter Miracle.”  While children were learning the meaning of ‘miracle,’ contemporary miracles were happening next door.

In back of the PET distribution area, Chris, Rosie, and Jessica sorted packing materials – good used clothing — men’s, women’s and children’s – in the empty PET boxes. PET-Kansas uses practical items to package their PETs.  Nestled in the boxes were shoes, sewing notions, used tennis balls, and stuffed animals for children. We allowed PET recipients’ families to indulge, taking what they needed and leaving the rest for others.*

As the day wore on, pre-identified persons showed up for their PETs, while others appeared unannounced. We asked the latter to wait and see if PETs were available. They were. By mid-afternoon we planned to close shop and leave for Catacamas, our next destination. Surely, I thought, 3:00 is nearing. When I finally found time to glance at my watch, I was startled to see it was only 10:00 in the morning. Merciful minutes compacted God’s grace into time.

Before we left that afternoon, Joseph Potter Brooks from the town of Rotan arrived at the door with his wife, Maria Alipeña el Cera. Maria had a prosthesis in lieu of a leg. Both were in need of PETs. Joseph spoke excellent English, which led me to ask for his story. About 25 years ago he played professional soccer in a championship game between Honduras and El Salvador. In Central America soccer fans are so passionate about their teams winning that countries are notorious for rioting. A few days after the match, Joseph was caught in a brawl between angry fans on the street. To break up the fight, police shot and rendered him crippled. Such is the tragedy of life, and injustice, in Honduras.

The gift that I received for Christmas this year was the ability to see from the other’s eyes, the ability to empathize. For me, Christmas happened in April this year.

(to be continued)

*Note: Unfortunately, because of customs regulations and excessive costs for fumigating, PETs can no longer be sent with clothing as packing materials.

Title: “For Me, Christmas Came in April This Year” by Jeanne Jacoby Smith, McPherson, KS. Previously published in The McPherson Sentinel, McPherson, KS, Dec. 2009