Day 4: Santa Lucia
As I relaxed by our wood stove during the snowstorm last week, I “re-membered” Christmas as it happened to me when I traveled with PET-Kansas’ to Honduras this year. Now that December has finally arrived, I realize “Christ-mass” happened in April – for me.
I use the term “re-membered” deliberately. Over the past few years, the true meaning of Christmas was edged out by distractions that put “me” at the center, not “others.” I needed to “re-member Christ-mass” as it was meant to be.
When I went to Honduras with PET-Kansas last April, redefining Christmas did not enter my mind. In a small humble way, perhaps one could say that we helped create Christ-mass for some of their disabled, but we didn’t think about that at the time. I simply went to be of service to them, but to my surprise, the experience changed me.
For the first three days our group of ten travelers – Kirby and Christine Goering, proprietors of PET-Kansas, Ashley Williams, coordinator of the trip, and six others plus myself from South Central Kansas — delivered Personal Energy Transportation wheelchairs, or “PETs,” to indigenous Hondurans in need of mobility. Polio, accidents, and birth defects of every imaginable variety affected recipients. Ashley had contacts from volunteering there after Hurricane Mitch back in 1998. In recent years when he traveled with PET-Kansas, he organized and sent containers to the country not only with PETs, but with hospital equipment, medicines, X-ray machines, and sewing machines. PETs were particularly good navigators of rough terrain, the norm in many underdeveloped countries. They are given free of charge to persons in need, with a goal of aiding the indigenous.
The majority of Hondurans in no way live life as North Americans do. A gentile stratum of their society does well, but the World Bank reports that nearly sixty percent of their entire population lives below the world’s poverty line, with more than one-third in extreme poverty. Rich in family but poor in possessions, these people have remarkable resiliency, given intolerable living conditions.
After church that first Sunday, our truck and suburban rounded steep mountain curves with our precious cargo of PETs. At last we arrived in beautiful Santa Lucia. A training center for Peace Corps volunteers, Santa Lucia served as a much-needed reprieve.
With renewed energy, our group set up distribution in the city park and waited for recipients to come. As in other locations germane to this trip, most people were firm adherents to “Honduras Standard Time” and did not show up. In the U.S. we measure our lives by the clock, but in Honduras, time takes second place to living life in the present.
Umbrella-capped trees with rough hewn trunks eleganced the park with their beauty. Homes and buildings paraded bright flowers. An ice cream truck driver loitering without business watched people accumulate as we unloaded the PETs. Seizing the opportunity, the truck cranked up the volume on its outdoor speaker, touting the virtues of its many flavors. Before we became busy, three children dropped by and asked permission to frolic in the park on the PETs.
As identified persons began to come, the park became crowded with PET recipients and families helping themselves to packing materials. In lieu of conventional materials, PETs are packed with good used clothing, stuffed toys, used tennis balls, shoes, and other helpful items. These are given to PET-recipients’ families and others in the neighborhood.*
I “Zacchaeus-ed” myself up a tree to capture a God’s eye view of the park with my camera. A bypasser stopped to ask if she could purchase a PET for her mother. Kirby told her to bring her mother, and if she qualified for one, the answer was “yes.” The woman returned with her mother, who received a PET.
After much waiting, relatives of the four identified prior to our arrival, and who lived in the mountains, showed up and asked for their PETs. They had pictures of the identified with them. We reiterated our policy, “No people, no PETs.” Recipients had to be brought to the site since PETs required personal adjustments. We sent them away with fare to taxi the recipients to us.
At last, the first local recipients arrived. Willbeto Theos Sapata lost his fingers and a leg in an accident the year before. “Dios le bendiga, señor,” I told him as he left with his PET, remembering the blessing that Sherylyn had taught me.
Eva Murillo came with her family. An elderly woman of 76, Eva was crippled with arthritis. Her supportive family surrounded her in her PET. I captured the family on film. Before she left, this grateful lady pulled me down to her side and kissed me.
Nancy Portillo Cerrato, 11 years old, was a delightful young lady. Full of positive energy and fun, Nancy had scoliosis. Curved sharply to one side, her severely bent back caused her left shoulder to slump while her right shoulder pushed upward. Because of it, Nancy had difficulty walking. Her extended family became her cheering squad as she crawled into her PET and drove it back and forth in a space cleared by the crowd. Nancy was an inspiration.
Then finally she came – Maria. “The Woman in Red,” I called her. Paralyzed from the waist down, she pulled her torso backwards across the rough pavement with her little son Emerson propped in her lap.
Little Emerson reminded me of an image of the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on a papyrus that I saw in Egypt last year. Harboring fear in his eyes, the Christ Child was no longer an infant. His growing legs dangled past his mother’s waist as she clasped him in a protective embrace. With pyramids gracing the sandscape, the entire Holy Family – The Babe, his Mother, Joseph, and the donkey — were stuffed in a tiny reed boat, floating down the Nile toward Egypt, together.
This Maria, however, wasn’t headed for Egypt. It was all she could do to get to the park. Stricken early in life, Carmen Maria a la Rodriguez was paralyzed from the waist down. After fitting her with a PET, we talked with Maria. As her story unfolded, her voice rang with confidence of a woman made whole, of a mother tenaciously holding onto her son, and soul.
While in Honduras with PET-Kansas last April, I not only re-discovered my soul. I, also, “re-membered Christmas.”
*Note: Unfortunately, because of costs associated with fumigation, PETs can no longer be packed with clothing.
 UNDERSTANDING THE DRIVERS OF SUSTAINABLE RURAL GROWTH AND POVERTY REDUCTION INHONDURAS. The World Bank. 12/17/09.
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