Below is a reflection written by Alec Helmke who volunteered at NPH Honduras earlier this year. Let's see what he has to say!
It’s been months since my unexpected departure from Honduras, which is truly hard to believe. Shortly after I returned, the idea of being “stuck” caught my attention. As I tried to stay up to date on news in Honduras, the same headlines seemed to pop up: “Massachusetts woman finally home after getting stuck in Honduras,” “Allen, Texas resident stuck in Honduras desperate to get out,” “Medical professionals back in U.S. after being stuck in Honduras.” As someone who faced an oncoming pandemic in Honduras and was aware of the under-resourced healthcare system in the country, I was certainly anxious to find a way back to the States. But was I “stuck?” And is this the type of language I want to use to describe my experience? Now, these may seem like unnecessary questions in a time where more pressing concerns abound, but the connotations of “stuck” are almost unquestionably negative: “My truck got stuck in the mud,” “She got stuck at a job she didn’t enjoy,” “He was stuck for hours in traffic.” Simply, people get stuck in bad places, and I want to change the narrative. Absolutely, I needed to leave Honduras—for the safety of the kids, my friends, and my loved ones back home. But I was never “stuck.” And now—in a time dominated by uncertainty and negativity—I want to focus on exactly the opposite. That is, rather than writing about the challenges, both physical and emotional, that I faced leaving early, I want to speak to the blessing it was to spend nine months in Honduras.
In hogar is where my NPH story must start. Spanish for “home,” hogares are groups of children who live together under one roof on the larger NPH ranch in Honduras. The hogar to which I was assigned, a group of boys between the ages of eight and fifteen, was named San Francisco. I may be biased, but I lived side-by-side with the best group of kids on the ranch and I cherish the connection I formed with each boy. My hogar became, fittingly, a new home for me—a place where I was able to center my experience at NPH. While the surgery center where I worked was a rapidly-changing environment, with new medical brigades arriving every week, San Francisco stayed the same: a place where I could go every night to spend time with the boys I cared about—playing games, joking, listening to music, working on homework, and so much more. The special moments we shared together have left an indelible mark on my heart. I’ll mention a couple that stand out to me. The pijamadas, or sleepovers, were always a great (although not exactly restful) time to share with the boys. The tios, or caretakers, would cook a special dinner, I would bring popcorn, and then we’d all spend the night on mattresses spread over the floor, watching movies until we fell asleep. It usually followed the same pattern too. First, within fifteen minutes, Teodor, the littlest boy in my hogar, would fall asleep. Then, the other younger boys. Then me. The older boys would wake up the next morning bragging about how late they stayed up, always making sure to mention the one or two movies they watched after I had fallen asleep.
The work was hard, but, for some reason, I always enjoyed doing chores on Saturday mornings. Usually, we would spend a few hours using machetes to cut the grass around the ranch, and, let me tell you, learning to wield a machete is not easy! For the first few months, I would stand in awe as the boys, even the youngest ones, would whack at the grass for a couple hours, cutting huge swaths into the overgrown lawn. Meanwhile, I’d have to take a break after 30 minutes as blisters began to swell on my hand, barely having cut through a few feet. But, I always loved the chance to be with all the boys outside working together towards one goal. It was certainly a big change from what I was used to as a child, where Saturday mornings were reserved for cartoons and a nice, big breakfast!
Memories abound. From trips to swim in the pond, to pizza nights, to simply the meals we shared—the time I spent with the boys in San Francisco will always stay with me. Nor will I be able to forget how I felt in the smaller moments: as the little boys sat nestled against my chest while watching a movie, as the older boys laughed with me during our conversations around the kitchen table, and as I walked home from San Francisco in the cool night air—absolutely drained of all energy, but filled with a sense of love and appreciation as I relived the joy I had shared with my little brothers that night. They say you can’t choose your family, and—although it may seem as though I chose to be a part of San Francisco by signing up to volunteer at NPH—that’s not the case. God put me in my hogar, and the boys welcomed me to be a part of their family, leaving me with a sense of gratitude I’ll never be able to fully express.
Honduras is an overwhelmingly beautiful country—from the pristine white-sand beaches and turquoise waters of Roatan, to the thick, verdant jungles surrounding Lago de Yojoa, to the roaring, orange-tinged waterfalls near Valle de los Angeles, to the simple, yet awe-inspiring vista from the peaks just above the ranch—but I digress… The most beautiful part of Honduras, and of the ranch itself, was the people I encountered. Of course, the boys in San Francisco are the cutest ones on the ranch, but there are a bunch of other great kids too!
I always had a lot of fun during activities, which brought together pequeños from different hogares so they could spend time with one another as brothers and sisters. There were movie nights, where I could usually expect one or two younger kids to use me as a pillow as they crowded around the projector screen in the brisk night air. There were dances, where—if I wasn’t showing off my killer moves—I was dancing with some of the pequeños or playing tag with the younger kids who didn’t want to dance. There were plenty of soccer games too, and—from my very first game on the ranch, where a girl kicked me square in the face with a soccer ball, to my last game, where the boys seemed to score on me effortlessly—I never seemed to get the hang of the game. Celebrating holidays together was a special treat, and I remember New Year’s Eve especially well. During the day, I made a new friend: a little seven-year-old girl, who—no matter how fast we had to run nor how long we spent searching for clues—held my hand for the entirety of the ranch-wide scavenger hunt. Later that night, as I sat near a crackling bonfire, I was surrounded by a group of some of the youngest boys on the ranch, and we laughed together right up until the fireworks were launched at midnight. Between the embers of the fire, the fireworks, and the smiles on the boys’ faces, I really can’t say which shone the brightest.
And there were little joys of living with the kids on the ranch too. I always loved weekly mass with the pequeños, even though it might not have been the most solemn religious experience. In no other church have I felt the same spirit as I did sitting on the concrete pews among hundreds of kids. Sharing the sign of peace was an especially beautiful moment for me, as the hugs and smiles always filled me with a sense of happiness and belonging. The songs we shared were beautiful too. They weren’t always in tune, but they were always filled with a sense of joyful energy that was unique to the ranch. This same energy was infused in almost every conversation I had with pequeños, as the kids breathlessly shared their excitement about an upcoming activity, asked me about their friends and siblings on other sides of the home, or joked with me about daily life on the ranch. This spirit of excitement extended to even the youngest of the pequeños. As I walked home with another volunteer from a long day at work one afternoon, I recall passing by the chiquitos: the toddlers who lived on the ranch. When we turned the corner and came into view, a happy noise shot up among the little ones. And, before I knew it, one of the chiquitos was waddling towards us, his little belly bouncing as he awkwardly tried to navigate the bumpy path between us. He reached up, his arms extended towards me, and I wrapped him in a great big hug. As I joked about taking him with me back to the volunteer house, hoisted him over my shoulder, and took a few steps in that direction, I could hear his little laugh wash away all the challenges of my busy workday.
The love that exists on the ranch is palpable, and I was lucky to have been there to experience it in person. The laughter, the smiles, the hugs, the hundreds of personal connections I’ve made with these kids—all of it has left a mark on my soul. So, what more can I say? I could continue reliving countless memories and describing more of the incredible people I had the privilege to meet in Honduras, but I think it’s time to get to the point of this story, that is, to say thank you. And since words will never do the sense of gratitude I feel justice, I’ll keep it simple. Thank you to every boy in my hogar for filling my time in Honduras with joy and for blessing me with a new family. Thank you to the children of NPH for welcoming me and for offering me memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. Thank you, Honduras, for letting me witness the beauty of your landscape and your people, and for letting a chele feel like a catracho for just a little while. And thank you God, for nine months that challenged me, shaped me, enlightened me, and filled me with an irreplaceable and unforgettable sense of joy.
I was never “stuck” in Honduras, not even at the end. Every moment I spent in the country was a blessing, even the difficult ones. And the deep connections I have formed at NPH mean that the space Honduras fills in my heart certainly doesn’t match the space the country fills on a map. No, I was never stuck in Honduras, but Honduras will stick with me forever.