Honduran Odyssey

November 20, 2015

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For most of the year, you can find Kevin Lam just about anywhere on campus, in any kind of weather, knee-deep in projects designed to keep Bridgewater College beautiful and functional.

But around December of every year, Lam— who is Landscape and Special Projects Supervisor at Bridgewater—disappears to spend as much as three weeks in a balmier southern clime. However, don’t expect to receive a postcard from Myrtle Beach; Lam goes much further south than that—to the Central American nation of Honduras.

Lam doesn’t forsake the Shenandoah Valley for Honduras’ tropical weather, or for the country’s emerald waters and brilliant white beaches. A working vacationer, he helps build houses for people who live in squalid, often unsanitary and unsafe structures that are fabricated from scavenged building materials. It’s a hard, hot and often challenging way to spend his time off, but, for Lam, it’s a labor of love and one he wouldn’t trade for anyone’s idea of a traditional vacation.

Lam, who has worked at Bridgewater since 1995, became involved through the Mt. Olivet United Brethren Church in Mt. Solon, of which he is a member. In the 1980s, Bob Eberly, a United Brethren member in Pennsylvania who was a contractor and former missionary, made regular trips to Honduras to erect church buildings because of the rapid growth in that country. In 1992 he asked Lam if he wanted to join him and other members of the congregation in Honduras. Lam jumped at the opportunity.

He began his work by performing myriad tasks as a construction helper, all the while picking up the language a little at a time and getting to know the Honduran people. As a whole, he said, they are extraordinarily friendly and welcoming of strangers and will do whatever they can for you despite having limited resources.

“If you go to visit a family, you can expect to receive a Pepsi when you get there,” he said. “It’s something special to them. If you go to several houses in a day, you’re going to get a Pepsi at each place, so you should be prepared for that.”

Acclimatizing himself to the sweltering heat and navigating a language he didn’t know were only two of the hurdles Lam faced. Equally as daunting was seeing the raging poverty and deplorable living conditions of a people whose income averages between $150 and $200 a month.

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“People who have houses with cinderblock walls and a concrete floor are doing well,” Lam said. “They’re a step up from everyone else. Many rural houses are made from scraps. People take metal barrels, flatten them out and use them for walls and roofs. Odds and ends of sticks and other pieces of wood that they find lying around actually form the structural support. Dirt floors are common.”

Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was a game changer for everyone involved in the Honduran project.

The storm, which made landfall just east of La Ceiba with winds of up to 130 miles per hour, produced the worst flooding in Honduras in the 20th century. It destroyed more than 35,000 houses and damaged 50,000 more. As much as 20 percent of the country’s population was left homeless. The president of Honduras estimated that 50 years of economic development had been wiped out.

“Bob Eberly said our church’s discipline advocates the elimination of poverty and providing decent housing for everyone, and that he didn’t see much of that,” said Lam. “So he shifted from church-building construction toward building houses for people who didn’t have them, especially in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.”

Lam said Eberly purchased 15 acres of a former orange orchard in the La Ceiba area, keeping as many of the old orange trees as he could, and laid off 90 lots for homes. Lam and his fellow volunteers then began to devote 100 percent of their efforts toward building homes in a community they named Monte Hebron.

Eberly and a committee of Honduran church leaders established guidelines for which residents were most in need of the houses that would be built and laid out a few rules for occupancy, as well. Lam said that in addition to donating “sweat equity,” home recipients pay $20 a month for three years in order to own the homes. Also, he said, recipients are not allowed to sell the houses for quick cash—and thereby become homeless again—but were able only to pass the houses along to family members.

In addition to building houses for the homeless and those affected by Hurricane Mitch, Lam’s church builds them for pastors who are retiring and who will no longer have homes provided to them by their churches.

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Lam said the finished houses have concrete floors, walls made from cinderblocks and roofs of zinc. Louvered glass windows are protected by welded-in metal bars—a necessity in a country where security isn’t always the best. The homes also have an indoor bathroom with shower and an outdoor “pila,” a concrete laundry sink with a scrub board. Materials for the houses are obtained locally and are paid for by donations from the church and its supporters. Each house costs approximately $8,500 to build.

Lam, of course, doesn’t spend all his Honduran time building houses. He has had ample opportunities for delving into the culture and lives of the people, and lends a helping hand when he can. On each trip he arrives with a load of items procured and donated in the United States, including school supplies and laptops.

Once, as he and his brother were walking by an elementary school, the teacher flagged them down and motioned them inside, where they were regaled with a horrifying story. Some time earlier, a gang member had gone inside the full classroom and shot one of the teachers, thinking, erroneously, that she was a gang member as well. Some children hid under their desks, others fled outside.

The core of the story was that many of the children now had emotional problems as a result of the shooting; Lam and his brother were asked if they had contacts in the United States who could help. Lam alerted his church’s headquarters and efforts are now under way to find help for the children.

Lam also brings back to the States a unique collection of colorful and durable handbags one mother crochets from plastic shopping bags and table cloths. He sells them here and returns the money to the mom.

Lam, who is now proficient in Spanish, tutors school children in English. He said while the government of Honduras requires English classes, most of the teachers don’t actually know English. They simply try to teach it from a book, with sketchy results.

When asked why he does it all, Lam said his reasons are selfish— that he enjoys it, but it’s also a way to do small things that eventually make a big difference. He also pointed to the Bible, and this from 1 John 3, verse 17:

“But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”