Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | May 27, 2013

A Day on Roatan: Exploring the Needs and Volunteer Work

N 16° 21.61′   W 86° 26.34′

Roatán, Honduras.

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Fantasy Island

We are still in Roatan, waiting for weather. According to the European weather model, Tuesday and Wednesday will be good travel days. The GFS predicts a nasty trip for the same timeframe. It will be a last-minute call. Maybe we go, maybe we stay.

After three weeks on the island I felt like breaking away from the tourist environment. We have not explored much along the way in terms of volunteer opportunities. Our schedule is often unpredictable and we have spent a lot of time learning to adapt to the cruising lifestyle. We have often thought that finding the right opportunity to contribute volunteer time might fit into future cruising and retirement goals. Having some extra time on Roatan, I wanted to see what is being done on the island to address some of the critical needs.  Are there deserving charitable organizations that can use a hand?  How can a visitor help and what can be done from afar?

Island Friends Roatan Charities was a good place to get started and their website lists a number of  grass-roots organizations. There are many areas of focus – everything from marine preservation efforts to assistance for families impacted by HIV to animal rescue groups.  My areas of greatest interest are healthcare and education, so I focused my contacts in those areas. Most of these organizations are small and many operate solely on volunteer power.   Sometimes the websites are not current, and as I found, even having funding for internet access is not always a given.   I didn’t get a response to all my inquiries and I realized that it was going to take time to run around and do first-hand research. I felt lucky to get a quick reply from Kelly at Clinica Esperanza. She offered to show me around the Clinic and tell me about their work.  I was excited to have the opportunity to learn more about the healthcare situation on Roatan.

Bob is still busy with “the project”. He spends just about every waking hour delving into assembling electronic parts & pieces & computer programming. Way over my head. I get a progress report each evening and it sounds like it is coming together. He is not interested in joining me so this outing will be solo. Clinica Esperanza is way on the other side of the island in Sandy Bay and I am still figuring out the taxis and collectivos.  I chickened out and decided to rent a car for the day. Having wheels gave me more flexibility to adjust my agenda, though,  plus an excuse for another dinner outing at Cal’s Temporary Cantina.

Clinica Esperanza was started by Ms. Peggy, a nurse who relocated to the island and was inspired by the many medical needs here to found and grow this private facility that now serves 100 outpatients a day. It is an amazing place, where volunteering physicians work side by side with the local medical professionals and volunteer students to provide basic medical care. A consultation costs 100 limpiras (about $5 US). Fees are waived if patients are unable to pay. The morning of my visit there were about 60 islanders overflowing from the waiting room. No appointments are given (no shows are too high) and for 500 limpiras extra ($25) one can feel better about jumping to the head of the line since that money will be put to good use.

Kelly outlined for me the many needs and goals of the Clinic, which include expanding into the 24/7 realm with a birthing center and an outpatient surgery center in addition to more community outreach services. Basic medical supplies and medications are always in demand, and they keep a current wish list on the Clinic’s website. There is no radiology capability at the Clinic at the moment and they hope to find someone to donate basic digital x-ray equipment.

A steady stream of medical volunteers is important and they need physicians, nurses and physician assistants to come for whatever time they can spare. The credentialing process does not appear to be much of a hassle and a valid US medical license and passport are all that are required. Medical and nursing students have an important role and they would like to establish more school affiliations. That has been a challenge with the country’s current situation and negative press.  Students pay for their internship which helps to support the overall operations. Clinic personnel and volunteers need support with air travel, such as donated frequent flyer miles or discount programs. Funding is a top priority to keeping the clinic running and Kelly devotes much of her time to fundraising including monthly pledge programs and events on the island.

In the afternoon one of the visiting physicians connected me with Manu, the Volunteer Director. Manu grew up on the island and he was a great source of information. Manu took me through La Colonia, a poor local town adjacent to the Clinic where mainland Hondurans have settled, and arranged a tour of the Public Hospital on Coxen Hole. Wow – another eye-opener for me. Services are extremely limited and patients with more serious needs are referred to the mainland facilities. Paying for transportation to get there is yet another barrier to access for the many people living on a $12/day minimum wage. The hospital’s physical plant is in terrible condition.  The doors to the surgical suite did not fully close, diagnostics were limited to a small lab and an x-ray machine that often doesn’t work and routine medications are frequently out of stock.  The hardworking professionals and visiting volunteer physicians have a truly difficult job. With a change in local government the funds earmarked for a new hospital were apparently redirected to improving the roads, with the hope of positively impacting the tourist experience. I am pretty sure any unfortunate sick tourists don’t want to find themselves in the Public Hospital.  There is another private clinic in Coxen Hole that I didn’t get to see,  Woods Medical Center, that advertises 24 hour inpatient and outpatient services.  It sounds like for anyone able to pay, that would be a better option to pursue.

I asked about medical rehabilitation, my field for many years. Were there any programs or services for people with disabilities on the island?  What happened after people had strokes and serious injuries?  One of the directories mentioned a  private physiotherapist.  Clinica Esperanza reported occasionally physical therapists had volunteered on the island in the past and that families with similar issues might try to work collectively to educate themselves and help each other.  Medical rehabilitation is just not the priority and it is a struggle to meet even the most basic healthcare needs.

I had a couple of hours before dark and on my way back to Fantasy Island stopped by the Jarred Hynds Community Center/French Harbour Library.  The library runs a pre-school education program in the morning, provides a safe and structured place for kids to do their homework and hosts English classes in the evenings. They have a small supply of books, although with the last change in government they had to downsize and move into a smaller space. Their resources are not indexed at the moment. Ms. Joan the librarian is the sole employee, a warm-hearted woman who started with the community center as a housekeeper and worked her way up. She mentors the kids,  helps them with their homework and tries to keep them motivated to stay in school. She reaffirmed what I had heard, that most kids here don’t even make it to the 6th grade.  She was very proud that her daughters (twins ages 16 and one age 17) are finishing high school and hope to pursue advanced study.  Joan said the library needs school supplies, backpacks, books & educational materials, particularly Spanish language but also English, and computers. The library’s single computer is a dinosaur and internet access is not in the budget. Most months Joan pays for it herself, but this month, there were no extra funds. I gave her a donation for the internet and promised to spread the word to see what supplies we cruisers could gather.

While I was at the Community Center they were hosting a “Made In Roatan” training program and I met Debi and Bob, who started the organization. Made in Roatan teaches islanders to make jewelry and crafts to sell. They have a store in Coxen Hole and they also sell their works online with inexpensive shipping rates to the US. Most of these young people are the sole breadwinner for their family and I heard stories of great personal challenges. With minimal education and no job skills, life is pretty rough. The day I visited the young artisans were learning to make copper bracelets. The product was beautiful and would make a high quality souvenir. Definitely not “made in China”! Debi and Bob are making a great contribution with this organization.

I had only spent one day exploring, made a couple of contacts and my head was spinning by this point. So many needs, so much to do. What I saw was probably the tip of the iceberg.  Roatan might be one of those places we can return to some day, who knows?   For now, we can help spread the word about what is needed and the good work these organizations are doing.  Perhaps we can make a few connections and meet a few needs on the wishlists.

Cheers to the inspirational volunteers on Roatan who are working so hard to make a difference!

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Clinica Esperanza

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Manu outside the Public Hospital in Coxen Hole

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Neighborhood in La Colonia, an area heavily served by Clinica Esperanza

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The Catholic Church in La Colonia

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Jared Hynes Community Center / French Harbour Public Library

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I ended up with a free upgrade and a slicker vehicle than intended. Nothing special back home, but a new black Hyundai Elantra with dark tinted windows and a blond female driver sort of stood out in some of these neighborhoods. For future excursions I am going to have to learn to get comfortable with the local travel methods.

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