We Love You Gringos!
Rotarians Providing Basic Services to Remote Communities in Honduras



Rotarians from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee and other clubs from District 6760 have been doing World Community Service projects in Southern Honduras for over a decade. These projects have changed hundreds of lives by providing clean water, electricity, school supplies, and dental care for impoverished villagers in remote communities. Team Members have changed their own lives along the way.


Rotarians Changing Lives in Honduras

For Over a Decade


Article by Bill Phillips


Opportunity for Service


Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere.  With a population of 100,000, the southern city of Choluteca offers most of the services that one would expect from a small to medium sized community; however once outside the city and away from major highways, surrounding communities are poor and remote.  There are many areas that have no electricity or access to clean water, and villagers eek out a living through farming and odd jobs when work is available. Typical homes are one or two room block or wooden structures with minimal furnishings and none of the comforts most Rotarians take for granted. Government support is minimal, therefore residents are happy for any help they can receive for infrastructure, schools, or medical care. 


On her Facebook page, Carolina Tercero, our translator and community liaison from the village of San Francisco, has posted “I feel honored to be a voluntary (sic) for the Rotary Club. You all do such a wonderful work for my people”.


The Project


The District 6760 Honduras Project is a series of stand-alone efforts that address needs in remote communities near the city of Choluteca. Projects include water supply and distribution, electrification, literacy, and a dental brigade. Rotarian work teams participate in each of these activities with their primary emphasis being on village electrification. The Rotary Club (RC) of Choluteca is our host club and local Rotarians identify communities with specific needs and the feasibility for Rotary to provide assistance.


For water projects, team leaders allocate funding for purchase of materials and skilled labor to assist villagers with construction. Rotarians from Choluteca provide general oversight and also coordinate literacy and dental brigade activities to coincide with US work team visits.


The logistics of electrification projects are handled almost entirely from Tennessee. Rotarians from District 6760 travel in shifts to install wiring and fixtures in individual homes and schools where power is available in reasonable proximity. Along the way, they train local residents on basic electricity and how to safely maintain the wiring and fixtures.


While in country, Rotarians visit locations where water projects are in progress or recently completed, and they provide logistical support for literacy and dental projects. Team members pay the cost of lodging, and many cover their own airfare through direct project contributions.


An important prerequisite for deep wells and home electrification is having power available to run pumps and turn on the lights. In the project’s early years, Rotary Foundation support through Matching and Travel grants freed up funds that enabled team leaders to hire local contractors for setting poles and running primary and secondary power lines into a target community. Rule changes implemented under Future Vision phased out such funding which forced the team to discontinue this important service. The project now restricts activities to communities that already have power in place.


Scouting Trip


Specific activities are organized and funded on an annual cycle beginning in the Fall when a scout team consisting of two or three Rotarians travels to Honduras. They visit with community leaders and local organizers in order to evaluate potential projects and to prioritize based on available funding. For electrical projects the team travels to each prospective village, obtains a preliminary count of structures to be wired, evaluates the availability and condition of access roads, and most importantly verifies that primary and secondary power will be available when the work teams arrive.


Scout teams begin the process of considering logistics. This includes having a secure location for materials and tool staging, lodging for team members, drive time to and from the worksite (often an hour or more each way), and other considerations that might affect the work. They meet with community leaders to confirm that expectations of both the teams and the villagers are shared and understood. The ultimate goal for each scouting trip is to ensure that work teams are able to begin work immediately upon their arrival in country.


Typical work teams consist of ten to fifteen people including Rotarians, family members, and friends who will be doing hands-on work. Work activities are usually scheduled during the Honduras dry season which lasts from early January to mid-March. Between the scouting trip and work team visits, project leaders make specific arrangements for lodging, local transportation, material purchases, and hiring of local labor. Final schedules are established, work team members are identified, flight arangements are made, and in-kind contributions are collected. Materials and tools being carried down by the teams are divided among team members for transport in checked baggage.       

Travel to Honduras


In the project’s early years individual team members stayed in country for about two weeks. Nowadays, due to limited budgets, stays in the country tend to be for about a week. In the most recent years, District 6760 has sent two work teams led by the Rotary Clubs of Lawrenceburg and Spring Hill, both in Tennessee. Each team spends six days in country plus one day of travel time in each direction. Work team visits are scheduled to occur separately, usually during consecutive weeks. When feasible, team members travel during mid-week (Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday) to avoid airport congestion and take advantage of lower airfares.

It takes a bit of time to get to Choluteca from Nashville or Memphis! This includes driving to the airport, flying to Atlanta, Miami, or Houston, taking a connecting flight to Tegucigalpa, clearing customs, picking up rented vehicles, and driving to Choluteca over a winding two-lane mountain road.  During the two and a half hour drive, teams often go through one or more security checkpoints manned by heavily armed military personnel.  When translators identify the group as being from “Club Rotario” and the soldiers see Rotary Emblems on their shirts or caps, teams are usually greeted with a smile, a warm handshake, and sometimes a friendly salute; then waved through without delay.




Rotarians Working In The Field

Workdays are long, but satisfying. Teams leave the hotel in the early morning and drive to each worksite over some of the roughest roads imaginable. Drive time can range from fifteen minutes to over an hour depending on worksite location, and access to most worksites requires the use of four wheel drive vehicles.

For electrification projects, team members split into work groups of two or three plus one or two local laborers. They check out materials from a central location (usually a school, church, or community building), then walk or drive to the actual worksite. 

A typical installation consists of an electric meter base, small breaker panel, a porch light   plus   one   electrical outlet (110V) and light fixture with pull cord for each room. Electrical fixtures display traditional Rotary emblems and are mounted on a wall or ceiling, then wiring is installed and tied in. Each work group can usually complete two to five residences in one day. The payoff comes when the breaker is turned on and the home has light for the first time!


As sunset nears, the teams return to the hotel or a local Rotarian’s home to have dinner, discuss the day’s activities, and enjoy fellowship over their favorite adult beverage.


Team visits are often concluded at a community celebration with live music and food provided by  the villagers. Area politicians are present to do what politicians do and leaders from neighboring villages come to meet with the team and request help for their community.


The food, music, and fellowship are nice, but the real pleasure comes from seeing the genuine appreciation and smiles on the faces of residents who have improved access to clean water or electricity for the first time. It is then that team members realize how much their work means to the villagers, and they often realize that they themselves have been changed in the process.





Project Funding


The project is funded by the Lawrenceburg Rotary Club with assistance from partnering clubs in District 6760 and beyond. When available, small District Grants also provide funding.


In its early years, the Honduras Project received Volunteer Travel and Matching Grants which provided a significant portion of project funding, however these were discontinued under TRF’s Future Vision initiative. Our team applied for a Future Vision Global Grant in 2011, but a combination of unfortunate circumstances resulted in a two-year marathon of grant proposals, applications, rejections, and requirements that would have turned the project into something unrecognizable.


Our major stumbling block was that the proposed electrification project did not fit one of RI / TRF’s six areas of focus. One might think that such a project would qualify under Community Development, however Foundation guidelines required business training plus measurement and evaluation elements that simply did not fit our project.


We were faced with the dilemma of whether to reconfigure a series of long running successful projects into something more in tune with Rotary Foundation goals, or to continue providing useful services that our team and local Rotarians knew to be aligned with the needs and wishes of the Honduran villagers. When viewed from that perspective, it was an easy decision and we resolved to continue our effort through self funding and less restrictive albeit small District Grants.


As previously mentioned, the loss of Matching Grant funding forced the team to reduce the project scope and impact by restricting its activity to communities where basic electrical infrastructure is already in place.





Project History and Evolution

Rotarians from District 6760 became involved in Honduras following the country’s 1998 encounter with Hurricane Mitch. The storm had wiped out much of the country’s infrastructure and there were few resources available to aid recovery. Choluteca and surrounding communities were particularly hard hit. Rotarians from Franklin, TN were part of a church sponsored relief team that discovered remote communities with limited access to clean water, no electricity, and residents with very little hope of improving their condition. Soon after the turn of the century, they recognized that Rotary could make a significant impact and initiated District 6760’s project through the Franklin Rotary Club. Lawrenceburg Rotary became involved in 2006 when Rotarians Neal Beard and Jim Johnston convinced several fellow Rotarians to join the District Project Team. Our club began assuming leadership duties in 2007, and became the lead club in 2008.


The District 6760 Honduras project started as a water supply and distribution effort that drilled deep wells, constructed storage tanks, laid water lines and built pilas in remote communities near the city of Choluteca. In order to run pumps and other equipment, it became necessary to bring electricity into the villages. With power close by, project team members began installing wiring and simple electrical fixtures in a few of the homes and schools.

It quickly became apparent that having electricity in the village was perceived as a much greater benefit by the residents; and the installation process was well within the capability of the mostly retired doctors, accountants, business owners, public service employees, and other Rotarians who made up the team. This is the reason that current on-site efforts concentrate on electrification while project funding continues to support water, literacy, dental brigades, and other activities.





The Value of Boots On The Ground Service  

Questions are frequently asked about sending US Work Teams to Honduras.


Is the project sustainable; and if so, why is it necessary for teams to return year after year? 


The project is a long-term effort to provide service to the people of Honduras. Sustainability is guaranteed for electrical projects where infrastructure remains in place and maintained by the Honduran Electrical Authority. Water well and distribution maintenance is easily within the capabilities of the villagers. An oversight committee is appointed in each community to ensure collection of fees 

and   that   required   maintenance   is    performed on a timely basis. Local residents are trained and provided tools to handle routine maintenance.


The team returns year after year because for every community that is electrified or provided with clean water, there are dozens more that are still in the dark or carrying water from remote sources. 

Do the teams do useful work, or is this just a photo opportunity? 


There are many photo opportunities during team visits and we take advantage of these in order to tell our story; but each team does in fact do useful work. While the heavy lifting of digging wells, laying pipe, setting power poles, and running electric lines is performed by local labor; team members are doing the actual installation of house wiring and fixtures. In addition, team members visit schools to distribute books, writing tablets and even pencils. Other members assist Choluteca Rotarians with the afore mentioned dental brigade, and there is the time that team members purchased materials from their own pocket and assisted a family of thirteen to replace their small stick hut with a four room adobe block home.


Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to hire local labor to work under the supervision of host Rotarians?


From a purely financial standpoint, this might be true; however having US “Boots On The Ground” has advantages for Rotary International, Rotary in Honduras, Rotary in District 6760, and Rotarians who make up the project teams. These are benefits that defy measurement through the arbitrary metrics that have become so important for projects depending on TRF funding.


For Rotary, the advantage is a visible presence of Rotarians from the USA which makes it clear that this is in fact a Rotary Project. In addition, the on-site presence of Rotarians ensures that project funds are expended for their intended purpose. It is worth noting that the Rotary Emblem is universally recognized in communities surrounding Choluteca as representing an organization that does good things for the people of Honduras.


For the host club, the presence of team members provides opportunities to develop friendships with Rotarians from the USA. Through those friendships they are able to ensure continued support for their projects.


For the team members, observing needs with their own eyes, addressing those needs in a tangible way, and feeling a genuine appreciation for their effort reinforces their desire to serve. These trips create memories that are often described as life changing experiences.


For the District and sponsoring clubs, supporting “Boots On The Ground” service creates motivated team members who return with stories that they relate to their fellow Rotarians.

For example, 2010 team member Bert Spearman often relates that he left for Honduras as a member of the Lawrenceburg Rotary Club and returned as a Rotarian. The enthusiasm team members bring back to their home club is contagious and by far the most effective means of attracting support for future projects.


As Rotarian Neal Beard reflects, team members have built life long friendships with each other. They have laughed together, they have cried together, and most importantly they have worked together. For team veterans, returning to Honduras is like a family reunion; and for the rookies, the trip is an eye opening experience. It is their stories and personal commitment that ensures continuing support for International Service and the Honduras Project in particular. This is why Lawrenceburg Rotary and District 6760 send work teams to Honduras!



The Bottom Line


The feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction for completing a job well done is what keeps the teams coming back, but the most important result is the service we provide for the people of Honduras. Notwithstanding the end of visit celebration parties and thank you speeches from community leaders, the villagers’ appreciation in the field is what really counts.


This could be seen when an entire village turned out to watch a drilling rig punching through 150 feet of solid rock to reach a dependable source of water. Neal Beard recalls an encounter during our first dental brigade, “I remember an old man, his face beaming with joy under a weathered straw hat, coming up to me, pointing to the wide gap in his mouth, and with the other hand holding up four fingers — years of agonizing pain gone. He embraced me in a bear hug”.   He also relates a more recent encounter as he watched an elderly lady with a teary-eyed smile as she pulled a pendant string hanging from the single light fixture in her kitchen. She said that she “never thought she would live long enough to see that day”.  Perhaps team member Charlie Brewer received the ultimate compliment when a small child at a school dedication ceremony innocently announced:

“We love you gringos”!!!





Related Links:

Honduras 2014

Honduras 2012 (Video)

Honduras 2010