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Fujiyama in Honduras (multimedia package)

Fujiyama (l) is surrounded by children at the Capprome orphanage. Courtesy of SHH.Multimedia content

(Photo movie) It started with the children;
(Audio interviews) Listen to Fujiyama describe: Responsibility and engagement / Hooked on serviceWilliam and Mary service culture / My generation;
(News story) SHH: Taking service learning to another level

Cosmo Fujiyama ('07), who won the College's James Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership during Charter Day ceremonies earlier this year (see story), continues to lead Students Helping Honduras, the nonprofit venture she started with her brother, Shin, in 2005. Earlier this summer, she led a team of students, including nine from William and Mary, on a service trip to Siete de Abril, the impoverished village near El Progresso, Honduras, where the organization's efforts are focused. In the following first-person article, Fujiyama describes the needs in the village through a reflection on Dona Carolina (not her real name) and writes about the value of the service-learning culture she encountered at her alma mater.  —Ed.

I met Dona Carolina while conducting socioeconomic surveys of the families living in a squatter community in the outskirts of El Progreso, Honduras. She warmly motioned for me to enter the house. Seated outside where she could keep an eye out for her children and the beans simmering on the stove, I began to ask her the routine set of questions regarding her income, work, health, education, safety, and family to gain better insight into needs of her family as well as the community. She responded in soft-spoken, but clear words. Leaning back into her green lawn chair, her hands held her sizably pregnant belly as if it were a basketball. Her stomach was so enormous that, more than once, I wondered if she might just go into labor during the interview. She told me she was expecting her child in four to five days. This child would be her eighth. She had given birth to all her other children in her house with a help of a friend, and this time would be no different. She did not want to go to a hospital because she could not leave her children uncared for.

As we continued along with the interview, I learned that her first husband was murdered two years ago in gang violence, and her boyfriend and father of the baby had left her. Her 15-year-old daughter brings in the only income for the family. She makes 50 lempiras a day ($2.50 U.S.) by selling tortillas on the street. Busy taking care of her mother, her six siblings and doing chores around the house, she had not gone to work in two weeks. All eight of the family members sleep crammed on two beds inside of their one-room house. The walls are made out of cardboard and blue plastic tarp, the ceiling out of tin.

I had conducted dozens of interviews already, but none had touched a cord as profoundly as my conversation with Dona Carolina. There was no doubt in my mind that she could handle the coming delivery with grace and confidence—she had been there, done that, and would do it again. But when outsiders witness the conditions in which she lives and wakes up to every morning, a Western-trained nonprofit organizer like me can do little more than ask what short-term assistance we can provide. It is also a raw and repeated realization that many of those in the developing world struggling to make a dollar a day are fighting for their families in immeasurable and untold ways. I gave her the cash I had in my pocket for food and promised to return as soon as I could. It would be enough for the food and water for her family for the next few days. Despite it all, there was a confidence and matter-of-factness in her voice that struck me powerfully from the beginning of our conversation.

Thoughts of Dona Carolina haunted me the rest of the day. Would the delivery be successful without a doctor? What if there were an emergency? Would she be able to reach medical attention in time? Will her child get the necessary vaccines?

Tied down with other projects in various places around the city, I was not able to return to see Dona Carolina for five days. When I returned to bring her some clothes for her new child, I was shocked to see not one, but two babies sleeping on the bed. As tiny as my palm and a half, one of them was wearing pink diapers and the other one blue. Carolina confessed that even she did not know that she was having twins until she went into labor for a second time. She hadn’t decided on names for them, yet. I sat on the bed staring at both Carolina and her children in utterly speechless amazement. I felt guilty that I didn’t come back earlier to just be available in case of an emergency. But already back on her feet; Carolina reaffirmed what I already believed in her—that the presence of an unbreakable will and a mother’s love prevails.

Without missing a beat, Carolina is taking care of nine children, her own health, and every responsibility imaginable in the care for her family. To assist her, Students Helping Honduras will be returning in August to provide materials and labor to expand and strengthen her home. We will work to find a scholarship for her oldest daughter where she can continue her studies without having to worry about the family income. We will also share her story of sacrifice and undefying will. The more the face of poverty comes to life, the more will people mobilize to create social value and change the patterns of poverty. Just Carolina’s story alone shines light on questions about sexual education, child labor, access to medical attention, public transportation and alienation, land rights, water quality, women’s rights, literacy and education, and families and communities. And if the voices and stories of people like Carolina are silenced or remain unheard, we risk the health of the entire community.

My job is to bridge the needs of the underserved and neglected with support and the results. By directly engaging students in the local issues of the communities, Students Helping Honduras (SHH) becomes absorbed and invested in the people we meet and work together with to find sustainable solutions to improve communities.

Four days after receiving my diploma, I was on a plane to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It would be my fifth trip to Honduras since I first traveled to the country as a as a volunteer for the Habitat for Humanity Global Village Project during my sophomore year of College. When I was a sophomore, I was light-years away from speculating that my post-graduation plans would entail building a small nonprofit in Honduras to address local community needs. But where I am today, spending time talking to incredible individuals like Dona Carolina who’s every word challenges my perspective on the world, correlated directly with my undergraduate experience at the College. During this most recent trip, I invited nine of my colleagues from William and Mary to come join me in Honduras and be a part of the SHH movement. Not only extending the story, but the journey as well, for other undergraduates is a gift and responsibility for my organization. SHH believes that the engagement of students directly in the process of assisting communities is the best learning tool. There is no comparable classroom experience than learning about poverty, systems of oppression and inequality, by smelling it, being touched by it, and listening to the stories of those who are living it define what it is. Those living in poverty are the experts, and we ought to be sitting with them, listening and absorbing knowledge if we are going to be in this fight together.

My passion for international service began at the College. And it will always boomerang back to the students at this venerable institution. There exists no other place in the world where a culture of service permeates the community as strongly as it does at William and Mary. Students are taught to challenge what they read, and then to go out and apply it. With the abundant resources at the College’s Office of Student Volunteer Services, the unfailing support from the president, and most importantly, the demand from the student body for international service opportunities, William and Mary is not only realizing this phenomena but creating it. As an alum of the College, the green and gold pulse of the College runs through my veins and reminds me daily the meaning of service. I will be returning to Honduras in the beginning of August to build and strengthen my nonprofit. I will carry with me the support and mission of the College.