Private Aid Fosters New Generation of Self Sufficiency

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

(Editor's Note: Senior Staff Writer Larry Morahan spent a week traveling the jungles and back roads of Central America in this profile of Friends of the Americas, a private aid organization based in the U.S. This is the third of four installments on Morahan's findings.)

Los Trojes, Honduras (
- Rebuilding a community following a disaster has its mechanical aspects. But one thing the humanitarian aid organization Friends of the Americas believed was that the strength of a community lies in its families.

Founded in 1984, Friends of the Americas looked toward the future of Central American communities by looking toward the next generation, and started its child sponsorship program, in which Honduran children and their families are subsidized financially and helped with education and eventually placed in a good job.

Maria Lena Ponce, an assistant to the mayor and head of a city ecological committee, was sponsored between the ages of seven and 12. "The program helped with just about everything," she said. "Books, clothes, medical attention."

The Family Dividend

Other graduates of the child sponsor project in Los Trojes, a community of 10,000 people on the Nicaraguan border in southern Honduras, testify to its success.

Patricia Vasquez-Gonzales, 18, was sponsored by an American benefactor when she was five. Today, she works at the municipal tax authority in Los Trojes. Her boss, city treasurer Lorenzo Antonio Vasquez, is also a graduate of the program.

Josue Isias Galindo was enrolled in the sponsorship program from the age of three to 14. Today the 18-year-old is a member of the Honduran armed forces, assigned to a communications unit in Tegucigalpa.

During border patrol duty recently, Galindo dropped by the clinic in Los Trojes to say hello to old friends, proudly wearing a Honduran army uniform, an M-16 slung over his shoulder.

In a border region whose population is constantly shifting, Friends of the Americas selects children who they think would most benefit from the program.

Jose Luis Almendarez, the group's child sponsor coordinator, picks youngsters who are clearly in need of medical and financial assistance, but whose family life is relatively stable. The rationale is that a family that's constantly on the move cannot be served as well, and part of the organization's mission is to foster regional stability and prosperity.

"When a child is sponsored, the whole family benefits," said Danny Smith, a senior vice president with Friends of the Americas.

Typically, the child is usually between the ages of two and six years old, living within three miles of a Friends medical facility. The sponsorship program is one of the group's flagship projects, and much of Smith's time during trips to Honduras is spent collecting information on the progress of the children and their families.

A Three-Dimensional Approach to Aid

Because family stability requires more than money, the program also involves aid from the group's doctors, who give the child and their family a thorough medical examination free of charge before the family is put on a nutritional program.

The organization also instructs fathers in subsistence farming, providing tools and leasing land when appropriate, and teaches other family members to support themselves by sewing clothes or raising farm animals.

The impact, officials said, is both material and emotional. Some of the children in the program are already known to Friends' Dr. Marco Irias, a burly, jovial man who has delivered some 2,000 babies- roughly 25 percent of the local population - at the Friends of the Americas clinic at Los Trojas over the past decade.

"There's a lot of kids in the area named Marco," one colleague joked.

Irias, who also teaches English and science part-time at the local high school, sees about 30 patients a day at the clinic. He measures and weighs children in the sponsorship program every three months or so, and visits children and family members at their homes.

American individuals and families currently sponsor 350 Honduran children through Friends, and the organization is looking for sponsors for another 600 children. According to Smith, all of the sponsorship money goes to the children and their families.

With total revenues of $1.5 million, Smith said some 80 percent of the money received by Friends of the Americas comes from individuals, 15 percent from corporations, and about 5 percent from foundations.

The organization has never sought or received tax money from the government, and about 10 percent of its budget goes to fundraising and administration, with the remaining 90 percent of revenues going to programs, said Smith.

Part of the program's success is the result of the support of some high profile benefactors, including former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, along with numerous congressional and diplomatic leaders.

Honduran First Lady Mary Flores, a native of Louisiana and wife of President Carlos Roberto Flores, regularly participates in Friends of the Americas events, and Ambassador-at-large Holly Coors is a longtime supporter and board member, making a $17,000 grant in February on behalf of the organization Women of Our Hemisphere to underwrite the renovation of the old clinic at Danli.

Friday: Fostering Future Growth and Stability

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