The barrios marginales where Jorge Mahomar spends his days are not safe.
Well-educated men from wealthy families, like Mahomar, don’t go there. They would be assaulted, robbed, maybe killed.
The streets of Unidad y Fuerza on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, are full of gangs, drugs, gunsâ€¦and children. Children who have no place to go, no safe place to play, little food in their stomachs and often no shoes on their feet.
Jorge is not afraid of these neighborhoods, not even at night when the policia won’t go there. He is the one you call when you need something.
He gets a lot of calls. My daughter is sick, we have no food, we need a place to stayâ€¦Will you help me?
Gang leaders, covered in tattoos and used to the quick justice of a handgun, would not think of harming Jorge. He has devoted more than 30 years of his life as well as all his resources to the children of this city. Some he is able to rescue, see them go to school, find jobs, make a good life. Others he has lost to gangs, drugs, and an early death. He is not an old man, only in his 50s, but he looks tired, worn.
He cannot do this work on his own forever. There are too many needs and not enough resources.
It is fall 2003. Robert Furr ’04 and Jorge Mahomar’s son, Jose “04, begin their final year at Mays. Both accept the invitation to participate in the Academy for Future International Leaders (AFIL), an interdisciplinary program at A&M that allows outstanding undergraduates the opportunity to focus on global issues. One program requirement is to complete a project of global significance that applies their international leadership skills within the campus community. Students are paired based on their interests and asked to complete a sustainable project that promotes international awareness.
Robert, a management of information systems major, wants to support an orphanage or school.
Jose, a finance major, knows of an immediate needâ€”the children his father works with in Honduras. Perhaps he could organize an A&M clothing drive?
Program advisor Susan Mallet introduces Robert and Jose, suggesting they combine efforts. With input from Jorge, the project evolves ambitiously: a family center in Honduras that serves children and their parents.
Robert and Jose are full of excitement. If every third student on campus gives $1, they will meet their fundraising goal of $15,000; enough to build and supply a simple, one-story facility. Easy!
As they begin the campaign, however, obstacles mount. They are in competition with every student organization on the A&M campus, all raising money for their own causes. Due to university regulation, there are restrictions on their solicitations on campus, as they are not affiliated with a recognized student group nor are they an established non-profit.
Full of passion, they raise some initial funds and plan to continue the work after graduation. Jose lands a job with an investment bank in New York City. Robert deploys with his National Guard unit to Iraq. Both become increasingly busy as the demands of the post graduation “real world” clamor for attention.
Tragedy leads to blessing
The project might have stalled there, had it not been for a tragic accident: their advisor, Mallet, drowned while on vacation in the summer of 2004. “She had done so much to encourage us. We wanted to do this to honor her,” says Jose.
With renewed fervor, the pair continue planning for the family center. They approach the next class of AFIL about teaming with them and receive initial interest. Then the day after Christmas 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami devastates millions in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The AFIL students instead turn toward that crisis.
Jose and Robert do not give up.
In 2005, a new class of AFIL students is approached with the opportunity to partner with “Building a Future.” Jordan Baucum ’06, a marketing major, joins the cause and begins looking for grant opportunities, including his internship employer: Chevron.
Suddenly, the project is propelled light years ahead: Chevron provides a $30,000 grant for the construction of the facility, grander than the Aggies’ original plans. By 2006, the Texaco Family Support Center is constructed in Unidad y Fuerza. (Texaco is the Chevron brand in Latin America.)
A beacon of hope
Robert was still in Iraq when the center was being constructed. He describes his first visit to see the finished product: driving over unpaved, pothole-cratered roads, past tattered shacks, then pulling up to the brightly painted family center, so vibrantly different from all its surroundings. “It was amazingâ€¦I could feel the good that was happeningâ€¦The building is one of the nicest ones in the community.” It’s also one of the tallest, he says, so you can see it from a distance, a beacon of hope amid the poverty.
Today the center serves 60-100 people per day. It’s not a daycare, stresses Robert, but a place that serves the whole family. For kids, it offers a safe place where they can play and receive supplemental education and meals. For adults, it’s a place to hone essential skills like reading and writing. Recently the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture provided an introduction to the Junior Master Gardener program, teaching children and adults basics about nutrition and growing food.
Many of the children who spend time at the center come from single parent households, says Jordan. Fathers are often absent: some have left for the U.S. to seek work; some are in jail; others have been killed due to gang activity. In this circumstance, a mother has to choose between working to provide for her family or staying home to care for her children. The center allows these women to work, giving them the pride of earning a paycheck, as well as the peace of mind of knowing their kids are not roaming the streets, easy targets for gangs.
The kids at the center “are in love with learning,” says Robert. “They love to draw and to read, or have someone read with them.” Unlike American kids who complain about school work, these pupils are eager for the extra lessons they learn at the center, especially when it’s their turn to use one of the Chevron-provided computers, stocked with educational games.
“We hope it encourages them to continue with school,” says Jordan.
The work is important to Jordan. He knows the role educational opportunities have had on his own success: as a child, he struggled with learning. Without years of speech therapy and tutoring in reading, and the help of dedicated parents and teachers, he would have fallen behind his peers, and been labeled a “special education” student. “But because I had all the best, I was able to succeed and thrive, in high school and at A&M.” He wants to provide children in Honduras with opportunities for the same kind of success.
“It doesn’t have to be big. You just have to get started.”
Building a Future added a fourth board member in David Clayton “07, a fellow AFIL student. Each of the board members lives in a different part of the world (Dallas, New York City, San Francisco, and South Africa). They communicate often as they make plans to expand the presence of the nonprofit. In addition to seeking funding from corporations and individuals, they also promote Building a Future in another way: by coordinating visits for student groups from A&M and other colleges that visit Honduras for service trips. The Aggie Men’s Club has made several trips to Unidad y Fuerza and the surrounding area. Recently, a group of these students built three houses for impoverished families there.
Organizing student trips is an important function of Building a Future, say Robert and Jordan. It’s an opportunity for a life-changing experience for students, as they are exposed to new cultures and environments. More than a learning experience, it’s a gateway for involvement in global humanitarian efforts.
The board members say that they hope one of them will eventually be able to devote their efforts to the foundation full-time, instead of each giving a few hours a week, and a few weeks each year. The organization is currently seeking to hire a full-time coordinator on site in Honduras to expand their operations and help at the center, which is minimally staffed by one teacher and several volunteers. Jorge Mahomar is their partner in the effort and their liaison on site, helping them match needs in Honduras with resources from the U.S.
Jordan invites everyone to visit the Building a Future website to learn more about the effort in Honduras, make a donation, or find an opportunity to volunteer. You don’t even have to have a passport or speak Spanish to be involved, says Jordan: Being an advocate for social change in your own communityâ€”speaking out for children who lack access to education, health care, and nutrition is a great place to start. “What you do doesn’t have to be big. You just have to get started.”