Quimistán, Honduras — Leonardo’s home in this rural Honduran town is simple. The floor is dirt; the roof, tin. And sunlight and rain seep through the walls with impunity.
But Leonardo is one of the lucky ones. Each morning, the meek, serious third-grader dons a tidy maroon-and-white uniform and makes a five-mile trek to a private school, where a small group of Honduran teachers and their American backers are betting that an education can lift Leonardo and his classmates from poverty. Students at the Honduran Independence Bilingual School, or HIBS, study reading, math and English, not to prepare them for futures in the U.S., but rather in the hope that they will stay in their homeland and turn this poor country around.
The concept that children who learn English will stay here to help others is unproven. Unless you look at Vivian Claros, who founded HIBS. She learned English and became a teacher to escape poverty.And the notion that Leonardo is lucky might seem outlandish, too, until one realizes all the stars that needed to align before he was admitted to the school. In Leonardo’s case, it took the love of his family, a chance meeting on a Honduran bus, and a fire in a faraway city in America. The fire occurred nearly 19 year ago. It started in the basement, in a defective radio, and spread through the Arlington, Virginia, home of Glen and Karen Evans, who were away for the weekend. No one was hurt.Glen was pastor of the nearby Calvary United Methodist Church; his wife Karen, an executive at an airline trade association. Known for helping others in the community, the couple now had to depend on the kindnesses of others. They moved into a neighbor’s house while rebuilding their home. During reconstruction, Glen Evans befriended the laborers. Although he didn’t speak Spanish, he learned they were from Honduras, and had become totally disconnected from their families. Honduras has no national mail service, and their relatives had no phones. Evans worried about them. Family disconnection, he knew from his ministry, often led to alcohol and drug abuse and other behaviors that rip families apart. So Evans hatched a plan. The pastor would borrow a video camera, tape messages from the laborers and personally deliver the messages to their homes in Honduras.When he began recording, he noticed an odd pattern. As the men began speaking, they would lift their shirts, revealing their torsos. Later he learned why.
“They were saying, ‘Look mom, I don’t have any knife wounds. I don’t have any bullet holes,'” Evans said. “And that just gave me some insight, what’s in the mindset of people who have made this illegal crossing.” Evans kept his promise, using a vacation week to travel to six remote towns to deliver the messages. He was struck by the poverty in Honduras, the second poorest country in Central America. It was “unimaginable,” he said. “I have been involved with the poor all of my adult life and I’d never seen poverty like I was seeing in Honduras. It really touched me.”Glen and Karen Evans set out to help the people of Honduras. From the beginning, they saw little value in handouts, believing any benefit would be short-lived. Instead, they decided to help Hondurans help themselves, encouraging education and free enterprise, which they believed would be self-sustaining. They also decided to rely on volunteers, with no paid staff, including themselves. Glen Evans would survive on his pension, Social Security and his wife’s salary. Their new charity — Art For Humanity — initially paid Hondurans for arts and crafts to be sold in the U.S. But over the years, it has evolved and expanded into a group of enterprises both big and small. The Leadership Center, a small tuition-free college near the town of Zambrano, provides leadership training for young women. The Honduras Independence Bilingual School (HIBS), which Leonardo attends, infuses English-language instruction into a traditional elementary school education. Meanwhile, they’ve helped Hondurans establish small coffee farms, bike repair and sewing businesses, and nail salons and paint stores.
“It’s happened in very natural, organic kind of ways,” Evans said. “We just kind of puzzled and stumbled our way along and all of our big projects we’ve begun here … they also happen circumstantially.”The HIBS school has roots in a chance meeting early on. Evans met a young woman named Vivian Claros on a Honduran bus. She spoke no English, and Evans spoke so little Spanish that he carried flash cards to communicate. Claros, who was 21 at the time, told Evans she was from Quimistán.Evans sensed the young woman had ambition. Claros didn’t know what to make of the tall American.”The first time I was afraid. I would not trust him,” she said, laughing. “I was so shy. But later I wrote him and he wrote me emails and then we developed a friendship.”Evans helped Claros start a shoe business and helped her continue her education. Years later, with help from Art for Humanity, Claros started HIBS, her own private elementary school.HIBS opened in 2006 with some 25 students in pre-school, first and second grades. Today there are about 125 students with plans to increase both the number of students, and the number of grades.