EL PROGRESO, Honduras — In 1998, Hurricane Mitch wreaked havoc on El Salvador and Honduras, causing widespread damage that destroyed agricultural land, buildings, homes and infrastructure and claimed the lives of thousands of people.
Not long after that devastation, the late Father Jim Balint, the founding pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Plano, was on a flight with another priest who began telling him about the devastation in El Progreso, Honduras, about 30 minutes south of San Pedro Sula.
The two talked throughout the flight about El Progreso and how the small community was faring — not well — after the hurricane. As the plane was pulling to the gate, as the story goes, the priest asked Father Balint, “Well, what are you going to do about it.” Father Balint was not expecting the question, but when he returned to the parish, he began making phone calls, doing more research and getting parishioners and others together and made the first trip to El Progreso in 1999.
Father Balint and the then- pastor of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Las Mercedes met and the rest is the legacy.
“They were like long lost brothers, but really the friendship between our parishes developed right there in that first meeting,” said Chad Evans, the president of Prince of Peace Catholic School.
Students, staff, teachers and parents at the school, as well as parishioners, have raised thousands of dollars over the past 20 years. The donations have been used to fund nutritional and educational programs, to build a nutrition center where parents are taught how to care for and feed their children and to build and continuously support, financially and otherwise, Hogar Suyapa, where 38 children from 6 months to 18 years old who have been abandoned by their families or removed from their homes because of at-risk conditions currently are housed.
And the Prince of Peace community does more, including raising money to buy vans for Hogar Suyapa to transport students and staff. Prince of Peace students earlier this year raised more than $5,000 in nickels, dimes and quarters to buy mattresses for cribs at the nutrition center and Hogar Suyapa.
In late September, a delegation of 10 people from Prince of Peace traveled to El Progreso, at the invitation of leaders in the parish community, to commemorate and to give thanks for the two decades of service and partnership.
Although they received acknowledgment at several of their stops, the Prince of Peace missionaries did not come empty- handed. They brought toiletries, clothing, shoes, supplies, monetary donations and a special gift: musician Tony Melendez, born without arms but who has traveled the world with his ministry of faith and courage and playing guitar with his feet.
And so it was that Melendez accompanied the Prince of Peace group for two days in El Progreso, playing at the cathedral, for students and teachers at various schools, and for children, staff and the Prince of Peace volunteers at a special concert at the home.
“He’s a special person because he’s from Nicaragua. He’s a special person for people in Honduras and all throughout Central and South America,” Evans said. “His message is ‘never give up hope.’ A guy who doesn’t have arms and plays the guitar with his feet is a prime example of why you should never, never stop trying.”
But it was Melendez who also wanted to know more about each of the places that Prince of Peace has helped establish and fortify over the past two decades.
In 1999, during and soon after the first visit by Father Balint, the goal was to assess what people needed within the parish and the community. One of the first programs established was the “Leches” program, which provided milk for children who were malnourished.
“Then,” Evans said, “they realized that the parents just didn’t know how to raise their kids. They didn’t know how to care for them, especially when it came to food.”
That evolved into the “Comedores” program, where Las Mercedes leaders and volunteers set up outdoor kitchens in the back of the smaller Catholic churches within the city. “They invited the kids and their parents to come in between the school day and gave them a meal for lunch,” he said.
Once that was established, they looked for other ways to partner in the city and founded a “Kinders” program. “They realized that the parents and the kids, if they don’t develop a routine when they’re little, perhaps they won’t stay in school,” Evans said. “The little kindergarten classrooms were started within a smaller parish and the mothers also learned other parenting skills.”
But it didn’t stop there.
The Prince of Peace volunteers and the local parishioners later discovered more malnourished children and determined there was a need beyond the “comedores” program and determined they needed to set up a nutrition center.
“So with generous donations continuing to come from Prince of Peace, they built a nutrition center so that they could bring the kids in and bring their bodies from being malnourished to healthy and then let them go back with their parents,” Evans said. “And so the beauty is the parents came in with them every day. And so what did they continue to do? Educate the parents about how to take care of their kids.”
But, yes, they soon found another need. Children were being brought into the nutrition center and abandoned by mothers. The groups worked together, found a piece of property 15 years ago and developed Hogar Suyapa, a home for abandoned children or those removed from their homes by the state because of neglect, abuse or at-risk situations.
The school-age children attend either Catholic or public schools and the rest, including young ones in cribs, stay with caregivers inside the home throughout the day. For the past several years, Evans has traveled multiple times a year with a delegation from the Plano community in order for more people, mostly teachers at the school, to gain exposure to the work in the Central American country.
In each classroom at the Plano school, a picture of child from the Hogar Suyapa hangs, a portrait that serves not only as a reminder to pray for a particular child, but of the importance of the larger parish mission.
During the visit in September, volunteers carried multiple duffle bags filled with school supplies, powdered formula, diapers, shoes, clothing, lotions, mosquito repellent and much, much more.
And although that was an important part of the mission, mostly they were there to connect with the parents and children.
Music teacher Shelley McClenny made her second trip to El Progreso and picked up, hugged and kissed nearly every child who wanted to be picked up.
“I (would) take all of them home if I could,” she said. “I absolutely adore coming down here. The children are so warm and so gracious and so humble. They’re not afraid of any of us. Immediately, we get off the plane and they love us. It just makes me incredibly happy to be a part of this.”
But she said that students back in Plano are just as happy to hear about the trips.
“When we come back and show the children these beautiful videos that we have of the kids down here,” she said, “it just brightens their day and makes them understand how truly lucky they are and how giving they need to be—being the hands and feet of Christ.”
Liliam Handal, the administrator at Hogar Suyapa, said that the partnership with Prince of Peace is an example of what people who may be different from each other and who may live thousands of miles apart can accomplish because of their love for Christ and his people.
“Prince of Peace has been an angel for us,” Handal said. “Prince of Peace’s help and support is priceless, not just with material things, but with prayers, which is the most important thing, and the solidarity and partnership that is evident every time they come to visit.”
Although community leaders from El Progreso have visited the Plano church and school campus over the years, Evans said the visits to El Progreso are special because of what the Prince of Peace missionaries bring back with them.
“When you come down here, they (the children) capture your heart,” Evans said. “The more that people can come down here, the more they understand the mission.”