A few colleagues and I recently returned from Pena Blanca, Honduras volunteering with the Sextant Foundation. On the surface, our trip to Honduras sounds a little grandiose – providing reliable electricity to an impoverished orphanage. While we were successful in providing electricity through solar PV and “giving back” through our technical skills, we returned home feeling more inspired by the people and their stories. This has always been my experience with volunteering—the contribution feels small when weighed against the overall needs of the community. You always want to do more!
This story began well before our trip. Walt Vernon, Mazzetti CEO, over the years through mutual interests, developed a relationship with Pan American Health Services (PAHS) in Pena Blanca. PAHS focuses on providing nutrition and medical assistance to malnourished children in Honduras. Many of the children do not return to their family home after recovery and are afforded the opportunity to live and grow up on the PAHS campus.
Walt and a Seattle architectural firm recently teamed up to develop a masterplan for PAHS’ continual growth and expansion. The masterplan included facilitating energy independence from the electrical authority in Pena Blanca. PAHS has a long history of issues with the local electrical authority; becoming less dependent on the utility grid is an important step to their future success. Walt and the Sextant Foundation decided PAHS was a great location to deploy their services.
A new administration building on the PAHS campus was chosen to receive a 15kW solar PV system, based on roof orientation and building function. The building interior space has not yet been completed, but it will provide both administration space as well as clinical work space for medical groups who volunteer in the region. Several medical groups visit PAHS each year to provide medical support both within PAHS and in the surrounding communities.
Sextant Foundation completed the project in two weeks with the help of four Mazzetti volunteers (who were selected based on participation with GRID Alternatives, having hands-on solar installation experience), former Kaiser electrician and jack-of-all-trades Jeff Rodriguez, and local Hondurans. The work included reinforcing the roof, installing the racking system, trimming trees, placing the panels, running conduit, pulling wires, and firing up the system all in 90+ degree weather and 90% humidity. Thankfully we had locals more conditioned to these working conditions helping out on the roof when our weak “office-conditioned” bodies couldn’t handle the heat. With the 15kW installation completed, PAHS’ next steps involve installing a battery system (currently the solar PV is grid-tied) and expanding solar to additional buildings.
More than just providing food and healthcare for the children in need, PAHS gives the children much needed love that often distressed parents cannot provide. The PAHS community is warm, friendly, and full of smiles. In the eyes of the children, the bonds formed here mimic familial bonds; their friends become their siblings and their teachers become their aunts and uncles.
A secondary goal of PAHS is to help the locals break the cycle of poverty through education. Within Pena Blanca, the Youngberg family (the PAHS founders) started a trade school for the young locals to teach them automotive, carpentry, or sewing skills that they can use to improve their lives. Those who finish their schooling can find work at a textile factory in Honduras, provide automotive maintenance to the community, or choose to stay on the PAHS campus to help mentor the next generation of children.
Jamie moved to the orphanage with her siblings after her mother passed away and her father could not provide for the whole family. Her dad lives in Pena Blanca and visits often. Jamie is studying dentistry with five years of school remaining. Her tuition is financed by a dentist in the US who visits PAHS annually with a group of dentists. This group travels to the surrounding mountain villages to provide dental care, involving the PAHS children in this work. Jamie has accompanied them on several trips, and it is through their influence that Jamie is inspired to pursue dentistry. She is motivated by the ability to provide similar care to her community and surrounding villages.
Dora moved to the orphanage, with her siblings, at a young age due to an abusive family. Like Jamie, Dora was inspired by medical groups visiting PAHS and decided to pursue nursing. Through the work of these volunteer medical groups and the support and housing PAHS provides them, the children of PAHS are inspired to pursue higher education and careers that will support their friends and family in Honduras. Two other girls who grew up at PAHS now live with Jamie and Dora in Tegucigalpa, attending university. They are studying nursing and business.
Jamie and Dora return home at least once a month to visit their families, help on campus, and tutor the younger children. A new cycle is beginning and the community is benefitting. PAHS, volunteer medical groups, and Sextant Foundation are empowering Jamie, Dora, and other children of PAHS to give back to their communities through health, education, and inspiration. My fellow Mazzettites and I are honored to have contributed in a small, positive way. Looking forward to more opportunities!
Special thanks to my Mazzetti colleagues–Tracey Fischer, Zach Thomas, and Cory Yee–with whom I shared these experiences. Looking forward to the next trip.