CONWAY — Some members of St. James Church are taking a very different kind of summer vacation this year.
On June 11, Father Frederick LaBrecque and 21 of his parishioners will leave for a 10-day trip to Mission Honduras, a network of orphanages and schools founded in 1970 by Franciscan Father Emil Cook. The mission provides education and help for needy children and their families.
Father Cook moved to Honduras after serving an inner city parish in Milwaukee. He has spent the past 37 years developing Mission Honduras International, which has 10 locations in Honduras, two in the Dominican Republic and one in Liberia. The mission’s purpose is described simply as “breaking the cycle of poverty one child at a time.”
The group from St. James will work at the Mission Honduras site in Flores, which includes an orphanage and two schools.
Father Cook took some time from a recent fund-raising trip in the United States to talk about his life’s work.
“We believe that education is the way to get out of poverty,” he said. “We’re about helping people break out of the poverty cycle, about giving them hope. Education is hope, life and a chance for dignity. Honduras is the second poorest country in this hemisphere, and 80 to 90 percent of the people are not able to go beyond the sixth grade.”
About 500 people a year visit the central location in Honduras, and the average stay is between 10 and 12 days.
Father Cook estimates he spends about four months a year on the road in the United States, asking for both financial and hands-on help.
“We really serve two groups of children: those who are orphans or whose parents for some reason can’t care for them, and high school students who come stay at our boarding facilities during the school year. These are poor kids, and in their home areas there are frequently no high schools,” he said.
The schools help fulfill spiritual and academic needs.
“All of our schools are Catholic schools,” Father Cook said. “Everyone goes to Mass on Sundays, they make their sacraments. Franciscans teach all classes. We have former students who came as young children and are now Franciscan priests.”
Father Cook said the group will take part in a “working retreat,” with physical labor in the mornings and assistance with the children in the afternoons.
Volunteers at St. James have been organizing and raising funds for the trip since fall 2006. The group of travelers includes singles, married couples, parents with children and senior citizens.
Peggy Vogel is making the trip with daughters Samantha, age 8, and Sarah Zimmermann, 22.
Vogel first met Father Cook back in the 1980s while living in Virginia, when her church started sponsoring children in Honduras and other foreign countries. After her family moved to Conway, she invited Father Cook to visit St. James several times for a weekend of Masses and conversations about his work.
She said people in the parish decided they wanted to make the trip after sending financial help for several years. They spoke with Father LaBrecque and started meeting regularly to plan.
Each member of the group had to pay around $300 of their own money and raise about $18,000 through sales, special collections and other donations. Other trip costs include plane tickets that average $700.
They will leave Charleston June 11 and fly to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Once there, church members will travel about 90 minutes by bus through the mountains to the mission in Flores. They will stay in rooms at the Casa St. Teresa de Lisieux Missionary Center, with separate quarters for men and women. Most people sleep on bunk beds. Indoor plumbing includes a cold-water shower and a toilet.
Each person is allowed to bring two suitcases and a carry-on bag. Vogel said many people are planning to use one of the suitcases to carry donated items for the mission, including children’s clothing and shoes, hand tools, toys, some athletic equipment and medical supplies.
“I’ve been involved with this program for well over 20 years, sending money and clothes, but I haven’t taken that extra step of making it personal,” Vogel said. “This reminds me of the first time I drove cross country, the first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen pictures, but when you experience something it’s a whole different thing. I think this trip will make me a better Catholic and I hope I can give something back to the kids down there. It makes a big difference when adults make a difference in the life of a child.”
The group is planning a mini-retreat and public send-off ceremony on June 10.
Father Cook said the trip will likely have a large impact on the volunteers.
“Making a trip here really enriches their understanding of the faith,” he said. “Most people say they came to give but got more in return.”
To learn more about Mission Honduras visit www.missionhonduras.com.