Students Help Families in Honduras Rebuild Lives

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Shin Fujiyama will never forget an impoverished 10-year old girl named Juli Marroquin Rodas, whom he first met in the Honduran village of El Progreso in 2005 while volunteering with a college campus group.

“She was carrying her baby brother on her back, helping her other brother with his homework and doing math problems herself while washing the dishes in a handmade faucet.” She had one notebook — and a tiny pencil that had been used to the tip — to use for the whole year. She kept erasing the pages to reuse the same sheet of paper over, Fujiyama, 25, said via e-mail.

Fujiyama, who met Rodas while traveling with the University of Mary Washington group Campus Christian Community, said that the girl studied by candlelight as rain poured into her home, which was made of cardboard and rotting tin.

He said that Rodas’ plight was one of the main reasons he decided to start the nonprofit organization Students Helping Honduras (SHH) in 2006. SHH aims to empower orphaned and vulnerable children in Honduras through education and community projects. The country is one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. Department of State reports.

“It’s kids like her that inspired us,” said Fujiyama, executive director of SHH.

Fujiyama, who graduated in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and pre-medicine, said that SHH has since helped to build a school near Rodas’ village and to assist her with obtaining school supplies.

Fujiyama, who was born in a fishing village in Japan, started the organization with the help of his sister Cosmo Fujiyama, who was a college student at the College of William and Mary at the time.

Cosmo Fujiyama, 23, president of SHH, is now based in Honduras where she oversees SHH outreach and construction efforts. Meanwhile, Shin Fujiyama travels around the United States visiting colleges most of the year, focusing on raising funds and organizing chapters.

Shin Fujiyama described his sister as “a nuclear force. She quickly gains the respect of local officials and partners in Honduras, and the affection and trust from the children we meet. I have nothing to worry about over our operations in Honduras because I have absolute trust in her ability, as well as the team she manages, to make it all happen.”

Cosmo Fujiyama, who plans to pursue business and law degrees, said that working in Honduras and helping children and families has been satisfying.

“We build communities and strengthen families. We give them the resource and tools to reach stability,” she said.

Shin Fujiyama, who postponed medical school to start the organization, added that the ultimate goal is to help children beat poverty.

“Our goal is to empower orphaned and vulnerable children in Honduras. We will keep going until every child in Honduras has the opportunity and tools to break the cycle of poverty,” said Shin Fujiyama, who grew up in San Francisco and Oakland.

Shin Fujiyama, who speaks English, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese fluently, knows from personal experience about overcoming obstacles.

He had a hole in his heart as a child and doctors thought he had little chance of survival. However, the hole eventually closed up.

“I was given a second chance, and these kids in Honduras all deserve to have the resources to have a chance,” he said.

The involvement of college students in SHH is key to the organization’s success, said Shin Fujiyama. Student volunteers raise funds — on campus through events such as bake sales, and also among family and friends — and participate in service trips to Honduras, where they work with children in villages and orphanages. They build houses alongside families and learn about Honduran culture.

“The service trips are very organic, meaningful and fast-paced. The volunteers make countless friends with their peers and with the people of Honduras, which is the most important part of the trip,” he said.

Cosmo Fujiyama, who was born in San Francisco and moved to Virginia with her family at the age of three, said that the students who go to Honduras for service learning trips gain a new perspective on life.

“When they come home, the students think about the world in a different way,” she said.

Shin Fujiyama, who was recently honored as a CNN Hero, said that one of the biggest rewards of being part of SHH is the joy he sees on the faces of the Honduran children and student volunteers.

The service trips, he added, help students realize that there is more to life than material things.

“Just like I did after my first trip to Honduras as a college student, they might come back with a burning desire to keep fighting in the U.S. for the children they met in Honduras. They might change their perspective on what is really important in life. For me, it wasn’t about fancy cars, big homes or large-screen TVs anymore. It’s about helping each other, especially the little ones who are the future of this planet,” he said.

Shin Fujiyama said that he hopes that volunteers will continue to give of their time after returning from Honduras.

“If one person decides to join the Peace Corps, come back to Honduras or work for local organizations like Teach for America after our service trip, it was all worth it. We encourage students, adults and families from all walks of life to join us,” he said.

SHH now has 50 chapters and 10 full-time employees, and the organization has raised a total of $1 million through fundraising efforts.

Shin Fujiyama said that volunteers are currently completing the construction of a Honduran village as part of a two-year long project called Villa Soleada (“Sunshine Village”), helping families who lost their homes in a hurricane in 1998.

“We helped families from a local village devastated by Hurricane Mitch, who are in absolute poverty, to rebuild an entire community from scratch. Rodas and her family are moving here in January,” he said.

Cosmo Fujiyama said that Villa Soleada is the organization’s most ambitious project to date.

“The people were living underneath tents that were falling apart. We got funds to build on land that our foundation purchased. They now have access to clean water and electricity, and they’re closer to schools. They have a better quality of life,” said Cosmo Fujiyama, who has a bachelor’s degree in American studies and women’s studies.

Cosmo Fujiyama said that she and her brother’s parents, Yuichiro and Aoi Fujiyama, who moved from Japan in the 1980s and currently live in Virginia, influenced her and her brother’s commitment to service.

“My parents are the most hardworking and genuine people I have ever met. We absolutely gained our commitment to service from our parents. They taught us that service is not a job, but rather a way of living. We were taught at a young age that it is our responsibility to help those around us and to be kind,” Cosmo Fujiyama said.

Shin Fujiyama agreed, adding, “My parents have always been very giving and extremely humble. They also love kids and have a tremendous work ethic. They always encouraged me to put others first.”

Cosmo Fujiyama said that the entire family, including her sister and brother Kokoro and Gaku Fujiyama, has all traveled to Honduras together as a family.

“The children of Honduras that we benefit have this burning fire in their eyes when they finally get the chance to get an education or a shot at a better future. Students in the U.S. who go to Honduras also return with this burning fire in their eyes, ready to raise funds and spread awareness about our cause. Watching both of these groups work so hard keeps me going,” he said.

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