2009 -> 2019 Decade in Review

What a significant decade in my life! So many ups and downs and interesting experiences. So much learning and growing! So many dreams accomplished and so much evidence of God’s providence and faithfulness. How can I not be thankful?

I still consider 2009 to be one of the most significant years of my life. I would say it was the peak of my existence but that’s a little dramatic and also kind of depressing for the rest of my years here on earth… *ahem, nervous laughter* so, anyway I thought I’d share the highlights from that year and then the highlights from the rest of the decade. Maybe I’ll throw in some lowlights too just to be real…

2009

The year I turned 20! I finished my sophomore year at Lee University and started my junior year in the fall. I had gotten involved in a community tutoring and mentorship ministry in an immigrant neighborhood near my college campus that I would end up leading the following year. The experiences and friendships formed through this ministry were nothing short of life-changing for me. And my Spanish advanced exponentially this year!

The summer of 2009 was packed for me. I don’t remember the specific order but it involved traveling as a volunteer to Honduras, Mexico, and DISNEY WORLD. Yes, I went to Disney World on a paid trip as a volunteer Spanish interpreter with a Mexican family for a type of make-a-wish dream vacation. Occasionally I think about that opportunity and wonder WHAT IS MY LIFE. (that trip was not without its mishaps and fails – which make for hilarious stories – but it was overall truly MAGICAL)

After having traveled for 5 years with teams, my cousin and I were able to travel to Honduras solo for the first time as independent volunteers. I think the trip was a total of about 3 weeks, which was cut short because of Honduras’ infamous MILITARY COUP that took place smack dab in the middle of our stay. Of course, at 20-years-old I was more concerned about my missions adventure being thwarted than the actual political ramifications that it meant for the country. #typical

Thank God that I have grown as an individual and as a missionary since that trip. I was naïve in so many ways.

We were also in Honduras when Michael Jackson died but that had no implication on my life. I just remembered that being big in the news.

The Disney World experience was enriching in so many ways. I got to see the incredible collaboration of Children’s Hospital of Alabama and the organization, Magic Moments, in granting the wish of a precious little patient whose cancer was in remission. The organization, Give Kids the World, in Kissimee, FL was super impressive as they provided housing, food, and activities to all their guests – families of children with terminal illnesses. One activity in their “village” allowed the sick children to write their name on a gold star and choose where they wanted to hang the star along the roof of “Castle of Miracles” along with thousands of other stars from kids in similar situations. We got park hopper entrances to all Disney parks and to Universal Studios, fast passes to every ride, park meals and souvenirs covered, and the patient’s Give Kids the World button she wore on her shirt signaled all characters in autograph signing lines to stop the line and direct their attention to her. I had never seen anything like it.

The biggest mishap of the trip was that I was the only licensed driver of the group (and the only English speaker) and the family’s vehicle broke down somewhere in south Georgia on our way to Orlando and it was a Sunday and we couldn’t find any mechanic shops open. This was also before smartphones so I guess we were just calling random people asking for help. (we actually waved on a police officer who stopped to ask if we were ok) We finally got in touch with a friend of a friend, some latino mechanic who came and helped us out. That day I learned the Spanish word for spark plugs. And I learned a few other things about my own privilege.

For the first part of this year I was working as an office assistant and board operator at Christian radio station J103 in Chattanooga.

2010

I visited Costa Rica for the first time with a group from college this summer. I tried gallo pinto (Costa Rican rice and beans) and my life hasn’t been the same since.

I think this was the year that I started working in retail – JCPenny!

2011

This was the year I graduated from my incredible alma mater, Lee U, with a bachelor’s of arts in Telecommunications, minors in Spanish, Latin American Studies, and Religion. I was interning (and eventually worked) at Church of God World Missions editing video footage for missionaries around the world. I loved it! I eventually had to leave Cleveland, TN and was super sad.

My highest highlight of the year was visiting Puerto Rico for the first time. ¡Me enamoré con la Isla del Encanto! And I halfway learned to dance Bomba. Second highlight was getting my first DSLR camera (Canon T2i).

In the fall of this year I moved to Panama City, Panamá for three months as a volunteer with a Honduran missionary family.

This was the year I started getting more involved in fighting for comprehensive immigration reform, and specifically against a state-level anti-immigrant bill that was promoting self-deportation of undocumented immigrants. I wrote to my representatives and traveled to the state capital by bus with a group of activists to rally against it.

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2012

I went back to work with the World Missions video editing team for the first part of this year then I was invited to move to Honduras in August on an English teaching contract. I was nervous about teaching and living there for A YEAR but I jumped at the chance. One fateful month after starting my teaching job in San Pedro Sula, Honduras I met Natán Martínez at church. My first impression of him was him standing up in front of the congregation praying a passionate missions prayer for some chosen country of the month… it I weren’t so skeptical of these kind of things I would say it was love at first sight… or love at first prayer… idk. Basically a few weeks after that we were officially dating.

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This was also one of the last years that I was into death-defying stunts like hiking through a roaring waterfall with an amateur guide. (NEVER AGAIN) Yes, those tiny people in the photo are my friends and me.

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This year I traveled to Belize for the first time.

2013

I finished my teaching contract in June and made plans to move back to the states. Natán was preparing to start seminary in Guatemala and we were already talking about getting married. We both knew we wanted to be in ministry in Honduras but didn’t know what that would look like. I still had about $20,000+ of student loans to pay off and he had 3 years of seminary to get through. We pledged to do long distance until we met our goals. AND WE DID. 2013 was the start of 3.5 years of LONG DISTANCE dating (kind of already engaged) in two separate countries.

For the last half of 2013 I started the job search. My first contract job was teaching English to adults through a literacy program grant for Hoover City Schools at an elementary school. I eventually started teaching Spanish with a homeschool co-op, and doing Spanish interpreting in medical facilities and Tarrant City School System. I loved each of these jobs. At one point I was working 5 contract jobs at once!

I also started using my photography/videography as a side hustle, doing photo sessions and videoing events.

2016

Natán and I would see each other about twice a year when he’d go home to Honduras for break and I’d travel to see him or travel with a missions group. Finally, in spring of 2016 I traveled to visit him in Guatemala and then again in November to see him graduate. This was when we took engagement photos to announce our wedding date for the following March.

This was the year I paid off the last of my student loans! FREEDOM. And Natán graduated from seminary. I had started raising monthly missions support and that has sustained us in our ministry. We accomplished what we set out to do before getting married and starting our lives as full-time missionaries.

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2017

WEDDING TIME! Natán and I (finally) got married in an intimate ceremony on the Caribbean island of Roatan on March 27, 2017, four days before my 28th birthday. IT WAS A DREAM. It was at my dream location, I wore my dream dress, DSW clearance high heels, my grandmother did my hair AND made our delicious strawberry wedding cake. (don’t tell anyone she iced the cake in our hotel bathroom) We found a great local photographer and were surrounded by closest friends and family. Those who couldn’t be present watched via Skype.

2018

In February of this year I lost my paternal grandmother and it was really hard but I thank God that I happened to be home on a scheduled visit during her last days and I was able to say goodbye while she was lucid.

We got a slow start this year as we founded our poverty alleviation nonprofit organization and we kept hitting bumps in the road. The last few months of 2018 were pretty stressful in our personal lives but we made it through. I was glad to see 2018 go.

Four highlights were: loving married life, visiting El Salvador for the first time, having my mom and grandparents visit us in Honduras, and photographing the birth of my nephew, Brooks!

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2019

In 2019 we officially got 501c3 status as an organization! We hit a few important goals and had our first official benefit event for our org in Alabama. I also turned 30 this year and it felt fabulous.


This last decade brought many pleasant surprises but also a couple painful disappointments. I learned some ugly truths about the world but I think I grew and gained wisdom from it. I am not as carefree and naïve as I was at twenty but that would be kind of weird if I was.

I might not be exactly where I’d like to be for 2020 but as I reflect over the last ten years I think I can say it was a freakin’ good decade. I really don’t have any regrets. Here’s to the next!

2019 Mission Work Update (VER International)

The three villages we are focused on this year are known as PVII, Copán; PSP, Choluteca; and SM, Santa Barbara.

Health and Hygiene

In the village, PVII, we have started medical checkups with school age children. After our preliminary checkup with a local Honduran doctor, we discovered that out of the 103 children evaluated, 45 suffer from mild to severe malnutrition. Because of generous donors, at the checkup we were able to provide each child with anti-parasite medicine and iron, and multi-vitamins for those with malnutrition. We’re looking into therapeutic food options for the severe cases.

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In Honduran villages, outhouses are the most common kind of bathroom. In PVII, 70% of homes have no toilet whatsoever. Our goal for 2019 is to be able to install outhouses for 50 families in various villages. (We have 29 of 50 donated so far!)

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Education

We sent 150 kids to school! Generous donors helped us provide education awareness training for parents, a backpack full of supplies, and a complete uniform for a total of 150 kids in 4 different communities. On a recent visit we left a sack of 100 lbs of rice with the teacher to be used during lunch time for those who often don’t have food at home.

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In PVII there are almost 100 children enrolled in a 2-classroom schoolhouse with a leaky roof. The kindergartners meet out on the patio and have no desks or materials. We are writing a proposal to be able to supply them with the necessary resources and repairs by the end of this year, 2019.

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Entrepreneurship

We were able to invest in a pig farming micro-business in PSP that is helping a family build a new house, and will benefit several other needy families in the community once piglets are born.

Our single mom entrepreneur, “momtrepreneur,” in Copán is still running her secondhand clothes micro-business; and we are investing in the startup of a food vendor in Comayagua.


In the area of spiritual formation, we are partnering with the local church of PVII and their new pastor to help strengthen the congregation, especially their children’s program.

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I got a namesake! A mom in PVII named her new baby girl Kristen. ❤

 

Last week we brought a pre-teen girl from her village to the city to live with a family while she recovers from chronic malnutrition and catches up in school.

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The only way we could do what we do is because of monthly ministry partners and friends who give to each project. We are in awe of God’s faithfulness!

A donation in any amount can make a huge difference. Click here to give to VER International PayPal.

Check us out on Facebook and Instagram.

The Refugee/Immigration Crisis and Missions

I am a community development worker (also, missionary, if that term doesn’t make you roll your eyes) in Honduras, Central America. My work involves seeing firsthand the havoc that an unstable economy, lack of education, gang activity, generational poverty, violence, and the drug trade can wreak on families. The truth is that, not unlike our Central American neighbors, the situation here is not great. And that’s why I’m here.

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But? It’s not all bad. This is a beautiful country with such a rich history and culture and beautiful people. (so beautiful I married one of them) Yes, I have to be much more cautious living here than back home, but I’m not here because my main priority is self-preservation obviously. There’s a greater purpose.

Note: I recently read an opinion article by the daughter of Honduran immigrants living in the U.S. and she tore this country up talking about the danger. It was pure sensationalism. She literally said that when she came here recently the airport provided her group with police escorts in order to travel down a main highway to a city several hours away “because of how dangerous it was” – a route that my husband and I take at least 3 times a month. Major facepalm because… that’s just a little dramatic and completely unnecessary.

Although much of my naive idealism from my college days has dissipated, I still believe that small, consistent efforts can bring lasting change. (I have to add that I am only one of many here, foreign and local, in Honduras who are promoting change) I am here because I answer to a higher calling and I can be here because, honestly, I have a certain safety net that others here do not. To live the poverty that those around me experience on a daily basis means to have limited options and limited resources and that leads to a lifestyle that is tunnel-vision focused on surviving day-to-day. The pain of not being able to make choices about your own life is one of the most hopeless feelings. It’s so much deeper and complex than just a financial desperation.

I’m writing this in the middle of what has become an international crisis: the majority-Honduran caravan of migrants headed to the U.S. border. About a week ago my husband and I heard about a group of about 1,000 Honduran migrants meeting at the San Pedro Sula bus terminal with plans to march to the United States. (google it if you haven’t heard) It has since grown and each day as we read articles or see news clips, our hearts hurt. Not because it could be a political stunt or because it makes so-and-so look bad or even because it will certainly incite an uproar and/or reinforce stereotypes – but because among the crowds there are probably many desperate people, just like the ones we encounter every day, truly in need of asylum, refuge.

And guess what? Some of you reading this probably only ever have to think about immigration as a hot-button political issue and only when it’s breaking on the news. Here in Honduras it is woven into the fabric of almost every life and comes up in every other conversation. Here it has very little to do with politics and everything to do with quality of life or even survival.

I don’t like breaking rules. I follow laws and I expect others to do the same. Did you know that arriving at the U.S. border to seek asylum is legal? There is actually a legal process to protect those who arrive at our borders fleeing oppression or violence. One of the many loopholes in the system is that many asylum-seekers are unfairly denied representation in court and therefore aren’t able to plead their case. And they are sent back. This system has been broken for a while but you only hear about it when a major crisis comes up. (Unfortunately, I don’t think the caravan is the best way to seek asylum. I worry how this is going to unfold.)

I’m reminded right now of two particular individuals that I knew personally who died as victims of violence here, one who should have fled and one who had just returned from the states as an undocumented immigrant. Maybe their stories would have ended differently had they been granted asylum.

For every person who flees their country there is a unique reason, a push factor. It would be irresponsible to say that every person flees for the same reason or has the same fear or needs. (We also can’t deny the very real pull factors that exist in the states either.)

In some of the communities where we work it is resoundingly clear that the two great aspirations that young people have to choose between is drug trafficking or migration. (This also includes internal migration toward industrialized cities) They simply have no options.

31961152_10214799927644436_3892517732104536064_nAs a missionary and immigrant activist (yes, they can be synonyms) I like to think that the work we do in Honduras, even on a small scale right now, is helping eliminate some of those push factors in our target communities. Without blatantly saying it we are communicating, “Stay. There is opportunity for you here. You can provide for your family and you can contribute to your community.” We can’t buffer every need or eliminate real threats or even convince every individual to stay who personally tells us that they’re considering the trek north. We can remind them that the “American Dream” is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. We can speak positively about the nation of Honduras, discourage escapist mentalities, and plant a seed of hope for the future. I truly believe that a generation is coming up that is going to change the course of this nation for the better. ❤

That’s why we are so adamant about the formation of little minds – education is so important and will have a much bigger impact on a much larger scale down the road. As for the migrants headed north, only God knows what they are truly running from, but I pray this over them as they’re on their journey:

Jesus see the traveler

Jesus see the traveler on their long, hard road

See the mother, see the father, see the child

Have mercy on the traveler

 

Lord make soft the strangest bed

Rest the weary feet

Of the mother, of the father, of the child

Have mercy on the traveler

[written by Sara Groves]

*For extra inspiration listen to “God Help the Outcasts” from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame*

I’ll add one more note: If you have a heart for foreign missions or you have been touched personally on a mission trip or by a friend from another country, I hope you allow God to soften your heart toward the immigrant and refugee. If you know a missionary working in a country from which immigrants are fleeing, support them! They’re essentially working against all the conditions that expel individuals. I won’t quote scripture here because I’m embarrassed at how it has been used as darts against those who don’t agree with us but know that the Bible/our Savior is clear on what posture we as Christians should have toward the foreigner. If you don’t have a personal connection to this heavy topic of immigration I pray you become friends with someone who does and you’re able to hear them out on a human level. As author Sarah Quezada has said, “Relationships are an anecdote to fear.”

Good resources if you are curious about the topic of immigration from a Christian stand-point:

  1. World Relief organization and the book, Welcoming the Stranger, by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang
  2. Love Undocumented by Sarah Quezada
  3. Podcasts: The New Activist, Upside Down Podcast, Chasing Justice
  4. Evangelical Immigration Table

I wrote about my first immigration encounter in high school here.

Little Paola

Little Paola,

Where do you see yourself in the future?

What do you dream of?

Something heavier than what your vocabulary can convey

Something on the tip of your tongue, you can’t quite say

Even more than what you’ve been given permission to dream

Beyond the horizons of the coffee fields and lush, green mountains

A beautiful, natural beauty

That on some days look more like your prison walls

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What burdens do you carry?

Do you dream of carrying books

Instead of water jugs and firewood?

Carrying the weight on your shoulders, assuming guilt

For the adults in your life and their decisions past

Growing up much too fast

Never questioning the injustice

Never once uttering a “Not fair!”

Coming home from backbreaking labor in the coffee fields

Sore feet, broken ambitions

Passing neighborhood friends

On their way home from class

They with their backpacks, you with your plastic bucket

Accepting your fate

Never daring to challenge the way things are

Your vision stretches as far as your reality allows

 

An inferiority you’ve breathed day in and day out

With your tired lungs

Since the day you arrived on the earth

An inferiority as thick as smoke that never dissipates

Less than

Less than

Him, her, whoever else is out there in this big world

Less than the grown-ups

Less than the boys

Less than the white skin

Less than the educated and the rich

You never considered the damage

That breathing in this smoke of inferiority would do

Why can’t you see yourself like I see you?

The smoke and mirrors game of those in power

Clouds your vision, chokes your breath

And you assume that everyone plays by the same rules

 

Can you imagine a God who sees your inherent worth?

Who has plans of hope and not of harm

Who knew you (and wanted you!) even before your birth

Who carries your burdens in His arms

 

The flooding of things

The house in the dark during rainy season

The terror and anxiety that a storm brings

Dirt floors turning to mud through cracks in the roof and cracks in the walls

A life with cracks no one bothers to patch anymore

The flooding of emotions that you eventually learn to stop

You learn quickly to control the little things

The very few things you can, in an out-of-control world

Hard, defensive

Survival technique

A conditioning, an adapting to a harsh environment

The washing away of the vulnerability and fear and caring

Leaving a bare soul, jaded

A life-education very few could bear

 

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Invasions

The invading of personal spaces

Critters and humans taking advantage of weakness

Survival of the fittest

Fitting in your role

Survival of the lowest expectations

And you learn to expect abuse and the dismissing of wants and sometimes needs

Dulling memories of sharp violence reinforce it all

Privacy is a rarity

The power to choose, a luxury

With babies on hips, no protest on lips

It starts with baby brothers and sisters but soon the babies will be your own

No emotion is valid so there’s no value in expressing them

Why would your life be any different than your mother and her mother?

Why would you dare to dream of any other?

Could it be that anyone out there has your best interest in mind?

Could it be that someone out there cares without ulterior motive?

 

You have permission

For what it’s worth, I give you permission

To challenge

To change

To see beyond your limited horizon

To dream of something new

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We see each individual, created in the image of God, as having inherent worth and much to contribute to society.

We have just founded a nonprofit organization called VER International (501c3 status pending), committed to breaking cycles of poverty through community development initiatives. We are currently working in rural communities of Honduras with the hope to expand to other countries in the future. Our website and social media accounts are “under construction” at the moment but we will have our official launch soon!

For the month of October we are launching a student sponsorship fundraiser. With a one-time donation of $50 marked “Student Sponsorship” you will give the gift of education for one year to a student in rural Honduras, like Little Paola. Look us up on PayPal by our email address, verinternational.info@gmail.com, or go straight to our link to give: www.paypal.me/verinternational

Student Sponsorship

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Comment or message me if you would like these flyers to help promote among your church or school groups.

Newlyweds on the Mission Field

It’s time to give you the lowdown on what we’ve been up to these last few months! And give you an idea of our 2018 plans.

Natán and I are living in the northwest region of Honduras and have been settling in quite nicely to newlywed life. I really can’t say enough just how thankful I am to have married someone so selfless and caring. Not only does he care for me well but he has such a heart for the marginalized and oppressed. I couldn’t ask for a better partner as we navigate this new phase of life as esposos, missionaries, directors of a nonprofit, and – for me – an expatriate in a new land and culture. It takes a lot of adapting and compromise.

We certainly couldn’t do what we do without the backing of an incredible support and prayer team back home. Even though we haven’t personally reached 100% of our monthly support goal, the Lord doesn’t cease to amaze us and continually proves Himself as our Provider.

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In our work we see heart-breaking scenarios and subpar living circumstances. 62% of the population of Honduras live below the national poverty line, or in other words, under $2.50 a day. Most of these people live in rural settings and work in agriculture. Limited education, improper nutrition, lack of clean drinking water, inadequate hygiene practices, and lack of employment opportunities or unpredictable crop yield all contribute to cycles of poverty that continue for generations. Our goal is to help families break these cycles through holistic community development programs.

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According to the CIA World Fact Book

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Lenca Indian girl in the kitchen of her home – Intibucá

We’ve identified two needy villages to begin with in the west and southwest region of the country. We’ve started with some exploratory trips and small-scale initiatives but our goal is to implement projects in 2018 that will result in self-sustainability during our 3 year involvement. (The first villages will be our pilot programs and each year our goal is to initiate new holistic programs in new needy villages.)

I posted the following on my Facebook page this past July:

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Elderly lady in the “living room” of her home – Copán, Honduras

While we don’t want to create dependency among our villager friends or base our friendship on what we give and what they receive, we recognize that certain groups of people are especially vulnerable with little chance of reaching self-sustainability such as the abandoned elderly and disabled. The lady pictured above is one example of that and is a recipient of food “handouts” whenever we visit her village.

We have a couple friends who are on board with the program in Copán and give financially specifically to fund our efforts there. We are planning a few end-of-year fundraisers to kick the program off so stay tuned! You can find giving info here.

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A recent visit to our village in Copán teaching appropriate hygiene practices and disease prevention

To get a better idea of how we distinguish relief work (which is not our focus) from development work, check out this chart developed by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

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#detailsdeHonduras part 3

This is part of an ongoing photojournalism project. See part 1 and part 2.

(Kristen Bruce Photography and Multimedia)

Mission: school supplies

Success!

Thank you to those who donated toward the school supply project for the community of El Limon in Copán, Honduras. We had a long day today – Friday – traveling to the mountains to spend a little time with the kids in El Limon and distribute backpacks and school supplies to each child. (and I am exhausted and should be sleeping and probably can’t produce the most coherent thoughts, but… I want to share already!)

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About a month ago, I requested the financial help of my friends in the states for a project that God had laid on my heart for these needy families in Honduras.

Here was part of my plea and why school supplies are so important for impoverished families:

The majority of Honduran children living in rural areas will go no further than 6th grade – it is a typical expectation that at that age they begin to work and help support their families. The price of schoolbooks, supplies and uniforms can be a particularly heavy burden on many poor families. We want to alleviate some of that financial burden by providing each school-aged child with a few basic school supplies like notebooks, pencils and a backpack.

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We (Natán, Dr. Yanela, Mariajose and I) arrived as a surprise to the community with only a couple hours of warning. The families really didn’t know what we had brought for them and when we got to the schoolyard where they were congregated and waiting we asked for the children who were currently in school to raise their hand. In Honduras, the new school year begins in February and so the month of January can be particularly difficult for some families as they try to scrape up enough money to send their kids to school.

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As we were counting hands, a mother spoke up and said, “I’ll be honest with you. I have three that should be in school but since we don’t have the money for school supplies I don’t know if they will be going this year…”

We were able to reassure her that God had heard her prayers and the prayers of other parents in the community who had been worried about how to send their children to school this year. And because He is such a good and loving Father, He takes care of His sons and daughters even down to the smallest things like pencils and notebooks and backpacks.

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The kids were thrilled! And we had a blast hanging out with them and sharing God’s love. To God be the glory… and thanks to this super team!

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