'It was hard to say goodbye'

Trio digging

Dominique James (at left), Emma Luke, and Eibhlin Regan from the University of Rochester help dig trenches for a new water system in El Censo, Honduras, during winter break.

Emma Luke and Dominique James, both sophomores in biomedical engineering, went to Honduras with a Global Brigades volunteer team during winter break, helping to install pipelines so homes in El Censo would have a reliable water supply.

“I thought it was going to be us digging the trenches – and maybe a few meetings with community members to describe the project,” says Emma. “Instead, the women were in the trenches too, pickaxing and shoveling. Even little kids four years old were fighting over the shovels to help us out.”

“It was great having the people of the community working side by side with us,” says Dominique, who was using a pickaxe and other tools for the first time. “If they saw I was struggling, they would just take the pick axe and say ‘we can help you; we’ve got this.’”

“It was fun.”

Both say they came back with a better understanding of what life is like for many people in developing parts of the world, who do not have the “necessities” taken for granted in the United States.

Seeing the whole process

Global Brigades is an international non-profit organization that helps communities like El Censo achieve their health and economic goals by matching university volunteers with local teams. The volunteers are deployed on one- to three-week trips as skill-based brigades to address business, dental, engineering, environmental, human rights, medical, public health, or water issues.

During the 10-day trip, Emma and Dominique’s team, which also included Eibhlin Regan, a Rochester senior in psychology, and several students from the University of Missouri, briefly visited two other communities. One stop was to do a pre-assessment of needs, the other to do a post-assessment of a water project that had already been completed.

“We were seeing the whole process, but our main focus was on digging the trenches in El Censo and getting their system in place,” Emma says.

El Censo is a small community of about 40 homes an hour and a half from Tegucigalpa. The old water system would fail during the dry season, forcing villagers to walk 40 minutes to a river to wash their clothes, and then return with water.

“The community was so welcoming. I don’t speak a lot of a Spanish, but those who did told us the villagers were interested in us, and what we were doing. A lot of good relationships were formed,” Emma says.

Dominique especially enjoyed the “water fair” held during their stay. The student volunteers showed the young children of El Censo how the new water system would work. They also performed some University of Missouri athletic songs for the villagers.

The villagers in turn performed local dances -- and enacted a skit based on their folklore about a gowned woman who chases small children who stay up too late.

“Even the project coordinators and translators were like our mom and dad for the week,” Emma says. “It was hard to say goodbye.”


Emma and Dominique with their project coordinator, Luis Garcia.

A new perspective

“I gained a new perspective on how other people live,” Emma says. “A lot of them did not even have beds, but slept in hammocks. Or their kitchens were completely separate from their houses. Soot was a problem because people were inhaling it from cooking fires, causing respiratory problems.”

Even in the compound where the student volunteers stayed, toilet paper had to be disposed of separately, because the pipes were too small, Dominique says.

Her parents, who came from Jamaica, “always tell us how lucky we are, given their background compared to how we are raised here in the United States,” Dominique says, “so it was kind of eye-opening to actually experience that for myself.”

Even before going to Honduras, she dreamed of one day improving the medical devices available in developing countries. Her trip to Honduras was a useful way of “stepping towards that, helping me see what it would be like.”

Emma says would like to go back.

“It made you feel good knowing you were helping this community that didn’t have something we take for granted here.”


The young boys of El Censo stand by, ready to pitch in and help. “As soon as we put down a shovel, they would grab it and try to put in the dirt for us,” Dominique James says. The young boys included Diego below.