Wednesday, April 14, 2010

NY/HELP -- A Peace Corps Analog?

The following article was published in the March 2010 newsletter of "Amigos de Honduras", an organization of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers that served in Honduras.

NY/HELP -- An Amigo de Honduras

A few years ago, I was up in the mountains in Honduras, talking with one of the young people participating in a NY/HELP project there. He was interested in international affairs and refugee problems, and I was encouraging him to join the Peace Corps when he finished college. He was a little doubtful, though, saying "I hear the Peace Corps signs you up for life."

Well, I think he was right – at least for some of us! I taught high school in Ghana while in the Peace Corps in 1966-68, and talked for years afterwards about doing some type of international service. My chance came in 1989, when our church gave me the opportunity to participate in an ecumenical project, working with people in an indigenous community up in the mountains near Yoro. I had become a family physician after my PC days, and so I had the chance to be in a mobile clinic brigade in La Laguna, about 30 km from Yoro, Yoro. I went back two years later, and have been hooked by this experience ever since.

NY/HELP is a ecumenical project of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ, and is supported by donations from people and churches in New York state. Although we are church-based, we avoid preaching, but do try to "show our faith by our acts". One of our first projects was to build a clinic – but then discovered that we needed local nurses to provide care when no NY/HELP doctors were there. We have sponsored several young women in nursing school, and one, Mirtila Garcia, is currently our full-time nurse there, working in cooperation with the government health system.

Working with the community is much more than just health care, though. We have sponsored educational projects for many years, and recently worked with local communities to build a middle school (grades 7-9) nearby, so local children could continue their education beyond sixth grade. `(The government education department is providing teachers for this school.) The school was built using donations from people and churches in New York state, and labor from the community (and volunteers from NY).

Nutrition has been a continuing problem, and we have worked to improve local farming practices by helping families plant gardens, and for the past ten years, working with another NGO, Sustainable Harvest International (founded by a RPCV from Panama, Flo Reed).

Water systems and sanitation (meaning latrines!) are other important projects; these have become a "felt need" for communities in recent years. During our NY/HELP trip in August 2009, we were fortunate to have four current Peace Corps Volunteers work along with us. Three are involved in "Wat-San", Peace Corps/Honduras' water and sanitation program; they spent a week surveying the local community water systems. Two systems were in good shape, but the others needed a lot of attention. One of the PCVs will be returning to the village in January 2010 to give a 3-day educational program for the "Juntas de Agua" (Water Boards).

I was personally really pleased to spend some time with these current PCVs. I saw that 40 years after I was in the Peace Corps, we still have great people volunteering for this job!

One more thing: like the Peace Corps, one goal of our NY/HELP program is to teach us gringos about Honduras, and how people in other cultures and societies exist. From talking with other New Yorkers, I think this second goal has been a success as well.

More information about our NY/HELP program can be found at

Gordon F. Comstock, MD
Medical Adviser, NY/HELP
Peace Corps/Ghana, 1966-68
November 27, 2009