LITTLETON - As Congress struggles to control illegal immigration from Central America, a tiny North Country nonprofit that has worked for more than a decade in Honduras - the region's poorest and most violent country - has some simple advice: engage the people and give them hope - any hope - for a better life.
Working to create "stronger, more resilient and self-sufficient communities in rural Honduras," Honduras Hope was formed in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. In October 1998 it ravaged Central America, but whose bull's eye was squarely on Honduras where the storm killed nearly 7,000 people and caused more than $3.8 billion in damage.
Founder Bill Briggs, a United Church of Christ minister who was born and raised in Conway - Kennett High School class of 1958 - and who later earned a doctorate of ministry from Boston University School of Theology, was among several church leaders from New England who visited Honduras after the hurricane.
Briggs, who had worked in Yoro Department since the 1980s with two previous groups, began assessing the situation and thinking about whom to help and how to help them when a ride to see the damage provided an epiphany moment.
Upon arriving in Plan Grande, a village in Yoro on the Tolupan Indian reservation, Briggs was struck with amazement when his driver, without asking permission or saying anything, took the clean clothes that a woman had spent hours washing by hand and used them to wipe his boots.
Immediately, Briggs - whose first parish, at age 23, was in inner-city Chicago where he collaborated frequently with Martin Luther King on civil rights campaigns - realized that he was among "the poorest of the poor" and that he had found his calling.
Honduras has been in the news lately because thousands of people - many of them children - have fled its staggering poverty and violence to try to come into the U.S., without proper documentation. Republicans have blamed President Barack Obama for what they say is an immigration policy that encourages the emigration.
During a recent interview at his jewelry business in downtown Littleton, Briggs explained that Honduran society is divided into three main groups: the top 10 to 15 percent who are well-to-do; the next 15 percent who struggle to make ends meet; and then the rest of the population, which is the group that Honduras Hope works with.
Bulk of illegals
That middle tier, although pressed and squeezed, is driving the surge in illegal immigration to the U.S. because its members are capable of raising the $1,000 needed to pay a "coyote" to shepherd a loved one northward, said Briggs, adding that $1,000 is well beyond the means of anyone in Plan Grande.
Honduras Hope, however, is helping change things for the better in Plan Grande, but in a departure from the way traditional non-profits operate, it takes its direction from the people it serves.
In an indirect homage to New Hampshire's annual Town Meeting, the residents of Plan Grande and the other communities Honduras Hope works with gather each November and decide what they want Briggs and his fellow volunteers to do in the following year.
In the past decade, and at the request of the Tolupan, Honduras Hope has built a community center, two elementary schools, a medical clinic, a boarding house for students attending public school, and has also provided them with a tractor.
Additionally, on a budget of less than $100,000 a year, Honduras Hope pays the tuition for students to attend post-primary schools; supports two nutrition programs; operates the health clinic; and most recently, agreed to administer the newly-opened culinary school that was built and equipped by Alex Ray, the founder of the Common Man family of restaurants.
Towle and Briggs said that Honduras Hope sees Honduras as an eventual tourist destination, and the vocational skills the culinary school provides - as well as a proposed beauty school - will be used within Honduras.
The hope of Honduras Hope, the duo said, is that things will change in Honduras eventually, but probably by incremental degrees.
"Honduras is in crisis," said Towle, adding that the murder rate there is the highest in the world "by multiples." The country is the poorest in Central and South America, and if not for Haiti, would be the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, too. There are rolling power blackouts, a corrupt, ineffective central government, and, increasingly, a sense of hopelessness.
"This is a world where people are risking their lives to get out," said Towle.
Briggs added that what's going on in Honduras represents "a perfect storm of extreme poverty, corruption and gang - and drug - cartel violence and you mix it all together and you create an environment of hopelessness and despair and people want to get away from a situation which is not secure or safe.
But how do you deal with that? I believe it's about restoring self-esteem and hope."
Briggs and Towle also said the U.S. needs to re-engage in Honduras, on all levels, and to be there for the long-term. They support the return of the Peace Corps, which pulled out of Honduras in 2012, and the promotion of sustainable agriculture; increased educational opportunities - school is mandatory only until grade 6 in Honduras, said Towle - and more vocational training.
"From a spiritual point of view, success in life is going to depend a lot on how you perceive yourself, and if you can help people believe in themselves, that's huge," said Briggs, who likes to think of himself and fellow Honduras Hope volunteers - the group, on its own dime, travels to Honduras four times a year - as "little encouragers."
"Through relationships, you can build trust and help Hondurans build confidence," Briggs said, which will encourage them to reach higher in life.
"Hope has no limits. We hope for the people of Honduras the same opportunities to dream and the brighter future that we take for granted in the U.S.," said Briggs.