It’s hard to imagine American youth with such a thirst for education that they would travel long distances or even risk their lives to go to school, yet this is what we found time and again as we travelled throughout Honduras.

Three decades ago, when Sor Marta began IHER (a radio school) she didn’t have a scrap of paper or a lempira to her name. She could never have imagined the vast organization she now runs which reaches villages throughout Honduras. She started simply with a burden to help marginalized youth receive an education, and her dream and vision resonated with others who believed in the importance of educating Honduran youth.

Public school is mostly “free” (tuition and books are covered, but they must buy uniforms and school supplies) but students must attend 5 days a week. Youth who must work to help support their families do not have that luxury. Furthermore, middle and high schools are only located in larger villages. For those who live farther away, the time and financial commitment to attend a daily school is simply untenable for such youth. To address this problem, Sor Marta began a radio school, IHER, where students can listen to lessons and work in their textbooks throughout the week and travel to an IHER center once each weekend to work with a teacher.

Attending school is not easy for these students. It is not uncommon for the youth to travel 2 hours each way to attend school. Two middle school girls we met used to walk two hours from their homes to reach a bus stop and then would ride the bus for 5 hours to get to the IHER center. They had to leave their houses at 2:00am to get to school on time! (The school principal is now letting the girls live with his family). It’s hard to imagine an American child willing to invest such effort in achieving a middle school education. Without a scholarship they will not be able to attend high school, since the cost of textbooks and monthly fees double in 10th grade. (Total annual cost of about $115).

Two decades ago, Hurricane Mitch wiped out much of the country’s infrastructure. The rural areas have yet to rebuild many of their roads and bridges, and even primary school children must cross multiple rivers to attend school. In the dry season they can manage by hopping from rock to rock, but in the rainy season the rivers rise and can become too dangerous for the children to cross.

The more heart-wrenching stories, however, came not from the poor rural areas, but from the gang-controlled barrios on the edges of the large cities. We visited such a school in Tegucigalpa. As we entered the barrio, the District Coordinator for IHER (who grew up in the neighborhood and fearlessly talks with gang members in a rather futile attempt to dissuade them from their harmful activities) joined us in our pickup to escort us to the school. All our windows were rolled down – a gang requirement so their sentries can easily monitor who is coming and going.

As with American gangs, members are not allowed to leave the gangs without severe retribution. Typically, a younger brother or sister is killed, dismembered, and the parts left in a sack as a warning to others. At the school, the coordinator pulled a packet out of his pocket filled with passport-sized photos of children. Each was a student he knew and loved that was killed by the gang. He lovingly put each photo in the palm of my hand and spoke of the children – one beautiful face after another.

A problem in this barrio is there is no public middle school, so, if students want to attend 7th grade, they must either attend a school in a barrio controlled by a different gang or must wait 3 years to attend IHER. There is a government requirement that students must be too old to attend public school before they are allowed to attend IHER – 15 years old to attend 7th grade. During this three-year wait, many young students succumb to the gangs. Sor Marta has pleaded with government officials to reduce the age requirement in such barrios, so far to no avail. Two brave young 7th graders had such a thirst for education they chose to risk their lives and attend the public school rather than wait to attend their local IHER. Both were killed.

As we left the school, we once again rolled down our windows to pass through the barrio. The coordinator pointed out a couple of strategically situated youth – gang members – who pulled out a cell phone to inform the gang of our departure.

You might think that I left this country with a heavy heart, but not at all! Despite the poverty and injustice these people face, they have an amazing resource that filled me with hope – the Hondurans themselves! Almost all the teachers and coordinators that serve the 37,000 IHER students throughout Honduras are university educated and have jobs during the week to support themselves. On the weekends they work with IHER students as volunteers – receiving only a small stipend from the students (less than $1/hour). It is they that contact the IHER headquarters requesting to add a school to the program, recruit the students, run the classes, fill out the required paperwork… Without exception, each teacher and coordinator we met was filled with deep love and dedication for the students in their care.

Equally impressive were the students. We met many as we travelled throughout Honduras, and hearing the students speak with great confidence and passion about ideas for helping their communities, it was hard not to feel quite optimistic about the future of their country. One shy young man wants to build a footbridge over a river to help children cross in the rainy season. Two enthusiastic girls want to build an incinerator to eliminate trash from their streets. A boy of 21 is interested in health and hygiene. He dropped out of school after 9th grade because he couldn’t afford the books for 10th grade. He likes to visit different villages and talk to families about the importance of good hygiene, and he is hoping to help build latrines for families that lack one. Three students in a remote mountain village want to start a small pharmacy of over-the-counter items, since currently getting an ibuprofen for a fever requires a day’s journey.

In one mountain village we visited, a donor who was traveling with me had a little fun with the students, parents, and grandparents that came to meet us. One of the boys said he wanted to be a banker, so the donor pulled out a 5 lempira note – about 20 cents – and gave it to the boy. He instructed the boy to lend it and charge interest, and said he expected 10 lempiras when he came back to the village. Pretty soon everyone was included in the game. The 5 lempiras was given to a girl who wants to be a nurse so she could buy supplies. Two girls who want to open a sewing business will now have a nurse they can go to when they impale a finger with a needle. An elderly grandmother, with eyes twinkling and a grin on her face, said with 1 lempira she could buy an egg and grow a chicken! Exactly!

The youth throughout Honduras are filled with enthusiasm and confidence. They have big dreams for their futures and are willing to sacrifice to study and make their dreams come true. What fun it is to partner with them so we can watch their futures unfold!