Driving into town, we crossed over a bridge into El Progreso, and we were surprised to see how developed and commercialized it was, with a number of recognizable restaurants present. We dropped our bags at the hotel and then went to the local mall food court for lunch. We chose to eat at K Tracho, a local chain, and had chorizo links with pickled veggies, wonderfully seasoned refried beans and plantain chips with an incredible creamy sauce.
After lunch, we went to the local Soles4Souls storage facility in town. We pulled our stock for the first distributions ranging in sizes from Junior 1 to Men's and Women's 10, climbing up and through the box mountain to find our supply. After loading the vans, we made a quick stop at the supermarket for snacks and some lunch ingredients for the week before returning to the hotel.
Next, we went to Las Tejas, the family owned restaurant of our guide Raul. Covered, but open to the outdoors, we sat and ate family style with plenty to go around. Chicken, steak, pork, chorizo, plantain chips - we had it all. New, to us, was fundido, which consisted of refried beans, pork and cheese heated in a clay dish that sat on top of a clay kiln, kept warm by active coals. We were able to sip fresh made limonada, a natural take on lemonade that was a nice complement to the Salva Vida Cerveza, the national beer of Honduras. It was an incredible meal to kick off our week.
Monday, July 16:
The first full day in Honduras saw our team wake up for breakfast at the onsite restaurant, Manjares. Between bites we were serenade by the calls of nearby macaw parrots; that's not something you can say every day!
After breakfast, we packed up and headed to our first distribution in Monterrey (an hour's drive away), taking a road first toward, and then alongside, the mountains and through fields of sugarcane. While the roads are quite developed, we were surrounded by farmland with cattle, horses and goats roaming and grazing on the sides of the road.
Upon our arrival, we set up in the village school - a fenced-in, three-room building - with stations set for fitting outside before the children came in to try on their new shoes. We served approximately 100 children, allowing them to also receive a gift bag. We then had plenty of time to play - soccer, frisbee, hopscotch, chalk, bubbles; you name it, we did it. The community was so kind and thankful, as they depend on trips like ours to receive new shoes each year.
After sandwiches, fresh pineapple (cut kindly by a member of our trip with machete) and snacks at the bridge we initially crossed off the main road, we headed to the community of Los Allevo (another hour's drive from Monterrey) to interact and play with the children for the afternoon. Once off the main road, we had a memorable drive down what is the very definition of one-lane road (a little tight!). It was an unforgettable drive with both sides constructed of giant palm trees - it looked like something straight out of Jurassic Park. Then, all of a sudden a gate appeared and we entered into the community. The children were ready to rumble to say the least.
It all started easily enough - soccer, frisbee, bubbles - the usual suspects. As the youth became more comfortable with us, it all took off. There were a few of us taking penalty kicks - Guest Experiences Supervisor Varney Vale and Box Office Coordinator Allie Wilson brought the World Cup legs - while James Kocen was also launching bombs. Simultaneously, Nerf footballs were flying across the field, and against the sidewall of the school, a penalty shootout was going down, which I took part in for quite some time.
After a pool stop and clean up, we went to Asados Harod close by our hotel. This outdoor restaurant served up yet another amazing meal: chicken, chorizo and steak with plantain chips and beans. We also were able to try the salsa negro, a brown soy and steak-like sauce, and the sweeter creamy sauce that we had with our plantains. Worn out from the first day, the team had a quick meeting before resting up for the adventures ahead tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 17:
We started our day with an hour-and-a-half trip south to the Pulhapanzak Waterfall, along railless bridges and stops for cattle crossings, for our first excursion: ziplining!
Three zipline platforms awaited us, zig-zagging across the river to carry our crew to an eventual end in front of a beautiful, 100-foot waterfall surrounded by tropical jungle. After we completed our team-bonding activity, we cooled off in the mist as we looked up at the towering feat of nature, cameras clicking away. After a quick dip in the river and a lunch at the grounds, we drove back to the hotel to prepare for our next destination and the true test of our athleticism (or lack thereof).
One of our local team members, Raul, invited us to his gym for a training session; part CrossFit and part MMA-style fighting. We started with an extensive body "warm-up," a sweat-inducing mix of squats, pushups, burpees and other exercises. We then had the opportunity to learn techniques from Raul and a few of his fighters - one, Kevin, is one fight away from a professional career in America and another was a female warrior that has won at a high level in Central America. We were taught several self-defense moves to overtake an attacker and were able to learn several basics of Muay Thai fighting. What Raul teaches is a way of life - from the physical aspects to the respect and discipline involved - and it was amazing to see the community he has developed within his gym.
Beaten down and hungry, we then went to a restaurant called Power Chicken, where we dined on chicken and shrimp fried rice, beef ribs, plantain chips, French fries, chicken and steak with chimichurri sauce, fried shrimp and calamari. During the meal, I interviewed some of the team members about their experience so far.
Predators Group Sales Account Executive Chris Halley:
"Traveling outside of the country for the first time has been an eye-opening experience. Going through customs in Honduras was a little nerve-wracking, not knowing if I was going to be looked at differently for being an outsider. The biggest adjustment I had to make, personally, was to keep an absolutely open mind with everything I encountered while on the trip."
Soles4Souls Executive Assistant & Office Manager Courtney Pare:
"A big part of my role is explaining Soles4Souls' mission to people who don't know what we do and to finally be able to see it for myself firsthand is surreal. I have told Vanessa's (one of the local micro-entrepreneurs) story many times without knowing her, and this week I found myself standing in her house, so it feels very full circle. This trip has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, educated me on one of the many countries we serve, and I am leaving with a new appreciation for the work that we do."
Predators Senior Manager of Community Relations Kristen Finch:
"I have been fortunate enough for this to be my third trip with the Preds and I am thankful for the support our company gives us to not only give back locally, but also internationally on the annual Soles4Souls trip. As difficult as it is sometimes to communicate with the children, it is amazing how far a simple smile and bubbles or sidewalk chalk can go to break down the language barrier."
Wednesday, July 18:
Our fourth day began with a two-hour trip toward the Atlantic coast and El Porvenir. With all of our remaining shoes in tow, we prepared for double distribution with the local firefighters (bombaros) at their station. Pulling into the station, we saw six full lines of children and parents eagerly awaiting our arrival, and by 7 a.m., we were ready to roll. One by one we brought them in and sat them down with shoes flying right and left to find the best fit. We think we created plenty of smiles and good memories, despite many of the language barriers we encountered. It cannot be understated how incredibly helpful our team - Romel, Christian, Raul, Sammy and Darwin - have been in translating for us and making the experience as seamless as possible.
Personally, I witnessed Kristen Schwartz, team leader for Soles4Souls, assist a girl with Down syndrome. When Kristen pulled out a purple pair of shoes, the little girl was giddy with happiness.
What seemed like a couple of hours suddenly became 3 p.m. - we'd spent hours plugging away, child after child, shoe after shoe until we almost ran out of our supply. We knew there were a lot of children, definitely several hundred. But what came next was mind blowing: we were able to provide shoes to roughly 660 children that day. That easily surpassed any single-day distribution that Kristen in her S4S trips had ever seen. Safe to say, in typical Preds fashion, we have cemented ourselves as the No. 1 shoe distribution franchise in sports.
Thursday, July 19:
During our end-of-trip debriefing, the total of distributed shoes came to 740 pairs, a converted economic impact of $8,850. If we take into consideration our partners in Honduras, we have given the gift of 1,520 meals, one year of enrollment tuition for 10 students or 15 years of shelter for a family by collecting 304 pairs of used shoes.
In retrospect, opportunities like this provided to us by the Predators and Soles4Souls allow us to step away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. We were able to gain a new perspective by helping others and creating a human connection that can overcome language and cultural barriers.
It is very special to be able to make a small difference in another country, because those interactions in giving shoes helps to create the bond and trust for bigger and better projects that will hopefully create sustainability. The greater impact happens with each of us as we see happiness in what our society would characterize as poverty - but poverty is a mentality as we came to learn. This trip has inspired each of us to take care of communities at home, to strive to make our society domestically the best it can be so that we can be the leaders in the world that generates positive change for the greater good.
For this group of 13, this trip was about more than service. It was about self-improvement in order to take the next steps in greater outreach. It was about creating a relationship in a new community, one that has opened its arms to us and one we are so happy to call home.