Back in 1965, when polio was spreading through rural Honduras, a 29-year-old youth pastor in Houston named Guy Bevil decided to do something about it.
He formed a team of teenagers and led them deep into Honduras where they joined efforts to inoculate people against the epidemic.
“We wanted to work in the most abandoned areas, where no health service was available, where a permanent worker would not want to live, where the government could not serve,” he said. “We said we would go to the end of the road, plus four hours on foot or mule beyond.”
And they did. In doing so, Bevil and his team of teenagers helped save thousands of lives while also establishing new friendships between the people of Honduras and the United States.
From the start, Bevil said, it was understood that those teenagers in the field would be the heart of what would become something much bigger: the Amigos de las Americas program.
“Every day presented new challenges,” he said. “What we were doing was so unique that we had to create an organization which could work without regular transportation or communication. Only young people could be flexible enough to face the challenges of overcoming obstacles every day. And they did just that, and are still doing it today.”
In fact, since that first trip in 1965, Amigos has sent more than 24,000 students abroad to live and work in 16 Latin American countries.
Amigos has remained headquartered in Houston, but has grown throughout the United States, with affiliated chapters in more than two dozen major cities, including one of the most active chapters, the Sacramento-Davis chapter.
As it has year after year, the local chapter sent a contingent of Davis teens to Latin America this summer where they left their marks in many ways.
Davis High School senior Monica LeFlore, for one, likely left a lasting impact thanks to her efforts dealing with teen pregnancy in the Dominican Republic.
LeFlore and fellow amigos in Santiago worked with local youths and a mother’s club to organize a teen pregnancy mentorship program and increase community awareness. They located and brought in a physician and psychiatrist to talk to and train women in the community as mentors for young girls, pregnant teenagers and adolescent mothers.
Their efforts culminated in more than 60 people marching through the streets together on behalf of the cause. In spite of a downpour, participants distributed informational brochures and magnets to community members along the route.
Over the years, Amigos’ projects have focused more on building structures from wells to schools to community centers, but increasingly, LeFlore said, the focus has changed.
“The Dominican Republic has a really high rate of pregnancy,” she noted, “and Amigos is trying to steer more toward projects like this instead of just building stuff.”
And the impact was clear, she said.
“It was really cool because it was really interactive, talking to the teenagers, and they were really interested,” LeFlore explained. “I learned a lot about how you implement projects like that. It makes you realize how much you really can do.”
In addition to the teen pregnancy efforts, LeFlore and her fellow amigos taught children for a couple of hours every day — lessons on sanitation and environmental issues — as well as rehabilitating a playground and painting a mural on the school building.
She lived with a host family she came to love, in fairly rustic conditions.
“The houses were all kind of scraped together with pieces of wood and metal — whatever they can find,” LeFlore said. “Mine was actually one of the bigger ones, made of cement with a second story. Most people didn’t have running water. Ours did, but it ran on electricity and there are blackouts all of the time.”
Adjusting was a little difficult at first, LeFlore said, but she was comfortable, “and even though I missed my family, there was never a time when I wanted to come home.”
She spent six weeks there, and though she doesn’t plan to serve in the Amigos program again next summer — she’ll be working to save for college — she hopes to return in the future as a project supervisor.
“I think I’d like to do that in college,” she said. “It’s definitely life-changing. It gives you so much more perspective. I’ve become a very different person because of it. You don’t know anyone there and it’s a chance to figure out who you are. It’s a really great experience.”
Gabe Mager would agree.
The Da Vinci Charter Academy junior served as an amigo in Ecuador over the summer.
His host family included a mom and dad and an 8-year-old brother who “followed me around all day,” Mager said. “It was the most adorable thing. Definitely shed some tears when we had to part.”
While there, he and his fellow amigos ran daily camps for the kids and focused a good deal of energy on one big project: building a fence around the soccer field.
The field was located on the top of a mountain and many a soccer ball would ended up rolling down the mountainside until the amigos came and, with the community’s help, built the fence. They also installed new soccer goals and lights.
“It was really cool because the day before we left, everyone came out and played soccer,” Mager said. “Everyone was really happy and thanking us.”
Living conditions there were very much third world, he said, much like camping, with a camping stove in the kitchen, a few light bulbs for light and running water outside the house.
“It reminded me how nice we have it in the United States,” Mager said. “It made me re-realize the American dream, because everyone there talks about the American dream and how lucky we have it here.”
Mager thinks he’d like to serve as an amigo again and definitely sees the Peace Corps — something his father did — in his future.
In that regard, he’s not unlike the many other American youths who’ve participated in amigos over the years.
“(People say) times have changed,” amigos founder Bevil said, “(that) young people today are not idealistic … (that) this generation is more materialistic. If you are to believe that, just talk to one of last summer’s veterans. When we give them an opportunity to participate in the Amigos progress, they come back and inspire us.”
Local teens and their parents interested in learning more about the Amigos program are invited to an informational meeting being held at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E 14th St., from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday. Another meeting is planned Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the first-floor auditorium at Shriners Hospital, 2425 Stockton Blvd., in Sacramento. For more information, email [email protected]
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy