Columbians' service trip to Honduras cut short by coup

Thursday, July 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
From left, Dennis Murphy, two children from El Pital, Ellen Thomas and Emily Thomas work on a rebar frome to cover the foundation of one of the service group's latrine projects in Honduras.

COLUMBIA — While most Americans were watching the Honduran crisis unfold from their living rooms, Kevin Denson was lounging on a hammock in El Pital, a small village in northwest Honduras.

He was listening to the news on a hand-held radio with his Honduran host family.


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Denson, a 22-year-old Moberly Area Community College student from Columbia, had joined 25 other Columbia residents on a service trip to the small South American country.

Their goal was to work with locals to build new latrines for the 900 residents of El Pital and to donate soccer balls and clothing to the children.

"We were going in thinking like we were going anywhere else in the world," Denson said.

They were unaware of any government problems when they boarded a plane June 14 from Miami to San Pedro. It was Denson's first time leaving the country.

The service trip was organized by Allie Gassmann of the Columbia Unitarian Universalist Church and veteran Honduras traveler Christine Smith.

To raise money for the trip, Gassmann took donations from Unitarian church members. Smith had most recently worked as a fifth-grade teacher in La Ceiba, Honduras, and was confident with her knowledge of the area.

The host village for the trip, El Pital, is located on the side of a mountain in the Cangrejal River region.

Denson said the first week of the trip went well, and the locals even came out to help with the construction efforts.

"Every day these families were working on the latrines was a day they weren't working at their paid jobs," Denson said.

With the latrine construction going well by the time the group was supposed to leave, the majority packed their bags and left for the U.S. on June 21.

They left Denson and his good friend Caroline Erickson, who both chose to stay for another two weeks.

The day after the group left, Denson heard on the radio that the Supreme Court had ruled President Manuel Zelaya's referendum and removal of the secretary of defense.

"I started to realize things were escalating when the Supreme Court ruled against Zelaya," Denson said.

Denson, a pre-law student, said he began to take special interest in the situation and his host family's views on the government.

Two days later, the Honduran Congress ordered Zelaya's arrest. Schools were closed and government troops began guarding public buildings against protests.

With the president arrested and reports of protests on the radio, Denson and Erickson made a mutual decision to leave.

"We literally just went to our houses, packed our bags, and hitchhiked to the nearest airport in La Ceiba," Denson said.

From La Ceiba, the two had to find a connector flight to the international airport in San Pedro.

Meanwhile, Denson said his parents were concerned about him and Erickson getting out of the country. But Gassmann, who had spent a lot of time abroad, wasn't too worried.

"I'm used to these kinds of things happening every now and then," Gassmann said.

Back in San Pedro, Denson and Erickson were told by the U.S. Embassy not to leave the airport because of protests and a strict government curfew.

After a night spent with poker-playing San Pedro police officers in the airport, listening to protesters battling authorities less than a mile away, Denson and Erickson managed to catch one of the last flights to Miami.

The next day, the government shut down airports across Honduras to prevent the return of the ousted president.

Denson said that even though the government coup cut his trip short, he wouldn't hesitate to return to the village of El Pital.

"I told the people of El Pital I would come back eventually," Denson said. "It was too good of a time to be discouraged."

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Mary Denson September 13, 2009 | 5:45 p.m.

I went on this trip as well and I hope to return to Honduras again one day. This was a good article.

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