WHILE I WAS IN COLLEGE, I wrote a small research paper on The Youth Corps, which eventually was named the Peace Corps. I was excited about the idea of being able to represent America in a foreign country not as an Ugly American, but as one who lived at their level. President Kennedy stirred my heart and resolve as he made the Peace Corps into a reality.
The day camp
I left for Honduras on October 1, 1962. Our group consisted of nurses and social workers. As a social group worker, I was assigned to a community center to help develop programs and activities. The first winter I discovered that the schools closed for 8 weeks over the winter months rather than during the hot, steamy summer months. Thats when the idea began to emerge to have an 8-week day camp program for the next winter. My Honduran supervisor, Blanca Estela, liked the idea but was pessimistic because of a lack of funds.
We could have a fund raising carnival, I suggested. I explained that we could go to all of the businesses in San Pedro Sula and ask for a donation of one of their products that could be used for the prizes. The idea caught on and off we went. I was amazed at the generosity of the business community and merchants. Blanca teased that the people were so fascinated by this tall blonde gringa who spoke Spanish with a Wisconsin accent that they just couldnt refuse our request.
We ended up with a room full of wonderful prizes and some gifts that were so outstanding that they were saved for a raffle. But now for the rest of the story.
The carnival was planned for November 26, 1963. But four days before, our world turned upside down. Another Peace Corps Volunteer and I were living with a widow and her three children. The widow also had a 13-year-old girl living with her who worked for room and board. On the Friday before the carnival, while we were eating lunch, the girl came bursting in the door babbling asesinato presidente. She was laughing hysterically. Historically, military coups in Latin American countries where the president is assassinated were not uncommon. I felt terrible because the Honduran President and First Lady had invited us to Honduras to help staff the new health and community centers they had established around the country. The Hondurans loved them so I was puzzled by his assassination.
The widow went up to the girl and slapped her hard to stop the hysteria. I was shocked until I heard her scream, How can you laugh over President Kennedys assassination? How dare you insult these people by behaving in such a manner! The girl began to sob.
No! This cant be true! This doesnt happen in America, my mind screamed! Two other Volunteers burst into the house, crying. I turned numb. As I rode in the Jeep back to the Community Center, I wept quietly for a few minutes. The Centers staff was wailing loudly when I got there. They have strong customs for grieving, including showing a great deal of emotion and rules of what you can and cannot wear. (Everyone knew the woman of our house was a widow because she could only wear black and white for the rest of her life.)
Many of the Hondurans idolized the Kennedys and had pictures of them in their homes or shops. To show respect for President Kennedy, they felt they must cancel the carnival. How can we do something that is joyous and fun at a time like this? When I explained that the Peace Corps was a dream come true for President Kennedy and that the biggest honor we could bestow upon him was to go ahead with the carnival, they decided not to cancel it.
$300 in nickels was made from that carnival along with another $150 from the raffle. This paid for the first 8-week day camp in the history of the country. Both children and adults participated. However, the monies earned from the carnival proved to be even more crucial.
Two weeks after President Kennedys assassination, there was a military coup in Honduras and the President and his wife were exiled. The person who was going to be elected as the next president because the current Presidents term was ending, was crazy or so the people proclaimed. He would get on the radio and talk non-stop for 6 hours! The people were afraid that he would be another Castro. The opposition party could not win because then everyone who had a government job the only good and secure jobs would lose their jobs.