Student makes an impact abroad

Abbie Stuart

It’s not every day that a student has the chance to travel to Honduras and build an aquaponics system, directly impacting the lives of dozens of people, most of them school children.  However, the impact Honduras may have had on Mollyanne Gibson, a senior chemistry and biochemistry double major, may be even bigger.

“It was amazing,” said Gibson with a smile.  “I’m really glad that I went.”

From Jan. 31 to Feb. 7, Mollyanne Gibson was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, helping build an aquaponics system, but also forming important relationships with the local people of Honduras, especially the children who attend school at Amor Fe y Esperanza (AFE), where the aquaponics system was built.

Aquaponics is the connection between fish and the growth of vegetables, where the fish and the plants are raised in separate tanks connected by tubes. Ammonia present in the fish waste is converted into chemical compounds containing oxygen and nitrogen known as nitrates. The water with the nitrates then goes into the other tank and fertilizes vegetables, such as lettuce. Once the vegetables have absorbed the nitrates, the water is recycled back into the fish tank.  The aquaponics system will allow the local school children to be able to eat better while they are at school.

Gibson went on the trip in association with Trash Mountain Project (TMP), a local organization that is dedicated to creating Christ-centered environments in “trash dump communities,” as the Topeka non-profit terms these extremely poor communities, around the world.

“In a lot of ways, it was like what I was expecting,” Gibson said.  “We got to go up on the trash dump one of the days and I’ve seen a lot of documentaries from TMP and in that way it looked and felt really similar to what I was expecting from the documentaries.”

However, Gibson said that there were some surprises that she wasn’t expecting.

“Having more of a human element, like faces and names, to go with the images of trash dumps was different than I expected in a good way,” Gibson said.  “The whole trip was like that.  I felt pretty prepared, but then there were things that really surprised me that were different than what I was expecting.”

Gibson also had the opportunity to shadow Hollie Macenczak, an American nurse who worked at the health clinic at AFE, and observe Macenczak’s Honduran staff.

“I was really impressed with how they’re able to use really limited resources to meet the health needs of the community and how they are able to prioritize what are the most important things they need to do for this community,” Gibson said.

Due to the limited staff and resources, the clinic can only see thirty patients a day, so they try to do a lot of preventative medicine, such as an annual physical for the children at the school and handing out vitamins to the elementary age children, which Gibson got to do by herself one of the two mornings she was able to shadow Macenczak.

“Hollie was very, very well-liked by her patients because she stopped and would ask them how they were doing, how was their family,” Gibson said.  “She would remember names.  There’s about a hundred and thirty children at the school and she knows the names of every single student…Caring about the patients on that level and being willing to pause in the hall and talk to them and connect with them on a personal level…it’s really important…patients need to know that you care about them.  That makes you a better medical provider.”

This example of a compassionate medical provider is one Gibson hopes to follow as she embarks on her own career in the medical field.  Gibson plans on attending Kansas University Medical School this summer and wants to become a family practice doctor in Topeka.

Gibson said that even though her work crew was extremely experienced in regard to construction, she was still able to help out by shoveling gravel, making bio filter bags, and fitting PVC pipe together.  The expertise of the crew allowed Gibson to interact with the children frequently, which for some, was attention they desperately craved. 

“I really, really loved playing with the children,” Gibson said.  “That’s probably one of the things I miss the most.  Just spending time with the children…they just really love it.”

Gibson said another highlight of the trip was going to church on Sunday.  The local church serves the trash dump community as well as another nearby community.

“To see people who come from a very different culture than me and very different backgrounds, but to get to worship God together and to get to see we both serve them same God and that God teaches us the same truth,” Gibson said.  “He’s the same person whether you work on the trash dump in Honduras or are a student in America.”

There were some challenges on the trip, but Gibson said the hardest challenge was coming back.

“One of the hardest challenges was actually coming back,” Gibson laughed.  “Being there, there was a big adjustment to the language…but then coming back and seeing the materialism and the excess that we have here in America and missing being with the children and the really meaningful work they were doing at the school.  The biggest challenge was coming back and wanting to remember everything cool I saw and that happened, and then realizing that I’m going to start forgetting it.  That was hard, is hard.”

Gibson interned with TMP at their research facility here in Topeka the summer of 2014.  She said this experience helped her learn about how to construct an aquaponics, explain what each part of an aquaponics system did, familiarized her with trash dump communities and their challenges, and to get to know the people that she went on the trip with.

Even though Gibson has been in the States for two weeks now, she says she will take the lessons she learned at Honduras throughout the rest of her life.

“I learned that material things aren’t very important,” Gibson said.  “The people there don’t missing having lots of material things.”  She went on to give an example of a man named Antonio, who will eventually run the aquaponics system in Honduras.  She said they had five workdays and that Antonio wore the same shirt every day, except for when he went into town.  Then he changed shirts.  But Gibson said he never felt sorry for himself that he had only the one work shirt. 

“He was a really happy, content guy,” Gibson said.  “It made me realize how often I put too much emphasis on stuff…it’s just stuff, you don’t need it to be happy, it’s not that important.”

When asked to describe Honduras in one word, Gibson said “sonrisa,” the Spanish word for “smile.”

“I learned how to say it while I was there because I’d take lots of pictures with the kids and selfies with the kids and after the first day, I realized I didn’t know how to ask them to smile for the camera,” Gibson said, smiling at the memory.  “So I asked the translator…and for the rest of the week, I would tell the kids ‘Sonrisa!’ and they would be really cute and smile at me…that would the theme of my week, “sonrisa,” because we had lots of smiles with the children and lots of pictures with them and lots of learning Spanish for me,” Gibson said.

When asked what she wished people knew about Honduras, Gibson said that she wished people knew not only about the poverty in Honduras, but the hope.  Gibson went on to explain that due to the poverty that is prevalent all throughout Honduras,  most of the trash has already been gone through by the time it gets to the trash dump and all of the valuable things are taken out, such as copper and recyclables.  While the people can make about five dollars a day from selling cardboard and plastic bags for recycling, half of that goes to the gangs as a tax for allowing them to work on the dump.

“It’s just a very sad, sad situation and it’s very hard to get out of it,” Gibson said.  “They have such limited resources,” Gibson said.  “But the good thing…is the amazing things that AFE school has been able to do…the vision for these children is that they will never have to work on the dump, that it will never be part of their lives.”

Gibson went on to say that it used to be a big deal for the children to graduate the sixth grade, at which point they’d have more of an education than their parents, but now the school has higher aspirations.

“For the past three years, they’ve had kids who have graduated from high school and now these kids are in college,” Gibson said.  “The next horizon is when these kids graduate from college, that will be a big deal.”

“The things I’d like people to know is, yeah, there’s this huge problem, but there’s also a lot of hope,” Gibson summed up.  “There’s very good people in Honduras making things happen.” 

Gibson herself now included.