By Jess Masulli
When a group of Mary Washington students began a campus organization with the aim of helping orphans in Honduras, they never expected what their efforts would create.
What started as a small effort to collect pencils and pens for the Copprome Orphanage has expanded into a large-scale fundraising and relief effort comprised of students from several universities.
They are working to help the impoverished children and families of El Progreso, Honduras.
The group hopes to raise a quarter of a million dollars from the SHH Walkathon, which will be held Saturday, April 19, on the undergraduate campus.There will be over a thousand people from 20 schools, plus members of the Fredericksburg community, three bands playing on the steps of George Washington Hall, a raffle, children’s games, an alumni reception, free massages, food, and drinks.
“The Walkathon has evolved into more than just a walk,” said UMW chapter president and senior Justine Simeone. “It is a party.”
SHH founder Shin Fujiyama, a 2007 UMW graduate, even flew in from Honduras for the Walkathon. Along with him was Maria Suyapa Reyes, a graduate of the orphanage. Only 5 percent of Hondurans attend college, and even fewer do so after leaving the orphanage.
Reyes has been an exception. She is a student at Unitec, a university in Honduras, on full scholarship. While here she has been attending various SHH events, including a cocktail evening at Brompton, and talking to clubs and people all over campus about the importance of SHH.
The Walkathon is not all this group has been doing. Its biggest accomplishment this year was the Americas Global Giving Challenge, sponsored by Facebook and Case Foundation. The competition was between non-profit organizations to see who could receive the most donations above $10.
Although SHH joined the challenge ten days late, it managed to receive $30,000 in donations from 1,700 people. This put them in second place, with an additional prize of $50,000.
Thanks in part to the publicity about the organization’s success, SHH membership has continued to rise on the Mary Washington campus, and elsewhere.
When UMW freshman Ashley Jordan saw SHH at Club Carnival she decided to attend the first meeting. She is now planning on traveling to Honduras to volunteer next year.
“The meeting and cause really pulled me in,” she said. “This semester, I have done a kids carnival, baked for bake sales, and talked to residence halls about donating money.”
Justin Simeone, who is chairperson for the national board, has been involved with the group for the past three years.
“I got involved as a sophomore through a film about Honduras,” Simeone said. “I thought I had to be part of this because it was so special and different.”
For Simeone, it is about breaking the cycle of poverty by helping provide the girls in the Copprome orphanage with an education.
The situation in Honduras is particularly devastating. The unemployment rate is the highest in Latin America at nearly 30 percent, and half the population is considered below the poverty line. For children, education is hard to come by since school entrance fees and bus fares to get there are often too much.
SHH has been helping them by raising donations—more than half a million dollars so far—and by sending student volunteers to Honduras.
“We estimate that over 300 people have traveled to Honduras in the two and a half years,” Simeone said. “Over this year’s winter break we had 125 students from 13 universities travel there.”
In 2006, SHH’s first Walkathon raised $148,000 that went to building an education center at the Copprome orphanage. Some money also went to creating a school and improving homes in Siete de Abril.
In 2007, the Walkathon topped the year before with $288,000. With this money, SHH was able to buy land and construct a new village, Villa Soleada, for 50 impoverished families of the town of Siete de Abril.
A concern for the SHH volunteers has been that young women were leaving the Copprome Orphanage when they turned 18 with no support or education. Nearly half of the girls become pregnant six months after leaving Copprome, often due to prostitution or unhealthy relationships. SHH is now trying to raise enough money so that the girls can go to college safely.
This year’s Walkathon is trying to raise $250,000 to fund a Women’s Collegiate Leadership Program, a program that will provide the women with scholarships, housing, tutoring, financial training, and sex education.
Fujiyama is confident that SHH will succeed in its latest endeavor.
“I see even bigger things for the future,” Fujiyama said, “with so many capable young people on our team.”