From left, Erica Spell, a senior political science major, and Taisha Ferguson, a junior actuarial science major, spend time with young Panamanian girls during their spring break mission to a rural orphanage.
By Kerry-Ann Hamilton,
March 18, 2008
Cocle, Panama -- Johana, 16, was overwhelmed with emotion as she talked about her week with the Howard University students who skipped fun in the sun and traveled 2,000 miles to spend their spring break at the orphanage she calls home.
“Muy carinosas,” she said in Spanish, her eyes filled with tears. “Quieren tiempo para nosotras dan amor,” she said with her eyes filled with tears. “Que comparten con nostoras basante cosa que nadie realmente lo hace. Nostra quieremos mucho.”
Loosely translated, Johana said “They are very caring. They spend time with us and give us love. They share a lot of things with us; really, things no one has done before. We love them very much.”
Nearly 20 members of the Howard University chapter of Engineers without Borders and their advisors spent seven days in in this little town 71 miles west of Panama City to restore and enhance Hogar de Niñas de Penonomè orphanage home.
The shelter houses children ages seven to 18, many who lived in abject poverty in the country’s mountainous regions and were unable to attend school.
The girls often come to shelter with just the clothes on their back, but with a burning desire to go to school, according to one of the tias (aunt in Spanish), the named used for the girls’ caretakers.
“Our trip to Panama has been a tremendous success,” said Alexandria McBride, a 21-year-old junior chemical engineer major from Atlanta. “We got a lot done from our action plan, but most importantly we connected with the girls. We are grateful to our sponsors and partners who made this possible.”
The orphanage now has an additional computer, a brightly painted study room, a vegetable garden and renovated a building to house additional girls, all courtesy of the Howard students.
The Engineers without Borders volunteers also made life more livable for teens at another orphanage a few miles away. The second home houses teenage mothers, abandoned babies and children removed from incestuous and abusive living conditions. The students and advisors made personal donations for three air conditioning units, several fans, toiletries, school supplies and other needs identified by the orphans.
“This orphanage was not part of our plan, but after seeing the dire need we had to do something,” said Kimberly Howard, a sophomore history major from Milwaukee. “The cooling units were especially needed. The temperature is typically in the 80’s year round and on the first day we visited, it felt like nearly 100 degrees inside the home.”
The Howard students were supported by Global Business Brigades and Dharma Foundation, who work in Central America, mostly in Honduras and Panama.
Humberto Vilchez, a senior volunteer with Dharma Foundation, lauded the Howard students for the job they did.
“The Howard University students were very extremely hard working, dedicated and focused,” Vilchez said. “We plan to continue this partnership with the pen pal program the students implemented as well as other projects.”
The Engineers without Borders volunteers also focused on making higher education possible for the orphans.
The cost of a degree program in Panama ranges from $2000-$8000, which is inexpensive cheap compared to U.S. colleges and universities. Still, a post-secondary education is rarely realized for many orphans and wards of the state.
However, this may soon change for Mariza, who wants to attend a university and become a doctor.
“After talking with many of the girls, they have ambitions to become lawyers, doctors, and teachers, but cannot further their education largely due to financial challenges,” said Atlanta native Iverson Bell, an electrical engineering major working to forge partnerships with local universities. “Our goal is to change that so the girls can achieve their full potential.”
Bell and several of his peers met with the director of Latin University of Panama to explore financial aid for the girls. The university will pay up to 40 percent for girls with special circumstances, like Maritza.
The Howard students plan to raise money for a college fund for the girls.