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How One Small School Transformed an Entire Neighborhood

Labels are restrictive.

How many times have we labeled someone based on their background ? Or how many times have we stopped believing in someone's potential simply because of their “place” in society? We live in a world that labels everything and everyone. We form opinions from our own point of view, even when they are potentially wrong.

Labels are not new. Even Jesus’ time, people questioned and said "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" and this has continued into our times. To say that you are from Honduras is to affirm that you come from a third world country known as “the country with the most violent city in Latin America.” To say that you live in a poor town in Honduras is to complicate the situation even more, and to add that you live in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of that town is to be left at a disadvantage in the face of any opportunity for improvement.

I could wear the label.

My name is Darwin Zacarias.

I come from a poor family. My father is a builder who only finished 6th grade. My mother never went to school. I have nine brothers and most of them only managed to complete 3rd grade. The possibility of earning a high school diploma with my family background seemed impossible, an unachievable dream.

I am from Honduras, from a city called La Entrada, Copán. I grew up in a neighborhood called San José — home to one of the most dangerous gangs in the country (MS-13), it was nicknamed ‘The Projects.’ Most of the children in our neighborhood had never been to school, which put them at further disadvantage.

There were two options for neighborhood teens: become a parent at an early age OR be an active member of the gang.

The problem continued to worsen, tempting more and more children to join organized crime. The gang’s influence was so powerful that even the police feared entering the neighborhood. The result was a growing number of illiterate families, exacerbating a cycle of illiteracy, poverty and lack of opportunities, but, above all, a hopeless future.

Or I could shed the label.

When the Hearts For Honduras School opened in 2000 adjacent to the San Jose neighborhood, residents had hope for a brighter future for the very first time. The school’s founder, Paty VIllanueva, with her passion for teaching, walked through the neighborhood, going door to door, begging parents to allow their children to receive an education at her new school.

Education is the way to break the cycle of poverty by teaching a child to think, ending a world of ignorance, giving wings to dreams, and teaching a child to fly with his imagination.

And this was exactly what the Hearts for Honduras school did. Children learned to see beyond the barriers that their neighborhood and gangs offered. They learned that there is a world to discover and that they have something valuable to offer society. When Hearts for Honduras began changing and influencing children's lives, it also impacted the surrounding neighborhood.

Residents learned not only the importance of education and the impact that parents have on their children's lives, but, above all, the importance of living for the Lord.

The presence and influence of the school initiated a radical change in the way the neighborhood saw itself.

Transformation starts with Jesus and is enhanced with education

From its opening in 2000, the unwavering mission of Hearts for Honduras has remained: “Educate, empower and equip children in La Entrada, Honduras to be leaders in their community and beyond.”

In the last 20 years, the Hearts for Honduras School has impacted the lives of everyone in my neighborhood. Although it was a risk at first, it was also a leap of faith, a leap that managed to pull children and adults alike out of darkness.

In the same neighborhood about which they once said, “Can anything good come from there?”, high school and college graduates are now pursuing their dreams for a better future. The gang has fled the neighborhood, many families are serving at churches in town, and every single child knows how to read and write.

What was once a dream is now a reality. What began as a leap of faith is now the fruit of a sowing of love, passion and perseverance. God used, and continues to use, Hearts for Honduras as the instrument of change in the lives of children, families, entire neighborhoods and now the community as a whole.

The San Jose neighborhood was once known for its bad reputation. Today, it’s a community that many admire. It was transformed from a neighborhood where no one wanted to live into a neighborhood that welcomes new families every year.

I was one of the original graduates of the Hearts for Honduras School and then had the opportunity to complete high school and pursue a college degree at seminary. After completing my degree I was hired by Hearts for Honduras as the Christian Education teacher.

I am grateful for the opportunity to teach current students as my predecessors did for me. They invested in my life to influence who I am today and I am privileged to teach the next generation of students as they prepare to be the leaders of tomorrow.

So when I am tempted to believe that a crazy dream is impossible, I am reminded that those kinds of dreams are what God uses to change lives, like my own.

Darwin Zacarias Resident of Barrio San Jose Graduate of Hearts for Honduras School Current Christian Education teacher at Hearts for Honduras school


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