SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
For the villagers of Calavera Centro, a tiny agricultural community spread across a mountain in La Paz, Honduras, this was no ordinary Saturday morning.
By 9:30 a.m. Sept. 19, 2015, representatives from more than 600 families waited in single-file lines, while 300 school-age children ran and played.
Soon, hikers arrived--170 in all--wearing blue, volunteer shirts and carrying backpacks full of food. Once the final hikers reached the soccer-field-sized clearing at the top of the mountain and removed their packs, the festivities began.
This was Chapel Hike 63: the latest installment of a bi-monthly volunteer event organized by the Chapel Staff from Joint Task Force-Bravo, Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, to provide humanitarian assistance and build partnerships with neighbors in the remote villages of Honduras. At over 11,500 pounds of donated goods, this event more than doubled the largest hike on record.
Within an hour and 45 minutes, the team of volunteers distributed over 7,000 pounds of beans, rice, sugar and other goods, along with 4,500 pounds of clothing, linen, toiletries and school supplies to the villagers gathered there.
"While it seemed like organized chaos, it was very well executed," said U.S. Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Christopher Watson, JTF-Bravo command chaplain.
Previous chapel hikes focused on food distribution, ranging anywhere from 3,000-4,500 pounds of donated goods per event. The decision to add the clothing, linen, toiletries and school supplies, along with a hand-washing station for children, represented additions to the inherited model.
Watson led a reconnaissance hike to Calavera Centro in early August, to meet with community leaders and plan the upcoming event. It was during that meeting that the idea for this expanded hike took root.
After discussing the kinds of food that would best meet the community's needs, Watson asked one community leader, "What else do you need?"
"The request was, 'We just want coats to keep us warm in the winter. We just want blankets and shoes to keep our children's feet warm,'" he said.
The following day, when giving announcements at a Sunday worship service, Watson unveiled the plan to take Chapel Hike 63 to new heights.
"When we initially put the word out for it, I was expecting not that much--maybe five or six hundred pounds of clothing and shoes and school supplies," he said. "But going over 4,500 pounds was just amazing--bigger than I could ever expect."
Not only did the amount of donations exceed expectations, but so too did the range of contributors.
Within weeks, large numbers of boxes began arriving from military and chapel communities in California, Arkansas, North Dakota, Texas, Florida, Mississippi--even England. One community sent 1,000 pounds of supplies, costing $1,700 in shipping.
"While they could have [flown] two people down to do something, they wouldn't have been able to bring anything," Watson said. "But because they chose instead to send items and utilize us to move them forward and hand them out, we were able to impact the lives of thousands."
Angela Major, Army Support Activity deputy commander, participated in the hike alongside her husband, Steve, who came to visit from their home in Fairbanks, Alaska, with a suitcase full of donated toiletries.
Prior to Steve's visit, the couple told friends in Fairbanks about the chapel hike and the need for items. One pair of friends started a competition over Facebook to see who could donate the most goods.
"I thought that was neat--that they were able to get engaged, and for something to come from so far away," Angela said.
Though many donations came from far away, others poured in from down the street.
When service members depart Soto Cano to return home, many leave their personal linen behind. U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shaerica Waters, JTF-Bravo Housing Office billeting director, led an effort to sort, wash and box up this leftover linen, a month prior to the hike, and was preparing to remove it, when the call went out for donations.
"It just so happened that the Chaplain sent out the email for the chapel hike saying that they wanted bedding... so we figured, 'What better way to get rid of it? It's already boxed and ready to go, so just give it to the chapel hike,' Waters said.
The linen--seven boxes in all--consisted of approximately 250 blankets and "an abundance" of sheets, towels, pillows and pillow cases, she said. These comprised a portion of the 4,500 pounds of clothing, toiletries and school supplies that villagers received when processing the line.
One such villager was Linda Flores. Seven months pregnant, Flores processed the line with her three-year-old son at her side and a brilliant smile on her face. In addition to 35 pounds of food, she received sweaters and bedding for her family, along with clothes for her unborn child.
She was accompanied by Col. Hedbreth Caballero, Honduran Armed Forces' liaison to JTF-Bravo, who carried her bags while she worked with the volunteers to find clothing the fit her family. Each villager received an escort to facilitate their movement through the line.
"I'm happy because this is my first time coming here, and it's the first time we've seen a lot of people coming to help," Flores said.
In addition to JTF-Bravo, volunteers came from the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Marines from the Special Forces Marine Air Ground Task Force, Honduran soldiers and policemen, and missionaries from local churches--all of whom came together to make a difference.
"You look and see that there is great need out there, and thousands of people show up, and you're providing them hope, [the knowledge] that people care about them, that each one of them is important and worthy of dignity and respect," Watson said.
"And then, for us to leave an impact there: literally, this winter, on top of the mountain, when it's getting close to freezing, people are going to be staying warm because our service members said 'I'll give'--that's the impact we're looking for."
Since its official beginning in 2007, the Chapel Hike program has brought 237,500 pounds of donated goods to those with material needs in the remote villages near Soto Cano Air Base. It is one of three regular JTF-Bravo volunteer programs that provide humanitarian assistance and build partnerships in the region.