Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras —
More than 160 members of Team Soto Cano hiked through the mountains of La Paz, Honduras, to deliver over 4,000 pounds of food to the village of Piedra Chata Saturday for the 80th iteration of what has fondly become known as chapel hikes.
These missions began in 2007 when U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chad Bellamy, a former Joint Task Force-Bravo chaplain, and Herberth Gaekl, Soto Cano fire inspector, decided to take donated food and pass it on to local people in need as they hiked through the mountains near Soto Cano. Bellamy then decided to try it again after several months, with an increase in support each time. The collective effort resulted in five hikes during his six-month tenure and approximately 6,000 pounds of donated food, marking the beginning of a heart-warming tradition that connects service members and civilians with their hosts at the grassroots level.
“We had a hike where we had 200 service members participate, so this shows that they like getting involved, and they do it to help their Honduran brothers, as they say,” said Mirian Santos, religious resource specialist who has been at Soto Cano for more than 20 years and has been a key witness of the program’s development.
Once a need was identified, the chapel team worked with Joint Task Force-Bravo leadership to formalize a community outreach program and capitalize on the opportunity to increase resiliency among service members, engage with the community, and contribute to the wellbeing of their Honduran neighbors.
“I’m very appreciative to our leadership for their wonderful support helping this program carry forward and for all that they did to make sure that this happened,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. James Galyon, JTFB chaplain. “For the Soldiers coming here today, it’s about giving back. We had about 25 pounds of food per person carried by approximately 162 volunteers. Where we were, it was actually six communities from that mountainous region who all came together, so it’s expanded out a little bit — and the pastor up there helped get everybody together.”
The activity consists of each participant donating $20 to cover the costs of purchasing rice, beans, flour, coffee and other groceries, bagging the supplies and then personally carrying the donation up the mountains.
Once the joint team hiked the 2.5 miles up to Piedra Chata and handed the donations to each family, they took the time to engage with the community and play with the children.
“For us, the proximity of them coming into these communities is a blessing. Children hear about the American Soldiers or they see them on television or movies, and they are seeing them here today and you are giving us a message of ‘giving and sharing with others,’” said Pastor Ivis Palomo, community leader from El Astillero village. “It’s an impact of joy for the people here because they have scarce resources. There are six communities present here today: Coyolito, Piedra Parada, El Astillero, Piedras de Moler, El Ingenio and Piedra Chata. The aid they have brought is received with joy. You have taught us a lot, and we hope that you continue supporting other communities in Honduras in the years to come,” said Palomo.
Through the JTFB Civil Affairs team, the schools in the community also receive soccer balls donated by the Kick for Nick Foundation and, when possible, the chapel team also gathers school supplies such as notebooks, colors, pencils and other materials, and brings them to the villages.
“We try to vary between communities in Comayagua and La Paz and sometimes we visit those where we have identified a bigger need more than once,” said Santos. “It takes a lot of logistical preparation and a lot of effort to plan these hikes, but there is no price when we see their smiles.”
Since its inception, Soto Cano personnel have donated more than 300,000 pounds of food to villages in La Paz and Comayagua through the Chapel Hike program. The 80th iteration highlights the value of continued efforts of Soto Cano AB to grow together in partnership by helping neighbors in need.
It’s very nice to be able to share with the people of our country, especially the most vulnerable ones,” Santos said. “The chaplain is already asking me where we are going next. As a Honduran, to me this is very important, and it’s good that they can go out and experience our country and our culture while they help.”