Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect first name for Karen Evans. The story has been updated with the correct name.
When Glen Evans befriended the group of Honduran day laborers who were repairing his Alexandria home in the wake of a house fire 15 years ago, he never imagined the friendships would transform his life far beyond the renovation.
As Evans came to know the recent immigrants over a period of weeks and months, he was struck by the lack of communication they had with their families and friends at home.
“This was before there were cellphones [readily available],” Evans said. “The land lines were very expensive; these people were completely cut off from their families.”
Evans created videos of his new friends to send to their families and, during vacation breaks from his work as a minister at Calvary United Methodist Church, he traveled to their homes in Honduras.
The poverty Evans encountered there prompted him to gather donations of clothing and other items to send to the Central American nation. Eventually, these efforts grew from helping several families to founding Art for Humanity, a Arlington-based nonprofit group that ships donations of shoes and household goods to the needy in Honduras. The group also built and sponsors a women’s college about two hours outside the capital city of Tegucigalpa.
“I thought, well, maybe I can help one or two families start a business, so they can take care of themselves,” Evans said. “So I went back on another week of vacation, and another week of vacation. Then about seven years ago, I stopped working and began doing it full time.”
Today, he spends half the year traveling to Honduras.
Art for Humanity’s initial purpose was to use monetary donations to fund small businesses in Honduras. It started with arts and crafts made by women working out of their homes, then expanded to farms, retail and repair shops, and more. The group also collects about five 18-wheeler-loads a year of donations of primarily shoes, pressed into bales with a compression machine Evans built to maximize every available inch of shipping space.
The group’s focus on shoes targets a particular need in Honduras.
“One of the root causes of poverty is poor health, and one of the causes of poor health is lack of shoes,” said Evans, explaining that people with cuts on the soles of their feet are vulnerable to infections and parasites. The risk is more prevalent in developing countries such as Honduras, which lack adequate sewage systems.
The women’s college, called the Leadership Center, is run by volunteers from the United States and Honduras. The center is self-sustaining, with its own electric grid generated by solar and wind power. The students and staff members also run an organic farm that provides vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat, as well as fish raised in tanks on the farm. The hope is that the c enter will eventually support itself with its coffee farm, which recently has started producing coffee beans sold locally.
“A lot of people were skeptical,” Evans said. “How can you run a college with an all-volunteer teaching staff? I really didn’t know how. I just felt like it’s worth a try.”
Evans and his wife, Karen, said they are overwhelmed by the generosity of their neighbors in Alexandria and others throughout the Washington area, who bring bags of shoes and other donations throughout the year. Donations are stored in the couple’s garage and an 18-wheeler trailer alongside their home.
Local Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops have adopted Art for Humanity as their charity, collecting donations for the group; Karen Evans said several scouts have gone on to volunteer at the c enter during and after college.
Occasionally, Evans runs up against the limitations of what one organization can do. On a recent trip to Honduras, he was offered meals in two homes that had no furniture; in the same week, he received two offers of furniture donations from the Washington area to Honduras that he had to turn down because it is so expensive to ship the items.
“You take somebody who doesn’t have a bed, and someone offers us a mattress, but how many pairs of shoes will fit in the space of the mattress? If we had the money, I’d send both,” Evans said.
Despite such frustrations, the progress is what keeps Evans going.
“Our emphasis has been to help the poor help themselves,” he said. “We don’t do what we call just hit and run — give them a sandwich, give them a couple of dollars and then go. We try to help a family begin a small business, then with that small business they can educate their children.
“Now, the first families we worked with have gone full circle,” he added. “A couple of the families, the parents started working in junior high and weren’t able to go to high school; we helped one family start a small business, now their children got to go to high school, and one of the young men is the manager of the farm at the Leadership Center.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.