When Jim Davenport’s service as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1985 was cut short because he caught malaria, he felt he hadn’t fulfilled his commitment.
But the south Wilkes-Barre native, who taught math during his brief time in Gambia, Africa, was inspired.
It wouldn’t be long before he returned to international service. His mother rented to a college student who introduced Davenport to her father, an American living in Honduras, and the student’s father invited him to the Central American country to help with a building project.
“I came back and told my friends,” Davenport recalled. “They were most interested. I alerted them to the needs of an orphanage.”
So Davenport and four friends went to Honduras in 1997 to do the renovation work, and they made friends with the people there.
The efforts ballooned. That small group has grown in the years since. Davenport has gone every year, now usually three times a year to make preparations for the volunteers who go annually. The group, called Operation Honduras, numbers 32 this year, with 20 of those volunteers from the Wyoming Valley and the rest from southeast Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, the group will return to Honduras for a week to work on construction projects and provide medical care.
In the years the growing number of volunteers have traveled to the tropical country, they have built and/or renovated eight schools, three free clinics, two homes, five residential units at orphanages and two churches; provided more than 10 years of free oral surgery and other dental needs, and fitted more than 7,000 patients with hearing aids.
“One of my goals this trip is the bar code system,” said Davenport, a Dunmore resident and owner of a company that buys and refurbishes properties for sale.
Volunteer Matt Petlock, a communications company senior engineer from Mountain Top, developed the system to mark test results and hearing aid impressions to keep track of the patients.
The volunteers will continue to travel throughout Honduras collecting hearing exams and impressions for an upcoming hearing clinic. The Minnesota-based Starkey Foundation, which fits and gives more than 100,000 hearing aids annually and promotes hearing health awareness and education, works with Operation Honduras to provide free hearing aids to those who need them. In May 2013, 1,951 needy Hondurans received hearing aids.
Davenport said that was the biggest hearing event in the history of lower Central America, adding to the more than 5,000 patients who already had received hearing aids. Rayovac provides the batteries. The bar code ensures the patient receives followup care.
“We can track any one of these clients, ones that came, didn’t come,” said Petlock, who also builds furniture but can’t make this trip. “It lets people at the clinic know who came, didn’t come.”
The Operation Honduras members have various reasons for volunteering for the trip.
Jim Marshall of Wilkes-Barre, who’s going for the first time, said he wants to make a difference.
“This is a godsend,” he said. “Everybody tells me it’s life-changing.”
Optometrist Alexandra Wasmanski of Bear Creek is going because she wants to help build schools and churches.
For the construction work, Operation Honduras buys all of the building materials, such as cinder blocks, roofing material and wiring, using donations from companies and individuals, Davenport said.
The group will fly from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport to Atlanta, where the volunteers will connect to a flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
The projects this year include:
• Substantially complete a combined three-room schoolhouse and church in La Fortaleza.
• Upgrade a soccer field and provide uniforms and equipment with the help of the Carrisa Dartt Foundation, Dunmore, which donated more than $5,000 to upgrade the field located in very poor area and sponsor a girls soccer team and league.
• Make furniture and church pews for local needy family and the La Fortaleza church, respectively.
• Paint the interior and exterior of El Refugio, an orphanage outside San Pedro Sula, thanks to Central Chester County Rotary Club.
• The dental team led by oral surgeon Dr. Steve Solfanelli of Scranton will provide free oral surgery, dental cleaning and deliver badly needed basic dental supplies.
Davenport said 100 percent of donations, which totaled well over $25,000 this year, go to the needy. The volunteers or targeted donors pay the volunteers’ traveling and living expenses, which come to about $1,100 plus miscellaneous costs for the week in Honduras.