“It’s really hot and humid,” thought Sofia Greenberg as she stepped off the plane on her trip to Honduras – nothing like her “surf city” home in Orange County. The relentless heat was only an introduction to her adventure that would continue a well-worn family journey with roots in the Nazi persecution of Romanian Jews.
During World War II, Sofia’s paternal grandparents had fled their Romanian homeland and emigrated to Honduras, settling for a while in the small town of Olanchita, nestled in a deep valley in the northern part of the Central American country. Like so many refugees, it was a painful time leaving all that they loved behind them to escape almost certain death.
They eventually immigrated to the United States, where her father Allan Greenberg was born.
Fast forward to 2009, Greenberg, an executive at the Irvine office of the biomedical firm Medronic, was concerned about the suffering of the poor in Honduras and Vietnam. He and his friend Dr. Hao Bui established World Health Access Team (WHAT) to specifically address painful venous diseases in these impoverished countries. He and Bui have returned every year to make the lives of the people better in the country that first embraced his refugee parents. Last year, his daughter Sophia joined him.
Sofia grew up learning about her father’s work in Honduras, but children under the age of 12 were not allowed to participate in the medical trips. Hearing about the poverty there, she resolved to make a difference in this country that meant so much to her parents and grandparents.
In 2018, Dr. Collette O’Bannion, principal of Sts. Simon and Jude Parish School in Huntington Beach, received an email from Sofia proposing a clothing-drive for Honduran children as part of the school’s commitment to encouraging Catholic service and global awareness. She planned to go to Honduras with her father to deliver the clothes, along with medical services, to the children of Honduras as part of the WHAT medical trip.
O’Bannion wholeheartedly agreed to the project, which was also received enthusiastically by the school community, so much so that soon the piles of clothing became more than the Greenberg’s could manage in their home. The school opened the gym to become a temporary sorting and distribution center for the thousands of articles of clothing that needed to be separated by size, and gender.
Now, back in Olanchita, Sofia and her father came bringing not only medical help, but more than 70 bags of clothing for the children in the desperately poor, rural community. “We stayed for 10 days, said Sofia. “There is a small city center, but most of the schools we went to are in the mountains. Most are just one or two classrooms with all the grades mixed.”
Fluent in Spanish, Sofia had a chance to meet with the children and connect to a little bit of her past as well. “They love to play sports, and are very sweet,” recalled Sofia. As an avid soccer player herself she had more in common with the kids that she might have imagined.
“We took the clothes to three schools, but we had a lot of adults also asking for clothing. The children wear uniforms to school, so we took our school uniforms which they could use for PE classes.”
This year, they plan to take adult clothing too. “Some people donated heavy coats and warm clothes, so we had to remind them that Honduras is a tropical climate. What the people need mostly is casual, cool clothes.”
According to Catharine Hulsey, director of Admissions and Marketing at Sts. Simon and Jude, “We try to instill in our students the ideals of service and global awareness. We are very blessed here in Orange County but not everyone in the world is the same. We do a lot of community service projects throughout the year, but the Honduras project was all Sophia’s idea.”
The school came together in many ways to collect, sort and pack the clothes. One family also donated the shipping costs to Olanchita.
Sofia will be graduating 8th grade this year, and has received a scholarship to a private high school. She expects her brother, who is now in third grade, will continue the Honduras project, and she has pledged to help in that effort.
This March, Sofia plans to make the journey to Honduras again. She will help distribute clothing and assist the medical team. This time, when she steps back into that tropical air she will be returning to friends, and perhaps a kind of home.
It has been a long journey for the Greenberg family from Romania, to Honduras, to the United States and back again. Her grandparents, fleeing the Nazi’s, most likely could not have imagined that their granddaughter would return to Honduras one day on a mission of compassion for the people in the country who had embraced them in their time of need.
Refugees have a way of changing their new countries, in many wonderful ways that aren’t always obvious at the time. What started out as yet another horrific story from the holocaust has become a blessing for many people. That’s just how God works taking the bad and transforming it into a good.