Medical Missions Make Real Impact in Honduras
The Dirks family legacy in Honduras started in 2005, when teenage son Derek asked his father, Bret, a Coeur d’Alene neurosurgeon, to go on a medical mission to the impoverished country through Lake City Community Church.
Ten years later, Bret ’84 and Michele Dirks ’83 have led more than 15 teams and 400 people from the Northwest and served about 20,000 Hondurans. Their children — son Derek and his wife, Samantha; daughter Erika and her husband, Ryan Lewis — are also Vandal alumni who have contributed in multiple outreaches.
Bret was initially reluctant to make the trip — he knew his medical abilities would be compromised by the lack of proper healthcare and poor conditions of the developing country. But he eventually agreed.
As a high school student at the time, Derek was hoping that first trip would help him improve his Spanish. But it did much more: Derek says his time in Honduras gave him a passion for medicine.
After completing his bachelor’s in biology at UI in 2009, he completed medical school at the University of Iowa and is now in general surgery residency in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His wife, Samantha ’09, has also accompanied him on the trips.
“It only took a couple of days on that first trip to realize how much we could do to help,” Bret said. “It was also clear we could develop relationships and build trust with the Hondurans we partner with.”
The trips — which they call brigades — include medical and dental specialists, but are mostly comprised of people ages 9 to 85, who simply want to serve. Michele Dirks’ mother, Alverna Thomas ’61, has gone on six trips.
Each outreach focuses on medical and dental care with pharmacy services, but groups provide much more.
“It looks like the circus has come to town when we get off the bus in each village,” Michele said.
Each day of the multi-day brigade, the group gives away over 200 pairs of gently used shoes and provides reading glasses. Under the cook tent, volunteers prepare lunch for up to 500 people. Others entertain the village children.
“We encourage anyone to bring their skills — even providing a haircut can be a blessing,” Michele said.
The Dirks family saw an opportunity for expansion a few years into their adventure when they realized the local pastors in each village were instrumental in bringing the medical and dental clinics to their communities.
“If we educated these leaders in the area of health, hygiene, safety, sanitation and the improvement of their economy through education, we could empower them to pursue a greater quality of life,” Michele said.
The family also saw that bringing these community leaders into one place to educate them would expand their influence further.
They found a Honduran partner with a similar vision, and the Learning Center in the capitol city of Tegucigalpa began. More than three years, six work teams and $150,000 later, the school is almost finished. The cinder block building — complete with six classrooms, six dorm rooms, a kitchen, dining area, library, lab and office space — will host up to 20 people at a time.
“It looks like the circus has come to town when we get off the bus in each village.”
— Michele Dirks
An Expanding Mission
Near the Learning Center is the Amor Fe Esperanza (AFE) School (Love, Faith and Hope), which serves the children who live and work in the Tegucigalpa dump. The Americans visited the 30-acre dump to assist in a lesson at a dumpsite classroom comprised of students sitting on scavenged tires and boards.
“When the class finished, these beautiful garbage-stained children hugged us with wide grins,” Michele said. “Then they scurried back to continue sorting garbage, earning pennies to help their families barely survive.”
That experience prompted Erika Lewis, a 2011 secondary education and biology graduate, and her husband Ryan ’09, who has his bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering from UI, to help expand AFE School.
Erika and Ryan lived at the school from 2011 to 2013 to help develop curriculum, set up labs and teach upper-division math and science to prepare students for the difficult secondary school admission exams that lay ahead.
The school has since graduated three classes and has 10 students attending pre-university training. In the beginning, the highest student aspirations were to drive the dump truck because they would get first pick of the garbage. Now, students have dreams of being doctors, nurses, engineers and attorneys.
Since their time in Honduras, Erika, now a science teacher at Coeur d’Alene High School, has been motivated to mentor young girls, and serves as director for Distinguished Young Women of Coeur d’Alene.
In 2011, the Dirks family formed the nonprofit Honduras Impact, which partners with AFE by providing university scholarships, supplies and equipment for the school and funds adult education.
Editor's note: The print version of this article incorrectly listed Erika Lewis's degrees from UI and the subject she teaches at Coeur d'Alene High School. That information has been corrected here.
Article by Jocelyn Stott, University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene