One thing I loved about a lot of the tourists I met over the years on Roatan is that many of them had a strong desire to help the island. When you get there and personally witness snippets of the grinding poverty that some people live in, and realize the government is not going to help them, for most people it ignites a fire to do something to give back.
On Roatan there are many worthy charities, some of which I’ve highlighted before. I highly recommend that all tourists research various ways to help the island before their trip, and to save a little space in their suitcases for items that are desperately needed (please talk to my friend Avi at Not Just Tourists Toronto if you can bring an extra provided suitcase of much-needed medical supplies). It’s a good way to give back to your host community and can really connect you to real Roataneans and get a more authentic experience than just laying on the beach being a drunk glutton for a week. I mean, you should do that too, you’re on vacation… but only seeing the side of Roatan that the hoteliers and tour operators want you to see is not the real Roatan.
Roatan Charity Ministries (RCM) is a local charity that I have personally worked with in the past and would encourage everyone to look into if you are checking out ways to help the island. Miss Donna Lynn Watler spearheads this grassroots organization and she is a pillar of the local West End community. When people are in dire straits and need help, they call Donna.
I am not a religious person and while RCM is a Christian organization, I have been ‘on the ground’ with Donna and she focuses on meeting real, urgent basic needs, along with fellowship and ministry as a followup. She goes into the hospital and prison with food and basic hygiene supplies – neither of these basic items are provided by the government in these places and must be brought in by friends and family members who hopefully have enough money to purchase them…otherwise you’re shit outta luck. Seriously. I have seen Donna hike into the bush carrying food and drinks for people living off the land in tin shacks who have nothing – and I mean nothing – to their name. I have been with Donna while she receives call after call from people begging for help with food, clothes, a place to stay… the most basic of necessities that they cannot provide for themselves or their families, and there is no government program to help them.
Roatan is a third world country and has a long way to go with assisting its own citizens. In the meantime, charities there are a wonderful way to help if you feel inclined. There is no Red Cross or mega-organization where 80% of donations go to pay inflated administrator salaries. 100% of the donations received by RCM go straight to assisting the needy. Donna uses donations to provide food, shelter, education (school fees, tutoring, uniforms, after-school programs), clothing, basic hygiene and cleaning supplies and more. She also provides Bibles, Christian ministry, a loving word and a hug. I have known Donna for years and she is one of the most kind, generous and genuine souls I have met anywhere on this planet. Her passion for helping people is evident from the moment you meet her. (We once worked together, and all the staff called her mama, me included!)
The week before I left Roatan I was able to help RCM twice and it felt good to be leaving knowing I had helped some of the local people who shared their island with me.
First, we helped four large families in a poor neighborhood whose houses had burned to the ground. Sadly, houses burning down is not an uncommon occurrence on Roatan. Wood construction + shitty unsafe electrical wiring, gas stoves and water heaters, improper storing of flammable items and poor supervision of children (with easy access to matches) often combine with results of houses starting on fire somewhat frequently. While the municipal government finally stepped up to assist the families in rebuilding new (concrete) houses, RCM provided much-needed food and hygiene items for them in the interim. If we did not provide these items for the families, they would not have eaten. There are no fallback plans in Roatan. If you don’t have family or friends to provide for you, no one will. This is where RCM steps in.
On my last day on the island, I left Donna with a large suitcase that I didn’t need filled with extra items from my house that I wanted to donate before I flew back to Canada. She had received a message from a young man whose house had burned down (uhhh…are you guys seeing the pattern here) who was left with nothing for himself, his wife and small daughter. He had a job, but needed a little hand up while rebuilding his home. After receiving his donations from RCM in my large blue suitcase, he smiled and told Donna his prayers had been answered as he had been praying for help…and also for a suitcase!
You can read more about people RCM has helped (as well as the longer versions of my stories here) on RCM’s “People We Have Helped” page. I encourage everyone who wants to help Roatan to check out the charities on the island to find ways to give back. If you’d like to connect with RCM, like their Facebook page, visit their website, or send them a message to find out how you can help.