I've spent most of the last three days at the Conference On Honduras, an annual event that has grown into something of a Copan institution after relocating here from Washington, DC a decade ago. It was a heartening reminder of what people can accomplish when they care.
The conferences are put together by a volunteer board headed up by Marco Caceres, editor of the on-line English-language newspaper Honduras Weekly. The yearly event started out as a way to showcase the many groups and individuals working at the grassroots level to tackle the complex problems of the country, but it works equally well as a forum for sharing stories, miseries and miracles from the front lines.
What brings people to a developing country to try to make a difference? Every person working abroad would have a story for how that came about in their own life,. But I'd guess from the stories I heard at the conference that a striking number involve people who come to Honduras not expecting to stay and then see something that they just can't walk away from.
It was one of those conferences that really summons the starfish story, which is perhaps why a video of that fable opened the event. You know the one, about the child who comes upon the terrible scene of beached and dying starfish stretching far into the distance and sets about throwing one starfish after another back into the sea.
Not everybody has a taste for starfish rescue as a metaphor for social change. Let's face it, we'll be gently returning starfish to the sea forever unless we also put time into figuring out what the heck is depositing them onto the sand.
But that's not to take away anything from the many good projects that smart people with big hearts are introducing to Honduras. Maybe it's only one starfish at a time, but the cumulative effect is impressive.
One of my favourite presentations was from a professor at William Jewell liberal arts college in Kansas, which is doing some amazing work to lift up a little village of 20 households in Honduras. Along the way, the project is also changing the lives of the university students who execute the practical, community-driven projects.
Then there's the engineering consultants with Emergent Engineers, which is working to improve the 50-per-cent failure rate of Honduras water projects through better planning. One project near Copan will now bring water to 300 families instead of 200, just because an engineer who knew about such things took a look at the plan and pointed out that moving the tank to a higher hill would make a huge difference.
And I've always admired Urban Promise, the Copan-based youth organization that is helping create a new generation of engaged Honduran community leaders. If you want to change the future of a country, empower its young people.
The founders of each of those organizations have stories of coming to Honduras for whatever short-term reason - to help with Hurricane Mitch, to teach English for a year, to volunteer for the Peace Corps - and then seeing an opportunity to do even more.
As the conference highlighted, such people are unbelievably creative when they put their minds to figuring out how to respond to complex problems. They then set about raising an impressive amount of money and human capital to make things happen. This world owes much to people like that.
Of course, challenges persist. While many caring foreigners are working hard for the benefit of Honduras, most of them appear to be in agreement that much work lies ahead to ensure Hondurans eventually have the capacity to be lead that effort on their own behalf.
And as already noted, big-picture problems in Honduras continue to push more starfish onto the sand - poor governance, a weak economy, climate change, widespread poverty, the pressures of the drug trade. Community initiatives are wonderful, but strong leadership at a national and global level are equally essential components of long-term change.
Until then, it's one starfish at a time. But it does lift me up is just to see how many hands keep reaching across that sand toward a better day.
Jody Paterson is a Cuso International volunteer in Copan Ruinas.