Church delivers life-sustaining food

Following the greatest natural disaster to strike members of the Church in recent decades or perhaps ever, life-sustaining food is being delivered to those in need.

The food is being given by the Church and received as an expression of brotherhood and love, according to leaders involved.The amount of food is substantial: Some 600,000 pounds of staples have been shipped for members in Central America. Two weeks after the calamitous Hurricane Mitch hit, hundreds of families had received assistance from the Church, and thousands more are receiving it this week.

The relief effort is under the direction of Elder William R. Bradford of the Seventy and president of the Central America Area. He called a meeting of all the stake presidents, bishops and Relief Society presidents in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 15 for training on the appropriate use of the relief. Other training sessions were held in other locations.

Attending with Elder Bradford were his counselors Elders Lynn G. Robbins and Julio Alvarado, also of the Seventy. Garry Flake, director of Humanitarian Services and Martin Openshaw, field manager of Humanitarian Services, also attended.

A shipment of nearly 80,000 pounds arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, on Nov. 7 by air; nearly 240,000 pounds arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, by ship on Nov. 9; about 80,000 pounds arrived in La Ceiba, Honduras, on Nov. 13; and more than 200,000 pounds was flown into Tegucigalpa on Nov. 15. Additional shipments may follow in the next few weeks.

The hurricane, which struck during the last week of October, dumped some 25 inches of rain while it hovered over the east coast of Central America. Its devastation left some 10,000 people dead and another 10,000 missing and likely to be declared dead at a later time. One Church member, Rigoberto Portillo, 35, of the La Lima Honduras Stake, died. (See related story on page 10.) Some 13,000 members were affected in varying degrees, from those who lost their homes and all their belongings to those whose jobs were lost following the worst storm of the century in Honduras. At present, an estimated 8,000 members in Central America do not have outside sources of food and employment.

Most of the damage came to those living near rivers that rose five or more feet above their normal level, or to those whose homes were demolished when steep mountain slopes gave way and mud slides ensued. Evidence of both types of damage are visible.

Most of the homes that were filled with mud have been shoveled out by the industrious people. Now, people are digging through the mud fields in search of tile from their roofs and other building components that can be re-used.

Local officials said it will likely take up to 20 years to rebuild all the washed-out bridges and replace the roads and other utilities destroyed by the storm. In addition, the water systems are not functioning and 80 percent of the people in this and other Honduran cities in the hurricane zone are left to haul water in buckets and barrels. The large banana plantations that bring in 70 percent of the national income and are the single largest source of employment will not regain their capacity for six or seven years.

Donnell and Nita Hunter of the LaBelle (Idaho) 3rd Ward, welfare agents for the Central America Area, are coordinating the relief effort under the direction of the area presidency. They said that Church volunteers in the location of each delivery packaged the food and supplies according to the preference of local stake presidents. The food is being distributed by bishop's orders according to the practice of the Church.

A former Ricks College professor and former president of the Mexico Vera Cruz Mission, Brother Hunter said the people are in generally good spirits.

"What we have essentially done is establish an emergency bishop's storehouse," he said. The stakes most affected include the Tegucigalpa Toncontin, Choluteca, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba and El Progresso.

One of the greatest concerns of officials is the almost certain outbreak of cholera as people drink contaminated water or eat contaminated food. This deadly disease can take life 8-10 hours after its onset. The first deaths from this disease have already been reported.

"So far, we (Church members) are doing well, but we anticipate that there will be problems," said Dr. Max J. Kartchener of Benson, Ariz., the area medical adviser for Central American Missions. "We have made a direct approach to leaders for cholera prevention and are promoting health measures, particularly in the area of water purification."

Medical kits to be used at the onset of the first symptoms are spread plentifully throughout the area, said leaders.

As the greatest concentration of those in need was in Honduras, a stake center in the Kennedy neighborhood was converted into a temporary bishop's storehouse. Benches were stacked around the rostrum to make room for the large shipment.

Elder Bradford personally instructed leaders that stake presidents were to ensure that enough supplies were on hand to care for the people, and that bishops were the only ones authorized to sign orders for members. He taught leaders that the relief was to sustain life, not to help members regain their lost possessions. The criteria, he emphasized, was neediness, not worthiness. In this training meeting Nov. 15, one bishop observed that sugar was impossible to buy at stores, but was included in the relief boxes.

"If I give one needy family sugar, all the ward will be after me for sugar," he said. "The next day it will be powdered milk."

The leaders said they were pleased at how well the bishops and stake presidents understood the principles of welfare.

Following the meeting, Elder Bradford and his counselors waited on the tarmac at Sota Cano Air Base in Comayaguela near Tegucigalpa for the shipment to land. After it landed, the pallets of supplies were taken to the stake center and unloaded and volunteers passed bags and boxes and conversation from one person to the next. Some 68,000 pounds of beans in 50-pound bags were stacked and rose to the ceiling.

On Nov. 16, some 300 volunteers, mostly youth, gathered to break open the packages and assemble the supplies into boxes that would feed 8,000 families for a week. The amount for each box was printed on a chalkboard: five bags of beans, four bags of rice, one bottle of cooking oil, two bars of soap, one bag of sugar, and one box of powdered milk. About 1,100 boxes were packed in the first half day of work.

The work began with enthusiasm and didn't slow all morning. The young men handling bags of beans began to play "medicine ball" with the bags. The women loaded the boxes and called out missing items, "soap," or "salt," or "milk" as they worked. The completed boxes lined the back wall of the stage area.

"We give thanks to the Lord for this help from Salt Lake City," said Norma de Salgado, one of the supervisors. She said the volunteers simply had to know that the food was here, and they came to help.

"I know the families who will receive this food. There are five families near here who will benefit from this food. They have received some help from the government and from us as members, but that is a difficult thing because we don't have much, either. This will help a great deal more."

Elder Bradford met with the government officials who came to receive their approximately one-fourth of the shipment for general distribution. These officials were surprised to see the willingness of the members to help in the relief effort. They said the government had a difficult time getting even the recipients to help distribute food.

Later, bishops came and loaded their vehicles with boxes for needy members of their wards. One of the first deliveries was made by Bishop Jose Israel Zepeda of the Los Country Ward, a civil engineer who is the manager of construction for the Church in Honduras. His recipients gave permission for the media to be present as the food was delivered.

One of the families to receive a box from Bishop Zepeda was the Oscar Ruben Ponce Flores family. Their home stood high above the street and fared well in the rainstorm, but one of their neighbors' homes wasn't as fortunate. So now they had 14 people in their diminutive dwelling and little to feed them, Sister Ponce said as she expressed appreciation for the food.

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