Archive for Courtney

The Team That Changed A Community

It started out as a way to get the kids off of the street. To give them something to do before the street found them something to do…but it became much more than a basketball team, it became a way of life.

Flowers Bay is a unique community; it is one of the last remaining communities that is compiled of almost only Black Islanders.  On an Island where corruption is rampant, where the culture of the mainland Hondurans continues to infiltrate everywhere it touches, where the village no longer raises a child, the street does; Flowers Bay has managed to remain somewhat untouchable. They still compose most of their meals off of what they grow, hunt, or fish. They still speak their Island Creole freely, their children still sing the Island songs, and play the Island games. Family comes first, and everyone knows every detail about each other (voluntarily or otherwise). Sundays are still filled with steam pressed dresses and the smell of something delicious baking in the oven…but there is a dark side too. As times get harder and the tourist industry dominates the job market, the people here scramble to make ends meet when the cruise ships float away into the horizon. Benches fill with men drowning the pressures mounting on them in a bottle of rum, or go out and work on ships, leaving women to tend to the home and everything else in existence, alone. The children find themselves wandering back out into the street, which becomes the father figure they are missing.

But this story doesn’t come with the same hopeless ending, this story begins where most would end.

We started out small, just a bunch of kids in oversized jerseys bouncing a basketball. Some knew how to play, some didn’t. We practiced sometimes, but mostly we just liked each others’ company. We didn’t have anywhere to practice so we used a slab of cement by the church with a rusty hoop to shoot around on. We participated in a youth basketball league (with two complete teams), sometimes we lost to the other team, sometimes we won the other team.  We spent a lot of time together outside of basketball; cooking, watching NBA games, checking homework, swimming in the sea; we became a true family. Pretty soon almost everywhere we went, we went together. I could ask anyone on the street if they had seen “my boys”, and no one wondered what I meant. It felt good for the boys to be recognized as more than just a bunch of 12-13 year olds running around on the street.

But we wanted something more.

So we begged our government to build a real basketball court in our community;and they did. (If it was only that easy that would be a real fairy-tale, but it took years of hard work from many people to get the court actually finished.) It was the first regulation sized court on the entire Island.   We joined the two youth teams together and started practicing more seriously. Soon, we decided to enter our team into the Adult Basketball League. We were the only organized youth over 14 team on the entire Island, and the only team in the Adult League that was composed entirely of youth. We had been together playing for about three years now so our skill level grew exponentially in that time frame, and it showed. We started winning almost all of the games that we played, and the Flowers Bay basketball court earned the nickname “The Burying Ground”, barely anyone made it out alive when they played us.

But we weren’t just great ball players, the boys were becoming role models for not only just the younger kids who worshipped them, but even the adults who had lost some hope admist the hard times. You see, in order to be on our team, you had to have a certain standard. The boys didn’t cuss, they didn’t argue with the refs, they were all in school and getting good grades (those whose families couldn’t afford to put their kids in school were sponsored by WYM), they no longer floated around aimlessly on the street, they walked with their head held high and a purpose in their souls. Little kids followed behind them like puppies, people came out of their houses on away games when they heard our bus passing by to find out if we won or lost. When young boys were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up they would reply, “I want to be an FLB Boy” (our team name). The court would fill up with people in purple and black (our team colors) whenever we played home. Men who would usually be drinking by the shop would make sure they were sober the days of our games. For that hour and a half when we played, everyone would forget about the bills, the empty wallets and purses, the hard times, the pressure, the stress. The boys gave them hope, gave them a reason to cheer. And cheer they did, every lay-up, every free throw would be met with a gallery of screams. The boys became hometown super heroes, fighting against all of the injustices and stigmas that the youth must face here. Their uniform became their capes, having an opportunity at a future was their mission.

And we were starting to get noticed. We earned an invitation to a scouting camp on the mainland of Honduras, in the capital city. So we worked hard and raised the money to get us there. For some of the boys it was the first time they had ever been to the capital city. For most of them, it would be the first time they played in an indoor gym. 

It was obvious wherever we went that we stood out, the boys were the only full Black team to be found. When they entered a room, everyone watched them with an aire of curiousity, of awe. From the bus, to the hotel, to the gym, the boys never lost that sense of purpose. And as a result, they walked with an aura of confidence that was impossible to ignore. When you are in the same room as them, the room glows with potential, you get goosebumps for no reason. You see, when you are with the boys, you are in the presence of greatness, your heart and soul reacts to them before you brain has any idea what is going on. THAT is the effect they have on people, everywhere they go. And the mainland wasn’t any different, every team we played, we won. We played the best they had to offer, and by the end of the game, the crowd always ended up cheering for us. You couldn’t help but want to be a part of our family, to cheer for them meant that you somehow belonged, that you weren’t just witnessing something great, you were participating in it.

Back home, the Flowers Bay community waited patiently for each phone call that we won another game, and they celebrated with us from hundreds of miles and the Caribbean Sea separating us.

We returned victorious, mostly because we had to, we couldn’t let our entire community down. The boys came back with experiences they would never forget, I came back with all of their futures on my shoulders. We had reached a point in our journey where it wasn’t just about basketball anymore, it wasn’t just about our community; there was a buzz that surrounded the boys now, a nagging in my heart that wouldn’t go away.

As a result of our trip to the mainland, five of my boys were given full ride scholarships for room, board, and schooling with the Central American Basketball Organization (C.A.B.O.) An accomplishment that has never been achieved on this Island before. They will proudly represent their small Island, but their journey into their future has just begun. They will have to fight for everything they want, they will have to “beat the odds” every single day, they will have to deal with the pressure of being the first, being role models for thousands of kids left behind; but they will never be ordinary because they were never meant to be.

So here is a toast to “my boys”. May they never lose sight of where they came from while looking forward to where they are going.

Your coach,

Courtney Lenox

CHECK US OUT!!! The Flowers Bay Youth Basketball Team-PRESENTATION

(Link to a short video of one of their games)


His Story


He told me that I could tell his story.

 And I told him that I didn’t know how.

 His history isn’t all that different than many of the other 1:10 people who are infected with HIV on this Island.

 Father went to work on ships, got HIV from one of their port nights on the coast,brought it back to wife, wife infected baby boy during delivery, mother and father died a few years later, baby boy left in care of grandmother, grandmother tried hard to raise a child who has been sick more than healthy since the day that he was born, grandmother, grandfather, and youngest brother die in the same year leaving now teenage boy alone and afraid, other remaining family members turn their backs hoping that no one will call their names to step up and help because they are so afraid of the disease.

 In a place that boasts the second highest concentrated HIV rate in this side of the world, his history isn’t that much different. The characters, the setting, even the plot, are pretty much predictable.

 But he wasn’t his history, he wasn’t the product of his father’s bad decisions; he wasn’t the + after the word HIV; he wasn’t the stigma of an over sexualized black male in Roatan.  

 He was the young boy who had to quit school in 4th grade because of bullying about being sick all the time. Who had to look down at the ground when the teachers told his classmates you can get it from a hug.

 He was the young boy who loved to climb trees, catch iguana, sell fruits and vegetables in the market with his Grandfather.

 He was the young man who would do anything for anyone, but distanced his heart from everyone for fear of rejection.

 He was the young man who wanted to learn how to read, whose one goal in life was to be able to get married and have a family.

 The young man who became such an intricate part of my family, a brother to my daughter, a son to me.

 I memorized his breathing pattern along with his ARV schedule, knew when he wanted someone to lie next to him, and when he wanted to be alone, when he wanted someone to quietly listen and when he wanted to sit in silence. I knew when he was scared, sad, or angry, though his expression never changed.

 I knew the sound of the beat of his heart, because it became mine.

 I knew the moment he lost the will to live was the moment he lost his sight, although he told everyone else with a smile on his face that it was better this way, that he could focus more on God.

 I knew the moment the fight was over, when the hope of getting stronger was no longer a reality.

 I knew the words to say, the verses to read, the caresses to gently give.

 And I knew that I would fulfill my promise that he could die in my arms.

 Now that he is gone, I sit here and think on all that I don’t know. Where it even began, where it all even began… I remember the HIV Charla that WYM conducted at the primary school in Flowers Bay a few years back; the one where the kids bombarded the Question and Answer session with stories of their teachers telling them to be careful because you can get it from a toilet seat, a handshake, a shared glass…a hug. 

 I remember one of our many trips to the hospital for tests and watching one of our neighbors die in front of us, his eyes scared and pleading into ours. I remember how his mother told everyone he died of worms, when everyone knew he died of AIDS but no one wanted to say it. I often wondered if that’s why he was so afraid when he died, because no one had ever really talked to him about why he was dying in the first place.  

 I think of all of the times people around us have whispered the words “the sickness” instead of calling it by its name.

 I remember when my son said for the first time outloud, “I have AIDS”. It was 2011, and it took him over 20 minutes to get the words to come out of his mouth. We both cried like babies afterwards, him for having to choke down the words for so long, me from having to watch him.

 I think of the family members and community members and “Christians” who turned their faces in the other direction because of fear, when all that was needed was a little love and compassion. One of those fatally “dangerous” hugs the teachers tell the kids about.

 And I wonder…where does his history start? Does it start with that fateful night when his father made a terrible decision? Or does his history lie in our hands? Our inability to see the urgency in educating the ignorant, accepting the “flawed”, working to banish the stigma?

 It is so easy to blame his father who chose to be unfaithful to his wife, his mother who chose to give birth vaginally and breast feed her child after she was already aware of her HIV status, his grandmother who never said the words outloud but kept them inside like a dirty secret, him for drinking his problems away and increasing the rate of destruction, for skipping doses of anti-retrovirals because they made him so sick he would vomit until the only thing left coming up was his own stomach lining.

 It is easy to blame everyone else.

 But blame has never saved a life. Never.

 We need to support the programs who are working hard to educate the public, and most importantly the youth, whose hands hold the future of this terrible disease.  We need to open our mouths and tell their stories, our ears so we can hear them. They are out there, they are all over the internet, on our tvs, in our newspapers. We need to educate ourselves, to understand that these are not foreign stories of foreign people from foreign lands, these are our brothers and sisters. We need to pray hard, and yes, we need to sacrifice a dinner out every once in a while to send some hard earned cash in the direction of those working in the trenches.

 When you look at the big picture, it is daunting, hopeless even. I am not asking you to do that. I am asking you to scale it down and look at it through the eyes of a WYM Sex Ed and HIV Prevention Class.

 On January 12th, 2013, WYM had a graduation ceremony for its newest graduates: 15 teenage young ladies and gentlemen. Small number right? Wrong.  These 15 youth are our army, they will make healthy decisions sexually, and also educate all of their friends. They can never go back to the destruction of ignorance, they will power forward and spread knowledge in places that missionaries, do-gooders, and even HIV Educators like myself can’t even reach.  If we want to fight this disease, it must be through them. If we can prevent their generation from spreading it, then it will die.  If we can slow the rate of transmission down, then stories like Harrison’s won’t have to be told.

 As I write this, I read through a diary excerpt of the night he told me I could share his story.

 “Tonight I lie next to him after giving him a sponge bath and tenderly rubbing his body which has become nothing but skin, bones, and old scars from memories of past illnesses tearing through like hurricanes. He is sleeping for now, but soon will wake up in one of his coughing fits, throwing up the only thing he managed to eat today. Soon he will wake up and his body will shake with the fury of an active volcano from what his body perceives to be an extremely cold environment.

 His spirit has seemed to have separated itself from his tattered shell of a body, but it presents itself in a smile when my four year old tells him she wishes Jesus could make him feel safe. It shines through when he talks about his beloved Grandmother, and it’s the brightest when someone looks him in the eyes and tells him they love him.

 I want to scream sometimes, “You can’t get AIDS from words! Tell him you love him! It is all he needs to keep fighting!”

 I want to scream out of the unfairness of it all when he is too ashamed to leave the house for fear of what people will say. With every pound he loses, a friend goes with it. A friend who isn’t sure what is happening, and if they need to be afraid.  

 I want to blame someone, but there is no one to blame.

 Sometimes life isn’t fair.

I tell him God only challenges those He knows can take it, but the words feel bitter and sour as soon as they leave my mouth. God didn’t do this, we did.

 I tell him that in Heaven people won’t see his body, but will see his heart; his beautiful, pure, under-experienced heart… “

 He told me that I could tell his story and I did.

Now it is your turn….


A Transition of Love

When Dishorne, a young man in the WYM program, died earlier this year I received the incredible honor of washing, dressing, and preparing his body for burial.

Born and raised in the United States, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to perform such an action, as a job like that to Americans is looked upon as scary, disgusting, and unwanted. I didn’t know how I would react to the scents, the touch, the realization that I was moving around a dead body.

When someone in the States dies, we quickly hide the body as soon as we can. Once the last breath is taken, we become almost frightened of the body that is left behind. We pay someone massive amounts of money to “take care of it”, embalm it, dress it up, put makeup on it until it no longer looks like someone we love, but a strange wax figurine that leaves people whispering in the corner of the funeral parlor or scared to go up and peer inside the casket. More often than not, the dying are put into hospitals hooked up to machines in order to “make them more comfortable”. They are surrounded by strangers, beeping machines, medicine, unfamiliar smells and sounds. Death becomes scary, and informal; a job for someone else to take care of.  Morgues are frequently the setting for horror movies, dead people the antagonists in our visual indulgences. Looking at a dead body is one thing (crime scenes often attract the masses who want to do just that); but voluntarily touching one? Washing, dressing, and preparing one??? That is something that is looked upon as gothic, sick, meant only for those with twisted motives or strong stomachs.

But I loved Dishorne, and I was grateful for the extreme privilege that was bestowed upon me by the family, and the community; so I accepted the request, despite my American upbringing and cultural hesitations about what I would be doing.

It is tradition on the Island to care for the dying at home. Partly because medical intervention is hardly an option here, but mostly because the dying process is looked at as something to be cherished and the dying to made feel calm and loved. When the dying take their last breath, preparations are made for the wake that night, and the burial the next morning. The community and the family gather together and divide tasks; the women of the community cooking the feast, the men making the coffin and digging the grave. Every single task involved is planned and executed by the family and the community.

After the body is prepared, hundreds of people from all over the Island gather for the wake that night, sitting outside the home of the deceased until sunrise the next morning. Feasts are prepared for those that have gathered, and hymns and songs sung by those who loved the deceased. The body of the loved one is displayed in the coffin on the porch or in the room in which the love one passed on. The next morning those who have gathered perform a funeral ceremony, sharing stories and singing songs, and then follow the coffin on foot to the cemetery for final burial. The gravesites are simple, holes dug in the ground, a tree or bush planted at the site as a marker. Once the loved one has entered the ground, they are returned to the ashes they were born from and the cycle of love and life is complete.

The person chosen to prepare the body is the most important piece. You see, on the Island, they believe that even hours after their loved ones have died, the bodies still can sense, feel, and hear.  The person chosen must be someone whom the loved one felt connected to, loved by, and safe with, or the body won’t accept the preparation. It will become stiff and impossible to dress, it will excrete fluids, and sometimes even belch up the sickness that the loved one died from.  All are signs that the person chosen was the wrong person, and the entire burial process is compromised.

As I washed myself, as is tradition, so I could be clean and pure to prepare Dishorne for the wake and burial, I wondered if I was the right one, wondered if the boy that became my whole world felt as if I was even an imprint on his.  After announcing I was ready, everyone left the house to wait outside, and I went into the same bedroom where only a few hours before I had held him as he took his last breath; and began what was the greatest act of love I have ever preformed.

I left the bedroom transformed, never again to be the person that I was when I entered.

That morning, I made my final transition into becoming a part of the community, and the Island. I instantly became a part of the family and a part of the community in a way that I never was before, and although I may be only a mere pinky finger in the community body, I am still a necessary part of the whole.

Death, although a now beautiful process to me, is also a constant. On an Island, and in a country, where sickness often translates into death, it is always present, always waiting; the Sea always heavy with the sadness of those mourning.

Yesterday, Dishorne’s grandmother, a woman who became an immovable and ever present force in my life, whose porch became as familiar to me as my own, passed away. No doctors to tell her family what she died from, the community concluded it was a broken heart from all of the children she had to bury over the years.

Once again, I washed my hands, prepared my heart and mind for the incredibly sacred task ahead of me, and entered the room to show Ms. Marjorie how much I loved her.

Rest in Peace

Marjorie Glovan Merren

August 6th, 1949-September 6th, 2010

Moving Mountains with Pebbles

This November Nico will graduate the 6th grade.

Three short months later he will celebrate his 17th birthday.

For the past year  Nico has been attending the only school that will accept him at his age. Every night he walks the 4 miles it takes to get to school, and most night he walks the 4 miles back dejected after learning yet again that school was canceled for any number of reasons; teacher didn’t show up, no one had keys to open the gate, it’s a Friday…He had never learned to read, and when asked to name a country outside of Honduras his reply was “Las Vegas”. Nico is 6 feet and 5 inches of arms and legs, has a lazy eye, and lives in an environment where exploitation, hunger, and poverty are not the exception but the rule. He knows the words to just about every rap song ever written and is more often than not freestyling some of his own work to anyone who wants to listen.

Nico has a past that includes both theft and drugs, and has a strong family tie to the not so underground culture of cocaine exportation that has dominated the Island the last decade or so.

For the past 6 months, Nico has been attending the WYM FireStarters Boys Group. He also joined WYM’s literacy course where he began using his ability to rhyme to learn to read. But he still struggled everyday walking the line between becoming a product of his environment and creating an environment that will help him break the cycle of poverty that most of Roatan has surrendered to.

Three months ago Nico was swimming in the Sea and stumbled upon 15 pounds of pure powder cocaine carefully packaged and wrapped in a plastic bag. Although it is not uncommon for the kids of the Island to come across the after effects of an airplane drop gone wrong, or an attempt to avoid a bust; it is uncommon for them to do what Nico did next. He picked it up, walked it to his Uncle’s door step, dropped it, and walked away. This might not seem like what we would call the “right choice” in American culture, but when you are living in a culture where there is virtually no consequence for selling cocaine in mass quantities, convincing a teenager living in extreme poverty to walk away from hundreds of thousands of dollars is not an easy feat. But Nico didn’t need convincing anymore, Nico made that decision all on his own.

When WYM kids show the potential to become positive leaders, every single stone is turned over to give them the opportunities needed for them to succeed. Nico’s stone was sports. So in June of this year, with a lot of hard work and self-discipline (and a few inside connections) Nico was invited to participate in the first Roatan Volleyball League to ever exist; a huge milestone for an Island full of some of the greatest athletic potential in the Caribbean and no outlet for its use. After a lifetime of always being behind, Nico not only found a positive talent, but also a positive male role model in his coach, Manu Dibango Wilmoth Collins.  Learning how to play on a team and the importance of each individual’s contribution to that team proved to be a powerful combination for Nico and he soon started making even bigger changes in his personal life to accommodate to his new found empowerment. He stopped making the easy choices, and started making the right ones. Last week the President of the Volleyball Federation came to Roatan to officially inaugurate the Roatan Volleyball League, and with the persistence of WYM and the help of his coach, Nico got a chance to meet him and tell the story of his past and the dream of his future.

Nico walked out of that meeting with an invitation to move to the capital city Tegucigulpa and play on the Honduras National Volleyball Team. He will be given a full scholarship to attend the best private school in the country, a full time tutor, room and board, three healthy meals a day, and a team of people surrounding him who will empower him to succeed on a daily basis. After an initial trial period, Nico will then have an opportunity to travel as a professional athlete representing his country all around the world.

Looking at him now you wouldn’t even recognize him. He’s still all arms and legs, but there is an undeniable spirit of hope that follows him like a shadow bathed in sunlight.

WYM gave him the pebbles, Nico is moving the mountain.

The Things He Knows…

*This is a tribute to my 13 year old foster son who began to stay at my house a little over 3 months ago. He is incredibly rough around the edges to most people, but has become the heart and soul of my little unconventional family. As he sleeps on the couch next to me, my heart aches with the weight of all he knows. His reality, both the positive and the negative, is not uncommon to most boys in his community. They are incredible, they are inspiring, they are the boys who will become the men who will change the reality of the next generation.

Things He Knows…

how to lose a fight, how to win a fight, the sting of a beating  with a coconut tree branch, what his brother looks like when he’s high, what his dad looks like when he’s on coke, that his dad will probably be tortured and murdered like the rest of those involved in the drug deal that recently went wrong, that they might come after him to get to his dad, that his older brother is being sexually exploited by a 42 year old woman and the community accepts it, that he is poor, what it feels like to go 2 days without eating, how to cook just about anything and make it delicious, how to build a chicken pen out of scraps around the backyard, how to build a contraption to stop the sewage from leaking out of the septic tank, what a porn movie is, to stay away from C when she’s drunk because she tries to make the boys put their hands down her pockets, how to get C out of my house when she’s drunk and pushes her way through the door to try and hit him, how to get S away from her mom and dad when they are high and forget to feed her, how to make purge, how to make bush medicine, all of the urban myths of the Island, that there is a 30% chance everyday he walks to school that his teacher won’t be there to teach him,  that at age 13 he is just beginning to learn how to read, how to speak two languages, how to fix just about anything, where to catch the biggest iguanas in the jungles, how to roast cashews, how to pull out intestinal worms, how to fix a bike, how to make a tombstone, what it feels like to watch one of his best friends die due to a treatable sickness, just about every rap song ever written, how to fish with nothing but a pop bottle and some line, how to catch crabs, how to get the rooster out of the mango tree, how to slaughter a pig, how a gun feels in your hands, what a cuss word feels like on your lips, what it feels like to walk past your mom without even saying hi, where you can find sharks in a cave just off of the reef, what if feels like to hit a girl, how to train a rooster to fight, what cocaine looks smells and tastes like, how to steal with no one noticing, that he wants to be a police officer,  how to run out of the bus when you don’t have enough money to pay for the ride, how to make a basketball hoop out of a cut up bucket and a board, that the Celtics will beat the Lakers in the NBA Championship, what it feels like to have the second largest reef in the world as your backyard, the cool of the Caribbean Sea on your skin after a hot day, not  to swim too close to the reef at The Rock because that’s where all the sewage runs into the Sea, how to catch and cook a blackbird, what it feels like to pass his first exam (yeah!),  how to do laundry by hand, how and where to collect water when there is none in the pipe, that chicken sells for L24 a pound but if you talk to Mr. Z instead of Mrs. Z you can get it for L23, that after he graduates 6th grade this year he is so far behind there is a good chance he will be unable to attend 7th, that his teachers have passed him every year even though he has never learned to read and understands almost nothing of what they teach, how to plat a pole, that homemade coconut oil makes the best hair grease, that he is loved, that his life has started a new chapter.