On a week day leading up to Christmas break, the fifth-through-eighth graders of Sts. Simon & Jude Catholic School in Huntington Beach spent their religion period organizing and folding 70 garbage bags full of donated clothing and shoes.
Long tables lined the gymnasium, and the students sorted the apparel by size, type and gender before vacuum sealing them in plastic bags. Each class did as much as they could.
The school has many service projects, but this one is unique. The clothing drive for Honduras started last school year when then-seventh-grader Sofia Greenberg sent a proposal to Principal Colette O’Bannion.
For years, Sofia saw her father, Allan Greenberg, go on an annual 10-day medical mission trip to Olanchito, Honduras.
Greenberg, the Los Angeles-area representative for medical device company Medtronic, co-founded a non-profit, World Health Access Team, with Bakersfield surgeon Dr. Hao Bui in 2015. The organization provides vascular and venous care to under-served communities around the world.
The two had done work together in Vietnam, and Bui encouraged Greenberg to go with him to Honduras to do ulcer repair — “They get these huge gaping wounds in their lower legs and feet, and it’s terrible and painful,” explains Greenberg — because Greenberg’s family is from Honduras.
Allan’s mother is from San Pedro Sula, and his dad is from Puerto Cortés. Both of Jewish descent, they met after immigrating to New York, where Allan was born, and when Allan was a kid, he and his mother would go back to Honduras for months at a time, when his military father was deployed.
Sofia, now 13, who hopes to become a surgeon, wanted to go with her father on the mission trip, but Allan told her she had to earn it.
“I wanted Sofia to have a stake in it,” says Allan. “If you just show up, and you don’t know what you did to get there, it doesn’t mean as much.”
Sofia remembered that, along with medical supplies, her father would bring a duffle bag of donated clothing to give to kids in the neighborhood, as well as those who traveled hours with their parents to get to the free clinic.
“If you see pictures of the students at the school, they’re all dressed in nice uniforms, but if you turn around, they’re living in mud huts,” says Allan. “It’s an extraordinarily poor area.”
According to World Bank’s official data from 2016, some 68.5% of Hondurans lives in rural poverty and about 1 in 5 live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.
So Sofia pitched her “Let’s Dress Honduras” clothing drive to O’Bannion.
“To get a letter with almost a business proposal from a seventh-grade student out of the blue was just so endearing,” says O’Bannion. “ … I think we were all a little taken aback by how successful it was last year.”
Allan and his wife, Paola Matar Greenberg, remember being overwhelmed by the donations originally stored at their house.
“You would open the door, all the clothes were coming out, and I was like, ‘“This is insane,’ ” says Paola. “‘How am I going to pack everything?’ ”
“We actually couldn’t process all of it,” says Allan. “We’re just a regular family of four. We put up tables in our garage, ordered pizza for her friends, did about two bags and were like, ‘We’re never going to finish this.’ ”
“We thought, ‘Well, this is an opportunity,’ ” says Catharine Hulsey, the school’s director of admissions and marketing. “And that’s when Sofia and Dr. O’Bannion said, ‘Maybe we can use our facility and get the school more deeply involved.’ ”
Spanish teachers helped the younger students write letters to the schoolchildren in Honduras to deliver alongside the clothes, and the Honduran kids eventually wrote back. Parents Steve and Lisa Stone, owners of Coast Machinery Movers, offered to pick up the clothing and donate the shipping costs.
“We’re a very lucky community,” says Patti Chasteler, who teaches religion. “We have a lot of privileges and a lot of riches … The parents are very generous, but for the kids to actually get their hands on the project, for them to see pictures of Sofia handing out the clothes in Honduras, this is what makes it real for them.”
This school year’s clothing drive was even bigger, because it included adult clothing.
“I’m so thankful to these kids,” says Paola. “You don’t have any idea how much work this is.”
Sofia earned her way to her first mission trip last year and plans to go again in March.
“It’s so cool, because even though I can’t do the actual medication part, I get the medicine ready and help explain the aftercare treatment to the patients in Spanish,” says Sofia.
“The first day, I put Sofia with one team, and after an hour, I was told, ‘Yeah, we don’t need you anymore,’ ” says Allan, laughing.
As he speaks proudly of his daughter, he still remembers a night about five years ago when a ball kicked to Sofia’s head required an emergency craniotomy — where surgeons opened her skull — and she was hospitalized for a month.
“One night, she looks at me and says, ‘Dad, I’m not going to make it, am I?’ ” remembers Allan.
Allan had promised Sofia a trip to New York after they got out of the hospital, so he told her, “I already bought the tickets. Of course, you’re going to get better.”
“Literally the next day, her white blood count started coming down, she started getting better every day, and I think it speaks to the power of suggestion and faith that we were never going to lose her,” he says. “And now you can see her today. She’s a fighter.”