Violence-torn Honduras becomes refuge for retiree
By Dana Delgado
While hordes of Hondurans have fled to the southern U.S. border seeking safe harbor, Liberty Hill resident Jo Ann Swahn was drawn to the interior of this country in strife for her own reasons.
After living a corporate life in New York, Ms. Swahn found herself living in Liberty Hill to be near her mother who was gravely ill in Cedar Park.
Although it was a far cry from living on a half-acre on Carefree Lane in New York, the move would change her life. Not long after relocating, an announcement at a Cedar Park Church about an upcoming mission trip to Honduras caught her interest despite being a completely foreign idea to her lifestyle. So busy with her work in the marketing world, she had never wandered far from her work sphere.
“I always considered myself a pew potato, but something had always been missing in my life,” she said. “I had thought about helping others, but I mostly did things for myself. When I left the corporate world, I buried my talents in the ground.”
Despite all her doubts, Ms. Swahn made the eight-day church mission trip in 2008 to violence-torn and poverty-rich Honduras.
“It was out of my comfort zone and I was scared of all the mosquitoes,” she said. “Being Christian-led, there were prayers in the morning and the afternoon with a nurse reading scriptures.”
The experience was a spiritual awakening, a life-changing revelation for the otherwise worldly businesswoman. Ms. Swahn not only survived the mission experience but thrived in ways she never realized were possible. Forever changed, she would soon put her stamp on the entire church mission. Faith became her guide and her business talents that she had “buried in the ground” became her vehicle to growing the mission into a promising charitable enterprise.
With a medical mission and educational component already in place, Ms. Swahn urged the church to form a non-profit. In 2010, Honduras Good Works was officially formed with her at the helm as the organization’s Executive Director. She served as Director for four years, the first year being as an unpaid volunteer.
As Executive Director, Ms. Swahn put her business skills to work and heartily raised funds and built partnerships to support the humanitarian efforts in Honduras. With many objectives realized, the Austin native resigned her position in December 2013 to focus and lead an evolving component of the non-profit, the micro-finance program, which was a perfect fit for her corporate talents and interests.
“I gravitated to it because of my business background,” Ms. Swahn said. “We have some micro-businesses including a pig farm, a jewelry business, and a tile company. They will provide jobs, stable jobs for mostly single mothers.”
The tile company is the most recent undertaking that could make a major impact to Honduran participants. After solidifying a business relationship with a natural stone businessman in Houston who is also a Honduran native, Ms. Swahn formed the Honduras Natural Stone Factory and raised necessary funds for a building, to purchase equipment, and hire a crew. She also partnered with St. Edwards University in Austin to develop a business plan. Only some legal documents are preventing the micro-business from become operational.
Today, thanks to many including founders Drs. Don and Bobbi Hopkins of Killeen, Ms. Swahn and many other volunteer medical staff members, translators and support personnel, Honduras Good Works focuses on health issues through short-term medical missions to rural villages and nutritional programs for susceptible school-age children, and training for local healthcare workers.
The organization also focuses on education by providing scholarships for secondary education for underserved youth from these rural communities, and furnishing school supplies, uniforms and books to primary school children.
According to Ms. Swahn, 97 percent of the students in their scholarship program graduate from high school, compared to the national Honduras graduation rate of 15 percent. Furthermore, 64 percent of the graduates from their programs are employed while another 24 percent are in higher education. In this area of Honduras where Honduras Good Works is implementing its programs, unemployment is 70 percent.
Ms Swahn further reports that the average earnings for high school graduates is over $11 per day, which compares to the $1 or less average earnings in the area. For university graduates, average earnings is over $33 per day.
Furthermore, the organization assists with church development and clergy support and provides economic development through a variety of initiatives including microfinance, eco-stoves and clean water sources.
On behalf of the Honduras Good Works, Sonia Nazario who is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author of Enrique’s Journey will be speaking at One World Theater in Austin at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20. Proceeds from this event will benefit Honduras Good Works scholarship and micro-finance programs. Tickets are available at www.hondurasgoodworks.org.
Ms. Swahn got her business start in nearby Lakeway in 1972 after studying at the University of Texas. Her success came in the hotel business, business development and marketing. Before becoming a Chief Marketing Officer in New York in 1991, she worked in Houston and Austin.
Although far removed from her corporate life and settled in Liberty Hill, Ms. Swahn is entrenched and committed to the micro-finance project in Honduras with the Honduras Good Works non-profit organization.
“I’m supposed to be retired and my kids always remind me,” she said with a chuckle. “But I now seek God’s guidance and serve him. I am nowhere and nothing but what God has guided.” When not dedicating time to helping people in Honduras, Ms. Swahn is busy with grandchildren, her new puppy, cooking and pursuing her love of travel. For more information visit the Facebook page for the Honduras Good Works non-profit organization.