The following article was originally printed in the March/April 2016 issue, "The complete guide to youth ministry," of Presbyterians Today.

In the fields near Ojo de Agua, Honduras, a young mother picks watermelons for $6 a day. She cannot afford to send her nine-year-old daughter, Cristal, to school, so she keeps her locked in the house while she works. The young mother, who is positive for HIV, passed the virus on to Cristal during her pregnancy. In a country where discrimination against individuals with HIV is widespread, the mother struggles to keep Cristal healthy and safe. Every month she and Cristal travel three hours round-trip to the HIV clinic for antiretroviral therapy and care. Unfortunately, their appointments are often scheduled on different days. The mother cannot afford to take two days off of work and pay transportation costs, so she stops taking her medication. Nevertheless, she makes sure Cristal continues to take hers.

The young mother reaches her breaking point when Cristal tells her that men are trying to break into their house to get to her since they know she is alone. Cristal’s mother asks the staff at Montaña de Luz (MDL) to take custody of her. At MDL Cristal receives medical care, psychological support to cope with trauma, and home schooling. Since arriving at MDL two years ago, Cristal has blossomed into a happy and healthy little girl. She has progressed in school and now attends age-appropriate classes in the community. She visits her mother during school vacations.  

“Montaña de Luz is a life-saving and transformative ministry that makes a different future possible for children who are forced to live in unimaginable conditions,” says Erika Shell Castro, executive director. “Our purpose is to love and care for these vulnerable children who have nowhere else to go.”

Montaña de Luz is a faith-based, nonprofit ministry that serves as a place of rescue for children in Honduras who were orphaned after their parents died from AIDS or became too ill to care for them. It was established in 1999 in response to the growing AIDS crisis as this impoverished country recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. Worthington Presbyterian Church in Ohio provides a home for the organization’s US office. Worthington has adopted the ministry as one of its mission focuses and provides scholarship funds to support church members going for the first time on service trips to the orphanage. More than 100 Worthington members have participated in these trips in recent years.

Located on a small mountain in south central Honduras, this “mountain of light” has provided a loving environment and comprehensive care to 70 children since 2001 and is currently home to 35 orphans, 75 percent of whom are youth ages 12 to 19. Like Cristal, many arrived at the orphanage as young children after experiencing extreme poverty, neglect, and oftentimes abuse. All the children are HIV positive or a sibling of a child who is.

Although Honduras makes up only 17 percent of the population of Central America, it accounted in 2005 for nearly 60 percent of all the cases of HIV/AIDS in the region, says the World Health Organization. The country has one of the highest heterosexual transmission rates in the developing world. In recent years, those rates have gone down, thanks in part to the work of organizations like Montaña de Luz.

When HIV was discovered, it was considered a death sentence for those infected. Although there is still no cure, antiretroviral therapy has made it possible for the virus to be controlled so that people with HIV can experience long and productive lives.

The availability of these drugs transformed MDL from a hospice center to a refuge that sets the standard for pediatric HIV care in Central America. “Many of our children arrive malnourished, sick, and developmentally delayed,” Castro says. “Montaña de Luz gives them a loving home, purified water, good nutrition, proper medical care, an education, life skill training, and emotional and spiritual support so that they can live healthy, productive lives.”

Children at Montaña de Luz enjoy a warm day and play jump rope on the grassy mountain in south central Honduras that is home to the orphanage.

Children at Montaña de Luz enjoy a warm day and play jump rope on the grassy mountain in south central Honduras that is home to the orphanage. —Courtesy of Karen D. Matthias

Funded by donations and supported by volunteer teams, MDL invites service trips and child sponsorships. “As a 15-year-old returning from my first service trip, I felt good about all that I had given and accomplished,” says Alex Jones, who first visited MDL with his mother when he was a freshman in high school. “But after my second trip I realized that I was experiencing a reverse mission in that the impact the children and youth had on me was a hundred times that of what I had given to them.” In addition to spending time with the children, Alex helped to construct a greenhouse and vegetable garden, a paved road from the town to the mission, and an outdoor kitchen.

Alex participated in his third service trip as a student at Notre Dame University, where he and his younger sister, Lauren, founded a student club to support MDL through service teams and fund-raising events. After graduating from Notre Dame in 2015, Alex joined the board of MDL.

“Young people who participate on service teams experience a week of personal growth and maturity as they forget about their needs and wants as teenagers in the United States and connect with children whose life experiences and expectations are so different than our own,” says Angela Jackson, a wife and mother of two daughters. “It topples the shield that prevents us from identifying with the reality of the extreme hardships endured by children in other parts of the world.”

Angela and her daughter Anna went to MDL together when Anna was 16. “It was a powerful bonding experience for us as we focused on sharing, giving, and making friends. On that trip I saw a maturity in my daughter that I didn’t know she had, as she broke through barriers to minister to strangers.”  

It was also on that trip seven years ago that Angela met Laura, 10 years old, whom she decided to sponsor through the God’s Gift program. She receives letters written by Laura twice a year and has been able to spend time with Laura in her home community. That experience is what has made Montaña de Luz so unique. Unlike in some other charities, sponsors receive photos and letters written by their child; they also get to meet and visit with their child.

Cristal also has sponsors. Throughout the year she sends artwork and letters to them. She is especially touched when her sponsors come to visit her. She keeps the letters and photos she receives from them in a memory box next to her bed.

Karen D. Matthias is a marketing professional who volunteers with Montaña de Luz.