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4 questions about community assessments 


Mike Wittry,
President, Rotary Club of Roatan, Honduras

1. How did your club first get involved with the community of St. Helene?

Rotary District 5370, which includes the Edmonton, Alberta, area, had done playground projects in Belize. About six years ago, they wanted to build two in Honduras, in communities where you’d least expect it. We worked with them as the host club to get interested communities to apply, including one about a 45-minute boat ride from here called St. Helene. Like many villages in the developing world, it had no water, poor sanitation, no electricity, not much of an economy, health issues, and a school with no books and no materials to educate the children. But the people there wanted a playground and had a piece of land to donate. 

The Canadian Rotarians spent about two weeks on this island building the playground. They promised they’d come back and do more. Our Rotary partners in Canada asked us as the local Rotarians to do a community assessment to learn about the priorities of the people in the village.

2. Can you describe how you carried it out?

We started with a community meeting, which was well-attended. But it was primarily the village council that did the talking. The others — moms and dads, the elders — sat in the back and nodded. Then we did focus groups that were much smaller, eight or 10 people, which did not involve the community leaders. That was very interesting, because some of the things the people were telling us were right in line with what the village council was telling us, but we heard other things, too. They were very open about the struggles the community is facing and the lack of opportunity for themselves and their children. 

The other exercise that was really interesting was called community mapping. You let members of the community draw a map of their village. Some things are important to people in different ways. The school is important to people with children; the clinic is important to just about everyone. It’s another way to get them talking about what they have and what they don’t have, and what they need. 

The process cost very little — our total expenses were under $600 — and it was worth every penny.

3. What did you think the community needed before you conducted the assessment? What did you discover?

This probably applies in many developing contexts — when you go into a poor community, the people there will take whatever help you want to bring. They’re not going to say no to a project. But that doesn’t mean that my idea of their greatest need is the same as theirs. 

I went in with the preconceived notion that we’d do a water project. But we learned so much through the community assessment. Our Canadian partners said, “We want to do all of this.” Now we’re taking a holistic approach to address the needs of the community through a series of global grants, starting with a $156,000 grant to provide St. Helene with a clean and sustainable water system and a $176,000 grant to establish a public school that will extend local education through high school (it currently ends after sixth grade). That wouldn’t have happened without the community assessment — we would have just gone in and done a water project, and that would have been the end of it. 

4. What advice do you have for other clubs? 

Follow the community assessment guide on I was involved in real estate development in Wisconsin for 17 years before I moved to Honduras, and a community assessment wasn’t anything I was familiar with. I was nervous about it. But the guide walks you through different methods. It’s something that we as Rotarians can do ourselves, and we can learn a lot doing it.

• Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa. Read more stories from The Rotarian.