Spencer Reece had gone to Honduras to learn Spanish after a crisis at work.
Reece, an ex-Palm Beach County resident and acclaimed poet who later became an Episcopal priest, had been working as a chaplain at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut in 2009 when a teenage boy was rushed into the ER late at night. Stabbed 25 times, the boy died at 6 the following morning, another gang-war casualty.
Reece had tried as best he could to comfort the mother, but she spoke only Spanish. Reece, a Midwesterner who in a previous incarnation sold wingtips and windowpane suits at Brooks Brothers, spoke only English.
Reece called Leo Frade, the Episcopal bishop of Miami. At the time, the Diocese of Southeast Florida, led by Frade, was sponsoring Reece at Yale Divinity School. How could he became fluent in Spanish, Reece asked Frade.
“He immediately said, ‘I have just the place for you,’ ” recalled Reece, who prior to seminary had been an assistant manager at the Brooks Brothers in Palm Beach Gardens.
Frade, who came to Miami in 2000 after serving 17 years as the Bishop of Honduras, filled him in on Our Little Roses, a home and school for abused and abandoned girls in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city where children bathe in brown, fetid river water and scavenge for scraps at the city dump.
Reece spent the summer of 2010 in a Spanish-language immersion program at the home. His contact with the girls was scant - until the night before he was to leave. Climbing the concrete steps to his guest room, he found one of the girls standing beside his door.
‘“What are you doing here?’ I asked her,” he said.
“We heard you are leaving tomorrow,” Reece recalled the girl responding. “It took me by surprise, as I didn’t know they knew I was there. She turned to me and said, ‘No nos olvides.’ Don’t forget us.”
“Those three words changed the course of everything,” Reece said. “I went into my room, closed the door and cried.”
Reece returned, and the moving story of his time at the orphanage is the subject of a new documentary, “Voices Beyond the Wall: Twelve Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World.” (San Pedro Sula is now generally ranked second for the world’s highest per capita murder rate, behind Caracas, Venezuela.)
Reece, now 53, applied for a Fulbright Scholarship so he could spend a year teaching poetry to the girls, using the lines of meters and verse to help them excavate the layers of emotional scars left behind after their parents abandoned them.
“The whole thing didn’t look very good on paper,” Reece said of his Fulbright application. “I hadn’t taught before, I wasn’t a priest that long, and I hardly spoke Spanish.
“But poetry was what I knew,” he added. “It gave me a place where I could find solace, feel that I was loved.”
Reece turned to poetry as a teen coming to terms with being gay in the late 1970s, made even more traumatic after the suicide of a close friend who was also gay.
“He was teased on the bus, an hour-long bus ride, kicked, punched, called a faggot, blood coming out of his mouth,” he said. “He got off the bus, put a rope around his neck in his parents’ basement and hung himself.”
Six years later, when Reece was 22 and about to graduate from Wesleyan University, his aunt called him to tell him his cousin had been murdered, dragged to the river in St. Augustine and drowned. He later learned it may have been an anti-gay hate crime.
Those events had a profound impact on Reece, who twice attempted to take his own life and turned to the bottle.
“It was an arc of almost 30 years of work in church basements and coffeepots,” Reece said of his 12-step programs and therapists. “It took a long time to get to the top of the church steps.”
Literature was his lifeline. Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
He read. He wrote.
Reece’s poem, “The Clerk’s Tale,” detailing his days at Brooks Brothers - “I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, selling suits to men I call ‘Sir.’ ” - was published in the New Yorker, on the back page of the June 16, 2003, edition. The award-winning poem later became the title of his debut poetry collection in 2004, which was followed by a second volume, “The Road to Emmaus,” in 2014.
Reece was selected as a Fulbright Scholar and returned to Honduras in 2012 with a film crew. While he planned to publish the girls’ poems - “Counting Time Like People Count Stars” (Tia Chucha Press), the 24-poem anthology is coming out in the fall - he knew poetry alone would not tell the stories of the girls.
The film, which was directed by Brad Coley and lists James Franco as executive producer, follows Reece in his year-long quest to open the girls to poetry. He threw out the textbook and homed in on 20 poems he knew by heart, eventually building to a line-by-line call and response with the girls.
Among the poems: An anonymous ode from Terezin Concentration Camp. W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One.” Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?”
“They walked out the room at the end of the semester and had the poems in their head,” Reece said. “And no one could ever take that away from them.”
And the girls kept a poetry journal. The girls’ own poems, guided by Reece and set to music in the film, aren’t easy to listen to.
“Little Red Hot Lips,” written by Ana Ruth, who with her twin sister, Ana Cecilia, arrived at Our Little Roses as a toddler and penned the poem at 16, gives a glimpse outside the walled sanctuary of the home and school.
“Little Red Hot Lips went away, la la!
“Oft to her beloved grand mama.
“She knew nothing about life at all,
“nothing about anything outside the wall.”
The poems speak of being left behind, poems like “I Will Be A Happy Girl,” written by Leily, a shy, bespectacled 17-year-old at the time.
“When I was six I saw my parents a few times between one and four in the afternoon.
“I forgot their names.
“When I look up at the sky I do not wonder about them,” is how the poem begins.
The poems don’t sugarcoat the rage, the rage of knowing your family has deserted you that rips through the body like a wild river.
“Every week, every day, every hour, every minute and every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock,” wrote Aylin, then 15, in “Counting.”
“I am the knife and the rock is my life.”
By the poem’s end, Aylin, who came to Our Little Roses as a 5-year-old with her three older sisters, arrives at forgiveness, a biblical teaching many never arrive at in life:
“When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: I FORGIVE YOU.”
To Richard Blanco, the poet who spoke at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration and who taught the girls in Honduras for a week at Reece’s behest, that’s the power of poetry.
“Poetry makes us pause, makes us reflect, makes us come to resolutions,” Blanco said.
It’s also the power of Our Little Roses, founded nearly 30 years ago by Diana Frade, a Kansas native who owned an apparel business in Honduras. While living in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, she discovered a boys’ home and school started by five local Episcopalians.
Why wasn’t anyone doing anything for the girl child? she asked.
Since 1988, Frade, who later married the Miami bishop, and her team have shepherded hundreds of girls at Our Little Roses. At any given time, the home cares care for as many as 76 girls, from infants to college students. Early on, Frade started a bilingual school with one preschool classroom. Today, Holy Family Bilingual School has nearly 250 students, from preschool to high school, educating the girls and children in the community. The Class of 2013 was the first high school graduating class. The school also runs a Spanish immersion program for language students.
Through a network of Episcopal churches across the United States, the girls have been mentored, financially sponsored and encouraged to believe they can accomplish anything.
Jensy, who came to the home as a 9-year-old after her mother contracted AIDS, is a dentist today who teaches at the university dental school and runs a dental practice on the posh side of town. Jessica graduated from law school a few years back, the program’s first lawyer. Heather, who earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, is getting an MBA at a university in Wales. And there are scores of teachers, businesswomen and entrepreneurs who have broken the cycle.
Reece has witnessed these transformations. The documentary details the impact he had on them - “To Sir With Love,” Honduran-style. Perhaps more telling, though, is the impact the girls have had on him.
A few days before he left, he talked to Tania, one of the girls featured in the film. Tania came to Our Little Roses as a 4-year-old, badly abused.
“Here was the girl with the most unspeakable story, who they found in a well with a rock around her neck, who met with me at the end of my time,” Reece says. “It didn’t matter that I was this unconventional gay poet who had spent time in a mental hospital [suicidal thoughts], who was estranged from his parents for 10 years, who had experienced the ravages of alcoholism.
“All these things she listened to. After she heard them, she said, ‘It makes sense to me now why God brought you here. It’s because you understand us.’ ”
Reece paused as he told the story. “That was a pivotal moment in my own life,” he said. “I felt ordained, anointed, and Tania was my priest.”
Joan Chrissos is a journalist with the Miami Herald who is a longtime volunteer at Our Little Roses through St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Coral Gables.