By Norris Burkes June 30 2024

If I say “1492,” chances are it’ll bring to mind that old school rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

But now I suspect I’ll remember 1492 in a different light. That’s because last week I flew to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to sharpen 1,492 pencils.

You say, “That’s an expensive trip for such a menial chore.”

Yes, I get your point, but if you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that Chispa Project needed those pencils for the inauguration of their 88th Honduran library at Pedro Nufio Elementary School.

I know I’m not the sharpest stick in the pencil box, but still I expected the project director to match me to something more in line with my talents.

After all, the director is my daughter, Sara Brakhane. She knows that I’ve spoken to dozens of U.S. audiences. I thought she might arrange a speaking gig in a Honduran soccer stadium.

At the very least, she should have arranged for me to mentor the school’s principal and share the B.F. Skinner Psychology of Education I learned in seminary.

I mean, what’s the harm in a little nepotism?

A lot, apparently.

She assigned me to count pencils, sharpen them, and drop said writing instruments into 421 of the new school backpacks.

Of course, I wasn’t the only volunteer that arrived on the Dallas connection. The less jet-lagged like my Auburn neighbor Ysanne Rarick and Raina Dittmer of Sacramento were slotted for important jobs.

Under the direction of Lester Reconco, an artistic Chispa employee, volunteers helped paint a large mural onto the library wall. It was no Banksy or Wyland Whale, but in quick time, our fledgling artists brought the room to life with bright primary colors.

Designed to inspire, the drawing features a Honduran boy in an oceanside scene. He’s reclined on a wave of books while reading. On a field of blue, volunteers added a sailboat, a swan, and multiple fish.

Other artists like my wife Becky meticulously painted a line of books that encompassed the room. (Visit the Chispa website to see the mural.)

Meanwhile my pencil sharpener overheated and forced Sara to assign me to the painting team. However, it was still not the fame I sought.  

My job was to pour various paints into red Solo cups, lug them to the talent, and wash their brushes. My nickname was Pour-Pour-Norris.

Suddenly, I became a truly irreplaceable member of the team.

I know this because I begged others to replace me.

They would not.

But finally, after two days of painting, the moment came to shelve the books in the new library.

From the school parking lot, volunteers like 12-year-old Maggie Miessler of Grass Valley and her grandmother Diane Miessler worked an assembly line offloading 850 new books from our bus. They carried the books through a bustling playground of kids playing soccer and girl-chase-boy games.

Still, several stopped to hug us, sharing broad and cheeky smiles that stretched for miles and miles. Suddenly we were surrounded by a gaggle of schoolgirls and boys, all grinning with unrehearsed wonder. They weren’t subtle. They wanted to see the new books we were shelving.

If you know the excitement U.S. children express over a new video game, you can conceive the enthusiasm building in these students as they saw their first children’s picture book.

On the final two days, Chispa volunteers hosted the library inauguration, a sort of all-day birthday party. Students rotated among classrooms for hands-on-fun that included puppets, science experiments and storytelling.

I never did get to deliver my Skinner lecture. But I can share with you that, like Skinner, Chispa believes that changing the environment can make education enjoyable and effective for all students.

Books are used to affect that change.

And the school where we were is definitely an environment that needed changing.

This rural school sits near the city’s landfill where many parents work to collect trash, operate the landfill’s incinerator, or commute by bus to a day laborer job.

When we left Honduras, the new library we had painted and filled with rows of new books had changed their environment for the better.

Chispa’s challenging slogan suggests we all “Help change the story.” I like to think that sometimes their stories can be changed, and a sharpened pencil can write that new story.

So, with more libraries coming soon, shall I “pencil you in” for the next volunteer trip? In the meantime, I guess you can say, it’s back to the grind for me.


I used Google translate to put this column into Spanish for the Chispa staff to read.


When I asked Sara why her staff cried at such a funny column, she told me that they were so moved that anyone cared enough about Honduras to write this for a syndicated column in the US.

You can be part of the change by sending a check made to “Chispa Project.” Or give online at Send to 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602. Email or message at (843) 608-9715.