Mercy Corps' Giron Society: Dr. Tito's legacy

Honduras, July 5, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps Founder Dan O'Neill (left) and Dr. Oscar "Tito" Giron walk to a meeting in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, April 19, 1982. Photo: Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Dan O&#039;Neill/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Tito with refugee children from El Salvador, April 21, 1982. Photo: Dan O'Neill/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Dan O&#039;Neill/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps co-founder Ells Culver (left) and Dr. Tito in the Mesa Grande refugee camp for El Salvadoran families on April 21, 1982. Photo: Dan O'Neill/Mercy Corps

Dr. Oscar Giron was the first to greet me as I emerged from the customs line at Tegucigalpa's airport in Honduras on April 18, 1982. Mercy Corps was in the early stages of launching a rural community development program with our local partner, Chet Thomas, who was to become our very first Country Director.

Dr. Giron, or "Tito" as he was affectionately known to family and friends, grabbed my luggage as he introduced himself. Mercy Corps Co-founder, Ells Culver, Tito and I checked into the Ronda Hotel across town and settled into a long conversation over cervezas. Later that evening, Tito and I walked through downtown Tegucigalpa, stopping to peer in through the huge, open, wooden doors of a Catholic church during an evening Mass. I will never forget the aroma of incense and cooking fires mingling in the warm, humid air.

Tito had graduated from medical school in Guatemala, specializing in pediatrics. Many in his graduating class were murdered by right-wing death squads, common to that time and place. Tito was deemed a "leftist" for his humanitarian leanings and had himself been threatened.

In an effort to recruit our first medical staff, Chet invited Tito to join the team in Honduras with the hope that Tito would find a safe environment in which to share medical help with poor families and children. "I care about the children," he said, "because they offer our best hope for the future."

Tito often buzzed around town doing errands on a Honda 90 motorcycle, his briefcase strapped on the back. He had dumped the bike in a traffic mishap days earlier and was wearing a cast on his broken arm. It didn't seem to slow him down a bit.

On April 20, we flew in a small plane to a dirt landing strip at Mocoron, near the Nicaraguan border to interview Miskito Indian refugees fleeing the nascent Contra War. They had nothing and were full of fear. Tito extracted stories of death and persecution from hesitant children.

The following day we flew to the Mesa Grande region of Honduras near the El Salvador border, where thousands of frightened refugees had fled from violence and targeted killings committed by Salvadoran paramilitary forces. Their fear gave way to celebration as Tito walked through the "tent village" with a gaggle of giggling kids in tow. He was a hero to them! They pulled at his shirt and clutched his hands. Later, Tito told us many of those children were malnourished and clearly traumatized. They would need much help, he surmised.

On Friday morning, April 23, I shared a final breakfast with Tito in the tiny hotel dining room. We had connected. It was good. And it was determined Tito would lead our health operations in border refugee camps.

The next day, Ells and I flew to Mexico City and shared a relaxing two days discussing our Honduras "launch" and dreaming about what "could be." This was to be the first of our many "palm tree sessions" — periodic "pit-stops" along our life journeys to engage in creative brain-storming and possibility thinking. Perhaps, at some time in the future, Mercy Corps would actually become a serious player in the world of humanitarian aid organizations, we speculated. At the time, I had a small two-person office in Seattle and Ells had an even smaller one-person office in Portland.

A month later, while working in my office, I received an ominous phone call from Ells. Tito was missing. He disappeared while riding his motorcycle to a refugee camp to do a health survey among the children. My heart started pounding. And then it sank.

I knew I would never see Tito again. Later, it was confirmed that a Honduran military death squad intercepted Tito as he rode his motorbike in a remote location. They tortured, then shot Dr. Oscar "Tito" Giron in the head. The perpetrators were later arrested, tried and jailed, only to later be released. Subsequently, I had the honor of telling Tito's widow, Heidi, about my conversations and travels with her beloved husband as we shared Thanksgiving dinner with my family.

Tito's medical mission was cut tragically short. But it has inspired many for decades — including Mercy Corps staff and donor friends. Tito's legacy of hope has been honored by the establishment of the Giron Society, members of which plan their estates to include Mercy Corps in their wills.

One day, we will all pass from this world. What will we leave behind? Through the Giron Society, Tito's inspiration and compassion will live on. And so can ours.

For more information about joining Mercy Corps' Giron Society, please email Rick Downey.