Chester “Chet” Thomas (’66) has been named University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. This award is the highest honor that Pitt-Johnstown bestows upon its alumni. Mr. Thomas will be presented with his award at the annual Pitt-Johnstown Proud Celebration on Saturday, March 20.
In announcing Mr. Thomas’ selection, Pitt-Johnstown President Jem Spectar offered, “Mr. Thomas has devoted his life to the betterment of the people of Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, working in challenging circumstances to enhance human capacity and dignity, as well as to achieve equity. His selfless commitment to service sets a very strong example for all of us. Through his work, he exemplifies the true spirit of this award and is a most deserving recipient.”
Mr. Thomas, a native of Somerset County, is the founder and Executive Director of Proyecto Aldea Global (PAG), also known as Project Global Village, located in Honduras. He attended Pitt-Johnstown during the “Asphalt Campus” days, when the school was located in the Moxham section of Johnstown, and finished his degree in education at the University’s Pittsburgh campus. Mr. Thomas also completed coursework for his Master of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
Upon earning his bachelor’s degree, Mr. Thomas joined the Peace Corps, where he served in Colombia until 1969. In 1974, following Hurricane Fifi, he relocated to Honduras where he worked on the reconstruction of the destroyed areas and started a relief and development organization called CEDEN, which was an association of Christian churches in Honduras. Personally, he also founded an orphanage for the children of parents lost in the hurricane. The orphanage continues to operate today. In 1976, disaster struck again, and he answered a call from the National Council of Churches - USA to direct a massive reconstruction of 22,000 housing units following an earthquake in Guatemala. In early 1979, he returned to Honduras, where he currently resides.
What started as an idea in 1982 to help the rural poor in Honduras developed into a 595-person organization under Mr. Thomas’ leadership. The organization, Proyecto Aldea Global, was incorporated in 1983 and currently employees more than 165 people distributed among seven regional offices. The organization also utilizes the volunteer services of several thousand community health, human rights and educational leaders across Honduras. Through its mission to “empower families, reduce poverty, and build just, peaceful and productive communities based on Christian values,” PAG has made a significant impact on Honduras. Mr. Thomas’ efforts have resulted in the construction of 74 schools, 18 maternal child care clinics, and 115 community health centers that provide health care for more than 500 communities. Through a physical infrastructure program, more than 1,000 miles of roads have been constructed to help small farmers market their produce, and a ferry boat system was built to transport vehicles across the El Cajon dam.
Mr. Thomas’ efforts have led to the construction of more than 350 community water systems. In addition, the Celaque Highlands Agro Industrial development project, initiated by PAG, has installed more than 130 miles of main water lines to provide much-needed irrigation to 600 farmers’ fields, allowing for year-round farming. As a result, the Celaque area is becoming a major agricultural food production center with more than 95 tons of vegetable produce being shipped each week to distributors including Wal Mart and other food distribution chains.
Through his work to educate locals on the basics of farming, the program introduced apple and peach trees (more than 300,000 trees have been planted to date). PAG also operates a large micro credit loan program for farmers and urban dwellers. PAG´s DEBORAH program focuses on providing counseling and legal assistance to thousands of women who are victims of domestic violence. Flor del Campo is a blighted urban area where PAG provides scholarships for at-risk children to study. Over a thousand students have benefitted from this program, which has produced ten university graduates.
In addition to his role with PAG, Mr. Thomas is founder and President of the Honduran Community Health Network, co-founder of the Mosquitia Coast Development Organization, and currently serves as Vice President of the Federation of Voluntary Development Organizations of Honduras. He received the 2006 World Health Program Award for outstanding community health programs in Latin America, and received the 2009 Honduras Environment Award, the highest environmental award in Honduras.
Maintaining a strong commitment to education, Mr. Thomas developed PAG into a living classroom for thousands of college students from around the globe who have visited the area. The PAG organization built the Los Pinos Environmental Center, which serves as a facility for eco tourists and students. The complex includes residential and meeting facilities, a food store, and restaurant.
College students from around the globe have visited Los Pinos to engage in service-learning projects, interacting with the residents of the villages and helping to advance the standard of living. The PANACAM Lodge Center, which attracts 4,000 visitors annually, is located in the heart of Cerro Azul Meambar National Park and is managed by PAG. PANCAM, covering more than 194 square miles, is a habitat for several species of flora and fauna. Last year, PAG was recognized by the country of Honduras for achieving excellence in protecting this critical water producing park, which provides 30 percent of Honduras’ hydroelectric power needs.
In 2008, PAG reforested critical water sheds by planting more than 40,000 energy and wood trees, and presently maintains a nursery where 65,000 multiuse trees are being grown. PAG has recently constructed an educational classroom for university students to carry out additional scientific investigations into the region’s plant and animal life.
On learning of his selection for the award, Mr. Thomas said, “I am humbled with the news of this award as it has been God who has provided me this privilege to work with those in need in Central America and by doing so, honor his name. Our work over these past 39 years has been fun, challenging, and very rewarding, as is this acknowledgement from the alumni of Pitt-Johnstown. I am very grateful.”
In order to be eligible for the Distinguished Alumni Award, candidates must have earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Candidates can also have earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh after having completed two years of study at Pitt-Johnstown during a period when four-year degrees were not available at the Johnstown campus. Nominations for the award can be submitted by any member of the University of Pittsburgh community, including alumni, faculty, staff, students, and Advisory Board members. Currently, there are more than 18,500 Pitt-Johnstown alumni living locally and around the globe. Past recipients of the award are the late Congressman John P. Murtha (’60) and James E. Wilkes (’53), an entrepreneur in the oil and gas industry.