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Nicaragua: What We Did

July 12, 2011

The work we did in Nicaragua was among the most challenging of my life. Saying I’m “tired” after a 9-hour day of sitting in a cushy desk chair in front of a computer can’t compare to completing a day packed with painting, scraping, sweeping, picking up trash and cutting the grass — with a machete and shovel.

My time in Nicaragua was mostly spent in Ciudad Sandino, a municipality of capital Managua, where we worked on repairing two schools for children ages 0 to 6 years old. These schools had no toys or balls; they were covered in graffiti and peeling paint; neither had a bathroom — not even one toilet for 65+ children — and one location had no running water at all.

One of the CICOs — the name for this collection of 18 pre-schools in Ciudad Sandino — once had a window A/C unit that was stolen. Who steals from a school? Someone who is desperate and maybe, like many people, can’t afford the $1 a month it costs to enroll their child in the half-day program.

Holes in the chain link fence don’t help. The cost of a new fence? A prohibitively-expensive $20,000 — in a place where teachers make about $40 a month, something they don’t even consider a real salary.

One of the most rewarding moments for my Dad, who accompanied me on the trip, was installing a lock on one door so the school can lock up school supplies and the fan. While the fence might not keep out any thieves, hopefully a locked door will.

For four hours a day, kids come to school for food, playtime and schooling in the ABCs, counting and other pre-K lessons. Many of the teachers said they want to extend the school day to a full day, not just for an expanded salary but also because a half-day of school is hard to schedule when many of the parents work in the “free trade zone” — a nice way to describe factory jobs.

Working a half-day isn’t an option when these factory hours may be your only income, and school is a safer place for kids than wandering the streets of Ciudad Sandino.

The entire community of Ciudad Sandino came out to help: bringing food and drinks, grabbing paintbrushes at every opportunity, showing us inexperienced Americans the best ways to paint and cut the grass.

It’s easy to feel like one person can’t make a difference. But after just three days of work — and dozens of eager volunteers — these two Nicaraguan schools were ready to open doors. One will hold its first day of school today and welcome children to classrooms filled with soccer and basketballs, LEGOs and other educational toys, new school supplies, brightly-painted rooms and, yes, toilets.

A bathroom never looked so beautiful.

One of the schools was called El Garaje (The Garage). Despite having been a school for four years, its exterior sign still advertised its the building’s previously life as a bank.

With just three colors of paint and a lot of heart, one of the girls on our trip gave the school a beautiful new sign reflecting its hopeful new name: Gotas de Benedicion (Little Drops of Blessing).

In Nicaragua, men are men. But our translator told the story of a father who saw the finished school for the first time and literally jumped up and down with joy, weeping. Another teacher and mother said tearfully that she never — not in her wildest dreams — imagined the school could look like this.

The coordinator of the CICO program — and our Nicaragua contact — plans to present her research on child development and the importance of pre-K education to government officials this month. To show how the kids must feel going to school with no toilets, she plans to tell the officials they can’t go to the bathroom during her presentation — we told her to fill them with water and coffee, first. Can you imagine?

Of course, building community is about more than just buildings.

Stories about the incredible Nicaraguan people — including a 10-year-old boy who is braver than I could ever be — are coming up on Thursday. Tomorrow: the food.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2011 8:36 am

    WOW. That’s about all I can say after reading this. Sometimes it’s tough to believe that one person can truly make a difference, but this is proof of just how true that is. What an amazing, inspiring transformation — and what a lasting impact it’ll have on all the sweet children who now have an incredible school to attend.

    The world needs more people like you and your fellow volunteers. It would be a better place for it 🙂

    • July 12, 2011 2:46 pm

      Shari, you are too sweet as always. I want to encourage as many people are possible to do trips like this — whether down the street or around the world — because it’s not only eye-opening, it’s empowering.

  2. July 12, 2011 8:42 am

    Wow–what an amazing, challenging, rewarding experience!

  3. Athena permalink
    July 12, 2011 8:45 am

    I’ve been eagerly awaiting this second post. I love reliving the experience through your blog! You’re capturing it so well.

  4. Kristin permalink
    July 12, 2011 9:36 am

    That sounds AMAZING!

    As a teacher, it’s hard for me to see these conditions. Not that I don’t know how the rest of the world lives, of course, but it’s easy to forget or to shove it under the rug and go on.

    My classroom in Iowa has no air conditioning, and I only have three-minute breaks in between classes to go to the bathroom if I run, BUT at least I HAVE a bathroom, and honestly, I have it so so so so so so so soooooo much better than some others.

    Thank you for this post — I can’t wait to read more!

    • July 12, 2011 2:45 pm

      As a teacher, I don’t think you’d believe the conditions at some of the schools in Nicaragua. That said, the teachers are still working really hard to educate kids even in these circumstances — walls covered with alphabet posters, vocabulary and counting, etc. It’s amazing to see how they can adapt.

  5. July 12, 2011 9:41 am

    I really appreciate that you took this trip and that you’re now writing about it. So many people don’t even THINK of taking their time to spend working in an impoverished country so I think the ones that do are so wonderful and giving!! I can’t wait to read about food tomorrow!

    • July 12, 2011 2:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Wendi. I feel like I GOT so much more out of this trip than I GAVE — it was the most rewarding experience of my life and I’m already looking forward to going back.

  6. July 12, 2011 3:26 pm

    Fascinating to read something like this especially has a teacher who is lucky to work in a pretty nice school and have the materials I need to teach my students.

    How did you find out about this program? Did you have to pay to go down? I’d love to do something like this at some point.

    • July 12, 2011 4:32 pm

      I actually went through my Dad’s church but there are likely many organizations that take volunteers down there. (We did pay – it covered our flights and the families we stayed with were paid to prepare meals for us.) I think it would be fantastic for a group of teachers, too. Sharing ideas, seeing other ways of life and realizing that in the end, kids are the same everywhere.

  7. July 12, 2011 5:30 pm

    It never ceases to amazes me how liitle other places have in comparison to the US. What a wonderful thing you did and thanks for sharing. Love the new sign on the school. 🙂


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