Dec 24, 2010

Feliz Navidad!

Great excitement at the school in San Igancio yesterday.  The summer school Christmas Party was on, and a tremendous success. 

La Esperanza Granada is holding summer school in three locations this year, and we transported the children from Elba Zamora school, and the High School children from La Epifania school to join in Nueva Esperanza school for a grand fiesta.

Kicked off with soccer and games, followed by dance presentations – this time the volunteers did the traditional dancing as a special treat for the students – they loved it and screamed their appreciation. 

A big raffle was held for students with the best attendance and Donald was an excellent compeer.  This was followed by piƱatas – one for each age group – separated into different classrooms – the noise level was unbelievable – fun at full volume. 

Celebrations ended with a meal with chicken and vegetables, rice and beans, cold drinks, and a bonus bag of candies for each child to take home with them.  All of the volunteers were there, all of the ayudantes, Flor and Pauline helped dish up the food.   It was a joy to share in such pleasure, and a memorable day for all. 

Here’s a video of some of the highlights:

Dec 17, 2010

Gabriela's baptism - or - Belkys babe

Here are some great photos of Gabriella’s baptism and the party that followed.   Belky’s, our ayudante and proud mother, invited us all to her house next to La Epifania school following the service in The Cathedral, here in Granada.  Former volunteers, Andrew from Canada and Catrina from France, along with ayudante Donald, and our office administrator Karen were the four godparents. 

Here is the photo link:

Summer schools are running well in San Igancio, and Elba Zamora, as well as our high school group during the afternoons in La Epifania.  We are planning a big get together of all three groups for a Christmas party – more about that next week.  Will make sure to take the video camera!

Dec 3, 2010

Sponsoring a child's education

Given that only 30% of the schoolchildren in Nicaragua finish primary school, giving them an incentive to stay on in education is a hugely important part of the work of La Esperanza Granada. Currently, our generous sponsors pay the costs for 90 local children to attend secondary school. Volunteer journalist CIARAN TIERNEY met one of them during her visit to Granada.

A belief that there is no chance for them to continue with their education results in alarmingly young drop-out levels from Nicaraguan schools, which is why our sponsorship programmes are so important to the children in the rural communities around Granada.
For just $230 dollars a year, a sponsor can cover the cost of a rural youngster to attend secondary school and this donation can make all the difference in determining a child’s decision about whether or not to continue education after primary school.
Every December, our generous sponsors look after the financial needs of the children for the following year and each of them gives a five year commitment to help the children finish second level.
We also have the wonderful ‘ayudante’ (or helper) programme, launched in 2007, in which young Nicaraguans who attend University at the weekends are provided with a basic living stipend to work alongside our volunteers in the schools from Monday to Friday. Currently, we have 11 ayudantes, who are each being sponsored to the tune of $1,250 per year.
During my time with La Esperanza Granada, I was touched by the visit of Bonnie Ditlevsen, a young widow from the United States who came across our second level sponsorship programme through our website.
Having taken her two young sons to Costa Rica for a volunteer project she came to Granada to sponsor and meet a gifted youngster who is determined to stay in school after finishing his primary studies.
So we found ourselves in the La Esperanza jeep, on our way to the Elba Zamora school where the principal had chosen a bright 11-year old, called Israel, to benefit from Bonnie’s sponsorship over the next five years. Israel dreams of becoming a computer engineer, and it was moving to see his reaction when he met the woman who is set to finance his high school studies.
It became an even more moving experience for Bonnie, who lost her husband in a road traffic accident, when she discovered that Israel’s mother also is a widow.
“We visited Israel at his school and learned that he is the youngest of six children, and his father died, which means that his mother has to struggle even more to help his family get by.  Like most people here, he lives in abject poverty,” wrote Bonnie in her own website,
“We very much enjoyed meeting Israel and we wish him all the courage, fortitude and luck in the world.  May he someday become a computer engineer—engineering positive change in his community and country!”
She described it as an eye-opening experience to visit the school and another one of our schools, San Ignacio, to see how the people lived in corrugated tin huts in which they have no running water.
Bonnie was moved by the joy, and quiet determination, of Israel, who clearly appreciated the fact that this woman from the US was taking the time, trouble, and expense to sponsor him through secondary school for the next five years.
“The neighborhood around San Ignacio Elementary is only a year and a half old, with shacks on bits of land that were parceled out to homeless families. I did not even want to imagine those families’ harsh conditions prior to settling in this barrio,” said Bonnie.
“But meeting Israel gave us great enthusiasm and hope for this region and for these people.  Through educational opportunities and fruitful networking over the coming several years in Granada, this young man might change his family’s trajectory.
“He seems like a serene, thoughtful person, but the clever spark in his eyes communicates a great ambition to learn and experience the world. We look forward to updates about Israel’s successes between now and 2016.”
Bonnie and her sons have already begun exchanging regular letters with Israel and his family and it looks as though their friendship will endure over the coming years. For details about sponsoring a student, see the La Esperanza Granada website or email

Nov 23, 2010

Humbled by the welcome of the Nicas

La Esperanza Granada has secured funding from an organization in Europe in order to launch an environmental awareness project in the schools for 2011, culminating in what promises to be an exciting trip to Managua Zoo next November. CIARAN TIERNEY talks to retired teacher and environmental expert Yves Parizeau about his preparatory work on the ground-breaking project which will launch in the New Year.

Nature trails, scenic walks in the countryside, and coloring games based on the plants and animals around them are going to be part of the curriculum of the children in our schools in 2011 when La Esperanza Granada launch a brand new project focusing on the environment in February.
Thanks to the dedication of Dutch volunteer Karin Van Eijk, who secured funding from a foundation in Europe, La Esperanza Granada will be in a position to improve environmental awareness in a fun way thanks to a new programme for the schools.
The programme was drafted by Canadian volunteer Yves Parizeau, who spent a month visiting the local communities, talking to the teachers and ‘ayudantes’ in the schools, and liaising with the foreign volunteers to ascertain environmental awareness on the ground.
Yves was genuinely moved by the welcome he received in these poor, rural communities during his time with La Esperanza Granada and left with a keen awareness of just how in tune Nicaraguans are with the flora and fauna around them.
He found that the children had a greater awareness for the simple things in life than their counterparts in Europe or North America and was impressed by their sheer joy in playing simple games outside, rather than being locked indoors with video games.
“One thing that struck me is that people maybe don’t realize how little their footprint is compared to the footprint in my country. It’s very small here. People still use horses and whole families go around on bicycles. They use banana leaves for plates,” he said.
“In a way, the children here are like we were growing up in Canada in the 1950s. They use sticks for baseball bats and plastic bags for footballs. They invent things. Their games are simple and they have a good time. I think a lot of our kids have lost their imagination because they have so much and they always want more. The kids here are very poor, but they spend a lot of time outside like we used to do 50 years ago.”
During his time in Nicaragua, he was moved by how sociable people with each other were during his trips around the country on public buses. People would not think twice about carrying another person’s child on their knee if a bus was full.
He loved the way people had time for each other, to sit outside and chat. Simple things that almost seem alien to a North American.
“There is more of a sense of community here,” he said. “When I was a kid a lot of people had rocking chairs and they would spend time talking to each other. People would sit outside at night in the fresh air. They are not all glued to the TV here in Nicaragua. It is something we have lost.”
He said that people in North America or Europe may have more cars or bathrooms, but that did not make them happier, and he felt that those living in the ‘first’ world had a more negative impact on the environment.
In Nicaragua, parents are not afraid to let their children go outside to play with their friends. They feel far more a part of the community. Yves felt that we could learn from them, even as foreigners come to help out and educate in what are poor, rural communities.
He was overwhelmed by the reception he received from the community when he went out to visit people in their homes, to assess their environmental awareness.
“A lot of organizations are coming to help and unfortunately there can be a dependency problem. There is a need to become masters of themselves and to believe in themselves. What I like about La Esperanza Granada is that they are there to support and not judge people about how they live,” he said.
“People who live in very, very poor houses did not mind letting me in. They always welcomed me and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. People here are closer to nature, plants, and animals. There is more of a connection.”
Yves has formulated a ten month plan, which will see students and teachers from the schools get involved in nature walks, drawing what they see, and getting to know the local plants and animals in the beautiful areas around their schools.
The teachers and children will also focus on recycling and renewable energy, linking up with other groups here in Nicaragua, and the project will end with what promises to be an exciting trip to the zoo in November.
The project will involve all the Grade Three and Grade Four students in the schools in which La Esperanza Granada is involved.
“November is the last month of the school year and we will be organizing a trip to Managua Zoo. The teachers will be involved right from the start. This has to be run by the local teachers and ayudantes if we want it to be successful,” he says.
“It would be nice if this would be more than just a ‘flash in the pan’. Even with very little money, we can have nature walks in which the children can have paper and pencils, coloring and felt pens, etc, at the ready. They can draw the plants and animals around them.”
He contrasted the fear which many North American parents have of letting their children play outside with how the young Nicas play games using materials from the natural world around them.
“Parents at home have too much fear. It is so nice and refreshing seeing the children playing little games out of whatever they have found around them. The kids know that they are part of a community and I think it is good to focus on what I think is positive,” he said.

Nov 16, 2010

Our local role models

A wonderful scheme which allows gifted young students from the poorer ‘barrios’ outside Granada to attend University at weekends, while working for La Esperanza throughout the week, was launched at the start of 2008. The 11 local ‘ayudantes’ play a key role in liaising between our team of foreign volunteers and the local children, schools, and communities. CIARAN TIERNEY profiles three of the ‘ayudantes’, including the first two ever to graduate from University.
The local ‘ayudantes’ (or assistants) play a key role in the life of La Esperanza Granada, as they are the first point of contact between our team of volunteers and the staff and management in the rural schools.
These gifted young people work voluntarily for the organization for about five to seven hours per day, from Monday to Friday, in return for a stipend of US$80 per month. They liaise with the teachers and volunteers, they organize school tours and dental visits, entertain the children in summer camps, and give them precious opportunities to work on our computers.
Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, they are then given the opportunity to attend University at the weekends. Like many of the poorer people in Nicaragua, they only attend University on Saturdays. Courses which might take three years for full-time students last for five years for the students who attend at weekends.
The ayudantes come from the communities we work in and are seen as role models for the children, as they offer hope of a brighter future and the prospect of further education for families who cannot afford to send their children to College.
This is a special time for La Esperanza Granada, as the first two of our ayudantes are just about to graduate from University. Here we profile Lourdes and Dimas, the first two graduates, and 23-year old Donald whose difficult life story has been truly inspirational.
But all of our ayudantes are inspirational, from Karen who has come from a huge family to work as a very able office administrator to Esther, Vanessa, and Chilo, who work in the heart of their impoverished communities. And then there’s Belkys, the 20-year old single mum and ‘joker in the pack’ who crams so much into her busy life.
Donald Alonso
Orphaned at the age of two, Donald really is an inspiration to the children around Granada. Reared by an aunty until the age of ten, and by his grandmother between 11 and 16 years, when she also died, life has not been easy for this young man who is determined to give something back to the community that spawned him.
He lived with his aunty and his cousins after his beloved ‘abuela’ died and living in their house, right beside the La Epifania school, brought him into contact with our team of foreign volunteers.
If you ask Donald what would be his dream job, he would love to be a teacher back at his own primary school, to help other poor kids in his own poor community of El Hormigon. He loves working with children and likes helping others.
Unfortunately, in Nicaragua, to become a teacher requires full-time study and Donald was unable to afford to go to University after completing high school. But he heard about the ‘ayudante’ program thanks to his close association with the La Epifania school and, thanks to La Esperanza Granada, has been given the chance to study Tourism Administration every Saturday from 7.30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“I love working with children, but I also like working with foreigners, to have the chance to show them how beautiful Nicaragua is,” says Donald, who helped to organize the 2010 end of year school tours. “I love my time with La Esperanza because I get a chance to work with the foreign volunteers.
“My aunty’s house is right beside the La Epifania school and it was there that I met the foreign volunteers and heard about La Esperanza Granada. After I finished school, I wanted to be a teacher, but that was an impossible dream for me. If it wasn’t for Pauline and La Esperanza I would never have got the chance to go to University.”
He began life as an ‘ayudante’ at the start of 2008 and has since worked in three schools, La Epifania, Elba Zamora, and La Prussia, making friends from all over the world. More recently, he has been the overall schools coordinator, dealing with all eight of our schools.
“I love working with children, helping with their homework or if they have any problems in or outside school,” he says. “I love my work with La Esperanza Granada, because I get a chance to help them.
“It is very difficult here, because not all the children who want to will get a chance to go to University. It hurts me that we cannot help them all. I enjoy helping others and love to work with young people. Around my community, I know all the children and some of them don’t have support from parents, so I can relate to them."
Lourdes del Socorro Garcia Diaz

The end of the current academic year marks a significant milestone for Nicaraguan student Lourdes Garcia Diaz as she joins Dimas Daniel Ulloa as one of the first two University graduates of our successful ‘ayudante’ programme.

Thanks to the generosity of her sponsors, and her commitment to voluntary work with La Esperanza throughout the past couple of years, Lourdes’ five years of study will come to a fruitful end when she qualifies as an architect in February.

Her success in completing the course has been a source of huge joy for Lourdes and her family from La Prusia as very few young people from her impoverished rural community ever get the chance to attend University.

Now determined to continue her studies through a post-graduate course, Lourdes says that the sponsorship programme made all the difference in getting her through five years of third level studies.

“It would have been very difficult for my parents to send me to University otherwise,” she says. “There are some University grants based on performance, but very few. Very few from my ‘barrio’ have made it to University, maybe three at a maximum, because we are very poor.

“I would like to keep studying now,” she says. “I have applied for a post-graduate course. After that, who knows? If I had a chance to work in Costa Rica, for example, I would take it because there are so few opportunities here in Nicaragua.”

She cannot believe her five years as a third level student are coming to an end and is hugely grateful to the sponsors who given her the chance to become an architect. And she sees the ‘ayudante’ programme as a great opportunity to give children something to aim for.

“I love working with the children in the schools, because they are such good fun,” she says. “They like to tell me that they want to be architects, too. There has been a lot of study and I don’t have much free time, but it has been worth it! My life will not be the same again. I’m going to be sad to say goodbye.”

Dimas Daniel Ulloa

This extremely quiet-spoken young man will show that dreams really can come true this month when Dimas Daniel Ulloa becomes the first La Esperanza Granada ‘ayudante’ to graduate from University.

As he is about to graduate as a civil engineer, along with fellow student Lourdes Garcia Diaz, Dimas is hugely grateful to the organization and the sponsors who gave him the opportunity to follow his dreams.

Since he became an ‘ayudante’, Dimas has brought over 500 children on dental visits and has become far more confident. It has been his chief role with the organization during a period in which he has also worked with the children in the Elba Zamora and San Ignacio schools.

Dimas hopes to secure work as an engineer now that he has finished University. Surprisingly perhaps, given that he lives in a historic colonial city, he is far more interested in modern buildings in places such as Matagalpa than the living history around him every day.

“I have sent my CV out to different companies and I would not mind working anywhere,” he says. “I am relieved that the five years of study are over and that I will have more time on my hands.”

“I love working with the children, the way they embrace you and make a big fuss when we come to the school,” he says. “I love organizing activities such as playing football.”

Because of him, over 500 poor children have visited the dentist over the past couple of years. And, thanks to his achievement in qualifying as an engineer, this young man from a poor family is seen as true role model in his community.

Nov 9, 2010

A magical connection

Patience is a virtue which our volunteers have to learn during their time with La Esperanza Granada, as things do not always run as smoothly or as swiftly in Nicaragua as they might expect back home. Which is why there was so much joy among volunteers, ayudantes, and students this week when we managed to set up our first Skype link between pupils in rural Granada and a school in the United States. Current volunteer CIARAN TIERNEY was on hand to join in the fun.

The value of acceptance was something I learned quickly from former volunteer Barbara Delahayes during my first couple of weeks with La Esperanza Granada when she refused to let frustrations and technological problems get her down.
On three occasions during my first couple of weeks with the organization, I accompanied Barbara and one or two of our ayudantes to the Elba Zamora school, where we had hoped to set up a Skype link with a school in St. Louis, Missouri.
The excitement among the children was palpable as we plugged in a computer from our office in their classroom, along with a modem from Claro, the Nicaraguan mobile phone company. Claro promised us that it would work, even in a rural school under the shadow of Volcan Mombachu. On a wet Tuesday morning, we managed to get the connection going, greeted the kids in America . . . and then the connection failed.
Try as we might, we could not get the internet to work. We moved to another class, we came back 24 hours later when the weather was much better, we even set up the computer outside in a yard next to the Granada-Rivas road. And all to no avail.
It was heartbreaking to see the disappointment on the faces as we sent the children back to their regular classes. But Barbara, a teacher from the US who volunteered with La Esperanza Granada for seven months last year, was determined to succeed.
She was back in Granada for a three week holiday and gave up a good chunk of her free time so that the link would succeed. I lost count of the amount of trips she made out to the school to try and get the link to succeed.
Unfortunately, we did not manage to get the link going from the Elba Zamora school. But with quiet determination, Barbara and our local staff vowed that it would work and we decided to try at another location. A trial attempt, without the children present, worked at the La Epifania school in late October.
We had to postpone the link by a week due to the 'Dia de Los Muertes' public holiday and, thankfully, the teacher in the Pierremont Elementary school in St. Louis, Shea Recker, had as much patience as Barbara!
Shea and her students never complained when we asked for more time, to put the link back when the connection failed, and so a group of us found ourselves heading out to La Epifania, armed with a computer, webcam, and mobile modem, on a gloriously sunny Tuesday morning.
The ayudantes had already established that there was no connection in the classrooms, so we put a bench in place and assembled some plastic chairs outside.
We had agreed on a start-up time of 10 a.m. and by the time we had linked up the computer to a power source, set up the camera, and got the children in place, it was drifting towards 10.25. I began to worry that the connection might fail again.
After exchanging a few emails with Shea the day before, we had agreed on a series of simple questions. Ayudante Vanessa, who is based at the school, wrote them out on a board. 'Cual es tu deporte favoirto?', 'Cual es tu comida favorita?', 'Cual es tu animal favorito?' or 'Donde vives?' among others.
Vanessa rehearsed the questions with the children, hoping to avoid 'stage fright', while Karla and I switched on the computer and got the Skype link going. We got a connection, but there was no sign of  Shea on the other side . . . as the children began to lose interest, and some even ran out into the playing field nearby, we wondered whether the whole thing would fail again.
And then, magically, the call came through from the USA and a little ripple of excitement went through the assembled children.
Suddenly, Shea and her students were greeting us, all the way from America. Some of the Nicaraguan children became nervous by the prospect of talking 'live' on a computer for the first time, while others were thrilled by the opportunity to exchange information with these young Americans.
Shea's youngsters, ten in total, have been studying Spanish for a while and they came to the computer, one-by-one, armed with three prepared questions. We laughed at the ones who liked pizza, or monkeys, and wondered whether their definition of 'football' was of the soccer or 'grid iron' variety.
Rabbits and monkeys were among the favourite animals on both sides of the Skype connection and the children were curious to find out how many brothers and sisters the young Americans had, or how far away they lived from school in St. Louis.
Thankfully, the connection only broke down twice, and we managed a good hour and 20 minutes on-line, as the children exchanged basic information about their families, hobbies, and favourite things with their new friends.
It took us from late September  to mid-November to get the link up and running, but it was worth it as soon as we saw the keen interest of the children.
Access to the Internet, something which so many children take for granted all over the world, is a rare treat in Nicaragua and it proved to be a hugely enjoyable morning for everyone involved.
Already, we are planning another link with the same school for next week.
It just goes to show that you should never give up hope, as Barbara showed me during my first week with La Esperanza Granada. Six weeks later, even if she wasn't with us in person any more, her quiet determination paid off.
And, for an hour and a half, children in the USA and Nicaragua were able to share a little of their lives. It made a very ordinary school day seem quite extraordinary after all.

Thanks to Shea, Barbara, and ayudantes Karla, Belkys, Vanessa, and Chilo for their wonderful patience in finally getting this project off the ground.

Nov 1, 2010

Meet two current volunteers!

Age is no barrier to friendship, as newly retired teacher Sandi Berry and school-leaver Lara Spohr have shown during two months of working together as volunteers with La Esperanza Granada. There might be a 40 year gap between them, but they found out that they had a lot in common during their time at the La Epifania school eight kilometres outside Granada. Fellow volunteer CIARAN TIERNEY caught up with them during Sandi's last week with the school, an emotional time as she said goodbye to her students and new friends. They reflect the rich diversity of our current batch of 35 volunteers.

One of them is facing the uncertainty of retirement and the other the unfamiliar world of life after school and yet they have both found fulfillment, and friendship, during the past few months as volunteers here in Nicaragua.
There might be an age difference of 40 years between them, but Sandi Berry and Lara Spohr have become firm friends over the past couple of months, thanks to their passion for education and helping less fortunate children. They have worked together as volunteers with La Esperanza Granada in a rural school.
For Sandi, from Canada, the desire to come to Nicaragua to help out less fortunate people came with the realization that this would be her first Fall not to return to school in Victoria, British Columbia. Having just turned 60, she arrived in early September, without her partner Bob and armed with only a limited grasp of Spanish, with just a little fear of the unknown.
Lara, from near Frankfurt in Germany, was also facing an uncertain future and had decided to take a year off before starting University in her home country. She found La Esperanza Granada through a German volunteer website and decided to come for six months, without having been to Latin America before.
Sandi and Lara started their volunteer programme at the La Epifania school, just six kilometers outside Granada, on the same day in early September. They travel to the school together by bus every day for one-on-one tutorials with the children and, as a result, have become great friends.
Despite the 40-year age gap, they found they have a lot in common. Sandi did not know what to do with her life in her first year of retirement, while Lara wanted to learn more about the world before starting to train as a special needs teacher next year.
There is a very easy-going banter between them when we meet for coffee in Granada and it is clear that both of them have found volunteering in Nicaragua to be a richly rewarding experience in their lives.
For both Sandi and Lara, a desire to get away from home, and to work with children, was paramount to their decision to start life with La Esperanza Granada. But I wanted to know what exactly brought them to Nicaragua and La Esperanza.
Sandi: This is my first year to be retired. I am always off work in the summer, but I was a little bit concerned about what it would be like for me in the Fall, when everyone else was going back to school and setting up their classes.
My partner and I were traveling here two summers ago. We were walking around Granada when we came across the La Esperanza Granada office. They had a sign up saying that they needed teachers and builders and we thought that was wonderful synchronicity, as Bob is a builder! I still had a year of work to go, but I went into the office and spoke to the staff and decided I would come over this year. Unfortunately, Bob was unable to give the time commitment, but he has joined me here for a holiday!
Lara: I was searching for an organization, in either South or Central America, which would allow me to work with children and improve my Spanish for six months. Then I found about 15 lines about La Esperanza Granada on the website of Youth Action for Peace (YAP) and decided it was the organization for me.
I wanted to learn Spanish, and I had really enjoyed working with disabled children as a volunteer in my home town in Germany. I had studied Spanish before, but at a very low level and I wanted to improve. Teaching disabled children is also what I want to do full-time in the long-term, when I go to College in October of next year.
La Esperanza Granada usually has between 30 and 40 volunteers here at any one time, mainly from Europe and North America. Their focus is on education at a basic level, helping out at eight rural schools. For Lara, the biggest surprise was the number of fellow Germans volunteering here at the same time. They make up the biggest nationality here right now and we even had an Oktoberfest in one of the volunteer houses!
 But, after meeting at the Monday ‘Orientation Day’, the two new recruits were sent to the same school. And they have worked together ever since. How has it been?
Lara: Well, I just wanted to do something I really liked and I did not just want to travel around during my gap year. I felt I wanted to learn something different, so I did not want to just go to Italy or Spain or somewhere like that. I didn’t think I would meet so many Germans here, but I really like the work with the children. La Esperanza demand a two month commitment and I’ve decided to stay for six months. That means that you get to know the children really well, you get to talk to them every day.
Sandi: During my first eight years as a teacher, I worked with children with special needs, so I found I had a lot in common with Lara right from the start. We became friends from working together with the children and from traveling to school together every day by bus. Plus, I hit her a lot!
Lara and Sandi travel to the La Epifania school by public bus each day and engage in individualized tutorials with a handful of children who have been identified as needing a little extra help. So how have they found the work?
Sandi: I didn’t expect it to be such hard work! I think I’ve found it tough due to the heat and humidity. Plus, I’m used to classes in Canada in which the children sit down and are quiet. I’m used to more cooperation from the children and to being in control.
Lara: I’m very happy that I am not just here for a few weeks, because I have got to know the children better. The children miss you when you are not there. If you miss one day because you are sick or something, they ask for you. It is sad to leave them and I am very happy I am staying so long.
After a few months of working with the children at La Epifania, would they recommend the experience of volunteering in Granada to others?
Sandi: I would recommend it, but with the caveat that you should have good Spanish. I have really wished that my Spanish was better. I would also not recommend it to a delicate person who might be easily disturbed. Both working and living conditions can be challenging, and volunteers have to be able to adapt to these situations, but the rewards far outweigh the hardships.
Lara: I didn’t really have expectations before I came over, of what the Nicaraguan school system would be like. What surprised me is how little the teachers here get paid. The local ‘ayudantes’, who are the link between us and the school, play a crucial role. If there is something wrong in the community, they will deal with it. Our ‘ayudante’, Vanessa, has been fantastic during my time here.
For Sandi, who has had four decades of experience as a teacher in Canada, it has been vitally important to respect the work of the Nicaraguan teachers and not to lecture them during her time at the school. She is well aware that she is a guest in their country and is keen to respect their work and culture. Foreign volunteers can often be surprised by how laid-back Nicaraguan schools are, with a lack of a competitive streak among the children.
Sandi: We cannot be openly critical of the local teachers and we do have respect their work. I have been trying to encourage one of the teachers to get the children to read more. A lot of the children want to read more and during my time here we have started a Book Club here at the school. Over 25 children have joined the club over the last few weeks, so it has been a great success.
And, I wondered, what has been their favourite thing about working with the Nicaraguan children in the school?
Sandi: I have got eight children who I work with all the time. For me, my faovurite thing here is the same thing that I enjoyed as a teacher at home. That is seeing the light that comes on in someone’s eyes, when you can tell that they are excited about learning something new. That’s the biggest satisfaction.
Lara: It can be so hard for us when the children don’t ‘get it’, but it is great that we have the time to give them personal support and attention. I have been here two months now. I have a student who was very shy at the beginning. Now she is getting better and better, at her mathematics and her reading. We play games, in which she wins a playing card if she gets the right answer. Some of my children come from really big families and they love the personal attention that I can give them. They are not always used to that.
Have there been frustrations? And what have they learned?
Sandi:  There have been some real ups and downs, and my limited grasp of Spanish has been frustrating. I sometimes wonder if the teachers or the ayudantes think we are going to come with some sort of magic pill. Of course it’s going to be different here to Canada or Germany, for example, and the teachers have bigger classes. But my teacher gave me a comprehensive sheet about each child, explaining their level of reading, and I felt lucky that I had been well prepared.
Lara: I think I have learned an awful lot more about accepting things, how to be ‘tranquilo’, and I have also learned to plan things more, such as art classes. Before, I always used to leave things until the last minute, but here I am planning classes days before.
And, overall, what have they made of their experience of volunteering in Nicaragua with La Esperanza Granada?
Sandi: I never did voluntary work like this before. I have lived in Cuba on my own for a good long spell and I have been to Spain and lived on my own, but my experience here has been so different because I’ve been a volunteer. It’s so much more pleasant to have good company built-in, because I am sharing a house with other volunteers and I am working with other volunteers each day.
Lara: It’s also been my first time to go to Central America on my own. Already, after two months here, I have made some really good friends. Nearly all the other volunteers seem to feel the same way as I do about things, and that’s really amazing! By volunteering with people from a whole lot of countries, you learn a lot about other people and other countries. And I have had a lot of time to think about myself and my life, while enjoying the experience of working with these lovely children.

Thanks to Lara and Sandi for agreeing to do this interview, which is also due to appear in the Nica Times. I hope it gives people some idea of the varied backgrounds of our volunteers. Sandi's huge teaching experience has been complimented by Lara's youthful enthusiasm at La Epifania and the contribution of older volunteers can be particularly welcome, even if the vast majority here tend to be in their 20s - Ciaran

Oct 26, 2010

Out and about with the "computer babes"

For the children in the rural communities outside Granada, the thought of getting a chance to work on a computer was merely a pipe dream until La Esperanza Granada sourced 22 mini-computers earlier this year. Now our crack team, Audrey and Karla, visit five schools in the region every week to give the children valuable educational game time. CIARAN TIERNEY joined them on Monday.

In terms of job satisfaction, it must be hard to beat that experienced by volunteer Audrey and ayudante Karla when they visit the schools around Granada every weekday.
For the children in five schools greet the two attractive young women as though they were two female versions of Santa Claus, because for many of them the arrival of the mini-computers is the highlight of the week.
Their arrival results in mass hysteria, as the youngsters eagerly await the chance to play electronic (but educational, mind you!) games which seem to be far more interesting than their routine classes in the La Epifania, Angela Morales, San Ignacio, Juan Diego or Elba Zamora schools. For the poor teachers, the visits of Karla and Audrey must be a hard act to follow!
Their working day begins in the La Esperanza Granada office in the heart of the city just after 9 a.m. when Karla and Audrey arrive to take the machines out of the big, secure cabinet where they have been left to recharge overnight.
One by one, the little computers are placed into containers which resemble plastic lunch boxes before being loaded into the La Esperanza van. Audrey, from France, has the task of driving the van to each of the schools every day, while Karla - a bright young graduate of one of the schools we work with - is on hand to coordinate everything with the staff in the schools.
Karla, who is studying Engineering Systems in University every Saturday, would not have been able to go to University but for the generosity of the La Esperanza sponsors. Identified as one of the brightest and best at her school, La Epifania, she works with La Esperanza five days a week and has her third level studies funded on the weekends.
Today we were going to her former school and, among the excited children, we meet her younger sister. Clearly, the Monday school visits have a special significance for Karla, as she returns every week to the place where she was educated herself before going on to College.
There was certainly no hint of the Monday morning blues among the three of us as we negotiated the streets of Granada in the glorious early morning sunshine, heading south on the road towards Rivas before Audrey took the tricky turn into the school.
In the yard, we could see some of our fellow volunteers, working one-on-one with some of the children with special needs. Sandi, from Canada, was allowing one girl to blow bubbles every time she got five questions right while young Lara, from Germany, was carrying her pupil on her back. I'm not sure exactly what Lara's class was about!
When we crossed the school grounds, I pitied the first grade teacher when her youngsters noted the arrival of the van, because excitement reached fever pitch and the class was quickly abandoned. The children were full of gratitude once they saw us and most of them were thrilled by the chance to try out the arithmetic and spelling games.
After the teacher called for silence, and their desks were ordered into something resembling straight lines, Karla and Audrey distributed the little machines among the youngsters before hitting the magic ''on'" buttons. The transformation was incredible!
Suddenly, a class which had been full of noise ten minutes earlier descended into complete silence as the youngsters began to concentrate on their educational games. Basic addition or subtraction became far more interesting when there were animated figures on the small screens.
It becomes clear that some of the youngsters have learning difficulties, as basic tasks such as adding two numbers became big problems. In Nicaragua, part of the culture in the schools is that the gifted students answer for everyone and, without any hint of competition among the pupils, some are inevitably left behind. When everyone copies an item from the blackboard, some simply don't learn. It's one of the realities our team of 30-plus volunteers learn to deal with on a daily basis during their time here.
But at least the cartoon characters who encourage them on the screen give the six and seven year olds far more of an incentive to learn.
Throughout the class, the youngsters would occasionally call out to Audrey or Karla for assistance, perhaps with adding two numbers or spelling a phrase. For 40 minutes the teacher had a break from her routine and the youngsters were simply thrilled.
Because the computers only have a short battery life, the girls have decided that each computer class should not last more than 40 minutes. So, for most of the children, the time passes too quickly and there is just a hint of disappointment when they are put back into the boxes.
For the "computer girls", the end of the first graders' class means a short walk across the school grounds to another classroom where about 15 second graders have been waiting expectantly for their arrival.
Expertly, Karla and Audrey convert the computers over to slightly more complicated writing games and Karla encourages the children by writing phrases on the blackboard.
For some children, these classes can be frustrating as they struggle to come to terms with the complexity of the games. Meanwhile, others simply shine.
All too soon, the plastic boxes are being packed again for our return to the city, and it was humbling to experience the genuine expressions of appreciation for our visit from the youngsters. They left their desks to shake our hands, hug us, and thank us.
I put it to Audrey that she has one of the best jobs in the world, even if it is unpaid. She said she loves the joy which the computers bring to the children in the schools, but sometimes misses the one-on-one interaction which most of our volunteers have with individual children in particular schools.
Unlike the vast majority of our volunteers, Audrey does not go to the same school every day to work with the same children.
But it can't be that bad when a whole generation of schoolchildren around Granada look up to you as a young, female, French version of Santa Claus!

Oct 15, 2010

A Big Day Out

The end of year tour might be second nature to primary school children in Europe and North America. But, here in Nicaragua, such treats were unheard of around Granada until La Esperanza Granada began to bring the children from half a dozen schools on annual excursions three years ago. CIARAN TIERNEY joined the second graders from the Angela Morales and Juan Diego schools for the first of this year's excursions, which will take place on 12 separate days.

My God . . . what excitement! As the big, old American styled bus pulled up outside the gates of the Angela Morales school, on the road between Granada and Rivas, the sense of anticipation in the air was palpable. As the 11 youngsters piled on board, even their teacher seemed to be excited by the prospect of a day out and a break from the schoolbooks.
Joining us were a group of young volunteers, from Peru, Germany, England, France, and the United States, reflecting the variety of nationalities who come to work with La Esperanza at any one time. It was clear that some of them already had special bonds with some of the children, having worked with them in the homework club for some time.
Then it was on to Juan Diego, or as close as the bus could get to the second school along the rural, pot holed road. This school, which has 350 students when full, is one of the biggest in the area and 32 more second graders, mostly seven year olds, were lined up on one side of the road when the bus arrived.
Piling in excitedly, sometimes three to a seat, they began to point out landmarks as we made our way back down into Granada. It was clear from the look of wonder on their faces that even going on a bus with their friends was a special treat for some of these children.
The bus driver, Pablo, brought us back into the city, where a small army of five of us had gathered at 8 a.m. in order to make a host of sandwiches for the children. We had been a few minutes late leaving the office due to the late show of one of the ayudantes, Belkys . . . but, hey, this is Nicaragua and nothing is every supposed to run exactly on time!
Belkys is a former student of one of the rural schools where La Esperanza (Granada Hope) have been helping out for the past eight years. She works with the organisation from Monday to Friday, goes to University at the weekends, and still has to find time to bring up her five month old daughter. She could be excused for being late (or a little tired) from time to time . . . even though she is usually the 'Joker in Chief' in the La Esperanza office!
Belkys is studying tourism, which is why she is set to guide all 12 school tours this year, including the fourth graders' tour of Granada city centre and the sixth graders' trip to Las Isletas, the beautiful collection of 365 volcanic islands on Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca).
Pablo drove us through one of the poorer barrios of Granada, a part of the city the tourists never see, and then the bus came to a halt almost in the middle of nowhere. We piled out one by one and the volunteers began dividing out the sandwiches (or bocadillos), juice drinks, potato crisps, and fruit which we had prepared for the tour.
It was at this stage that I became really impressed by the commitment and dedication of the ayudantes, who are seen as role models for the primary school children. Basically, these are gifted youngsters who would not be able to go to University but for the generous sponsorship of all the donors who provide funds to La Esperanza Granada throughout the year.
They led the youngsters through a forest trail, away from the road, before we found a path which was virtually hidden from the road. Slowly, we began the 30 minute ascent towards the summit of Lomas de Posintepe, a little-known hill under the shadow of Volcan Mombachu, the area's main landmark, which boasts stunning views of the city, lake, and islands.
Driven on by their youth and enthusiasm, some of the children bounded on ahead of their guides towards the hilltop, while some of us volunteers began to regret the bottles of Tona we had consumed in O'Shea's Irish bar during La Esperanza's weekly pub quiz the previous night. And the blistering sun did not help!
But, just when we wondered when the climb would end, the summit, which is dominated by a big white cross, loomed. And we spread out across the hill-top for three hours of relaxation, games, soaking in the incredible views, and the much anticipated picnic.
I was hugely impressed by Donald, an ayudante and former student of the local schools. He took charge of the children and insisted that not one piece of rubbish would be left behind on the hillside. The few transgressors he managed to catch were quickly summonsed to put their left-overs into a big bin-bag which we brought back down with us after the excursion.
It didn't take long for the curious children to start asking questions of the volunteers they were not familiar with, from the other schools, as we pointed out landmarks such as the Granada Cathedral, the pier for the Ometepe Ferry, and the Isletas down below us.
Soon informal friendships were being made all around the hill-top as we sat in the shade during what was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and then the excitement rose again when the sandwiches, treats, fruit and juices were produced and the children formed an orderly queue.

Some of the children wanted to know all about my country, Ireland, and others just wanted to practice counting from one to ten in English. Suddenly, I was glad I had gone back to school to improve my Spanish in Panama before I came to Granada to volunteer.
Thankfully, the trip back down from the hilltop proved to be a good deal easier than the climb, and we arrived back down to the rocky road, and crossed the impassable bridge at the bottom, to find that Pablo had returned to the meeting point just on time.
So, reasonably orderly, and a lot more tired than in the morning, we piled back into the big old bus for the journey home. Some of the volunteers hopped out of the bus when we got back to Granada, but the rest of us stayed on board to accompany the children back to their home villages.
All in all, a wonderful day out, and a reminder of the importance of the simpler things in life. These lovely Nicaraguan children reminded us foreigners of the beauty of a simple picnic, a hilltop with a good view, and the value of treasuring good friends. You don't always need to go to Disneyworld or a massive theme park in order to have a good time!

Oct 7, 2010

Getting started ....

Almost every Monday morning throughout the year, a number of new volunteers from all over the world (but mostly Europe and North America) are introduced to life as a volunteer with La Esperanza Granada. CIARAN TIERNEY joined this week's group of new volunteers for their Orientation Day before they were sent out to work with the children in the rural schools.

It might be rainy season in Central America, but it was a gorgeous sunny morning as I made my way down Calle La Calzada, Granada's main tourist hub, for the 9.30 a.m. orientation meeting at the La Esperanza Granada office on La Libertad.
Awaiting me were the organisation's four newest volunteers, who reflected the mix of ages and nationalities who make up the small army of between 30 and 40 enthusiasts who usually work for La Esperanza throughout the year.
Most volunteers are probably in their 20s, but there can be quite a few in their 50s and 60s at certain times of year, and in recent weeks I have been struck by how many retired teachers come down to Nicaragua to use their skills for a hugely worthy cause.
Of this week's newbies, I had already hooked up with Matt and Feliz (better known as Navi), a couple from New Mexico, USA, in their mid 20s, as they had moved into my shared volunteer house over the weekend. Also sitting expectantly in the office were a sprightly German lady in her 60s, Brigitte from Berlin; and Jessilyn from California, who had volunteering experience before in Argentina.
From talking to them, it soon became clear that all four had a great enthusiasm for working with young children and for improving their grasp of the Spanish language during their time in Granada.
Navi has experience as a special education teacher in Albequerqe, Matt has worked as a youth mentor, and with ''at risk'' youth, in the same city, while Jessilyn is a high school teacher. Brigitte, who is fluent in three languages, has volunteered with sporting organisations in the past but this is her first adventure in Central America.
All four intend to volunteer with La Esperanza for at least two months, while Matt and Navi have considered staying for up to six months once they get used to life in Granada. They will help with the summer camps after the end of the school year in November.
First off, we met "ayudante'' Karen, one of the local staff of La Esperanza Granada. Karen gave them a brief outline of the organisation's structures and aims (to provide education at a basic level in eight local schools) and then assigned each of the four of them to their schools.
There, they will work one-on-one with primary school children with particular needs, providing them with the attention teachers simply cannot provide in classes of up to 70 students in the villages outside Granada.
After the briefing, we met up with Mark Turner, an American retiree who has been with La Esperanza since 2002. We piled into his jeep for a visit to four of the eight schools in which La Esperanza provide much needed help every day throughout the school year.
A 20 minute drive through some scenic countryside, under the shadow of the picturesque Volcan Mombachu, brought us to Juan Diego, one of the biggest schools in the region, where La Esperanza have provided the funding for newly completed classrooms.
There, we could see some volunteers working away with the children, helping them with basic literature and counting skills on the grass outside. I told the new volunteers they were lucky, as the heavens had opened here during the day of my own 'orientation' and, given the state of the potholed secondary roads, many of the children never make it to the schools on the really wet days.
It was good to talk, en espanol, to some of the ''ayudantes", former pupils of the schools who, thanks to La Esperanza Granada and sponsors overseas, have been able to attend University at weekends. They work with the NGO from Monday to Friday and, thanks to their generous sponsors, are able to attend University in the city every Saturday.
Working with La Esperanza has given them wonderful experience and confidence, in terms of organisational skills, tour guiding, administration, and providing education as a much-needed back-up to the teachers.
Our tour took us to the Elba Zamora school, where the children rushed out of the classes to greet the new volunteers. A little bit of disorganised chaos for just a few minutes. Their enthusiasm was pretty impressive for a Monday morning!
Mark took us through a pretty 'dodgy' road to the San Ignacio school, deep in the countryside. All around the school, the poverty was palpable, as we wondered how the families living in tin huts manage during periods of heavy rainfall.
We timed our trip perfectly as we arrived just when La Esperanza's little two woman computer team were arriving with their collection of electronic video games.My God, what excitement! Apparently, it is the only time in the week in which there is total silence in any class in the school as volunteer Audrey (from France) and ayudante Karla, who is studying software engineering, distributed the 22 mini-computers which La Esperanza received thanks to generous donations in July 2010.
These children never get access to computers, and their joy at being able to use one for 40 minutes once a week was a revelation.
At each of the schools, the four volunteers were introduced to the ''ayudantes" and fellow volunteers who would be working with them over the coming weeks and months, with arrangements made for meeting up to travel out to the schools the following mornings.
Then we headed back to the office where another "ayudante", Donald, briefed the new arrivals further about their roles in the schools. He discussed travel arrangements each day, the homework clubs, security and safety, and how they would be expected to behave.
Afterwards, we met Belkys, who is probably the 'joker in the pack' among the 11 "ayudantes" with La Esperanza Granada. A young mother who is studying tourism, her role on Mondays is to provide the new volunteers with a briefing about Granada, during a short walking tour.
Even though all of the volunteers will be based in rural schools, she showed them where the weekly volunteer meetings are held (La Casa Blanca, on La Calzada), where they can change American dollars into cordobas, and where to catch the buses in the mornings for their journeys out to the schools.
Despite my promptings, me being an Irishman after all, she refused to show them how to find O'Shea's Irish Bar on the Calzada, where La Esperanza hold their hugely successful table quiz (a big social occasion for ex-pats and locals alike) every Wednesday night. But I pointed it out to them anyways...!

This week we have also uploaded a new two minute video in which American widow Bonnie Ditlevsen came to Granada with her two young sons in order to sponsor a child through secondary school. Bonnie and her sons visited the Elba Zamora school, where they met with Israel, who will be able to attend High School in Granada next year thanks to her generosity.
This is the link:

Sep 29, 2010

Hello and welcome

It is only a matter of going out to one of the eight schools in which La Esperanza Granada volunteers help out to discover what the organization means to the children who live in the rural countryside outside the Nicaraguan city.
The excitement in Elba Zamora this morning, when the volunteers arrived with 22 miniature computers, was palpable. The children welcomed the team with open arms and were thrilled to take their chance to use the computers, each getting a chance to play educational games for less than an hour.
The introduction of these new mini-computers, secured in July 2010, is just one of the innovations brought about by La Esperanza Granada, in a country in which educational resources are extremely limited.
None of the children, indeed none of their neighbours, has access to a computer during their normal daily lives. Which is why their arrival once a week is among the highlights of the school week in Elba Zamora.
La Esperanza have also helped to build new classes throughout the region, and recruited extra teachers in schools with the greatest need, since a group of travelers came together with the aim of  improving educational facilities around Granada in 2002.
From humble beginnings, La Esperanza Granada has grown into one of the most recognizable NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) based in the beautiful colonial city of Granada.
Above all, the aim is to allow volunteers to bond with the children, which is why most of those who work with La Esperanza (which means Granada Hope) are required to give a minimum commitment of two months. But some stay a lot longer!
Every day, a small army of between 25 and 40 volunteers from all over the world head out on early morning buses or bicycles to provide the children with one-on-one tuition, sporting fun, or a rare chance to work on a computer.
The volunteers, of all ages and a variety of nationalities, are assigned to different teams who liaise with each school. They provide specialised English language classes, assist with homework, and organising plus administering sports and arts activities. The emphasis is on fun, and giving the children a chance to meet enthusiastic people from all around the world.
Volunteers also bring the children for dental and eye examinations, working in partnership with the Nicaraguan Ministry for Education and a team of hard-working 'ayudantes', former pupils of the eight schools who have gone on to attend University, studying at the weekends and helping out in the schools every Monday to Friday.
Apart from the English language and computer teams, the volunteers tend to stay with the same school during their time in Granada ... allowing them time to bond with the youngsters, their teachers, and their fellow volunteers.
La Esperanza Granada, which is funded entirely through donations, aims to improve the quality of life of impoverished children through education and also provides the volunteers, who can be anything from 18 to 75 years of age, with richly rewarding experiences.
This week, there are 29 volunteers with the organization, and a recruitment drive is underway for more volunteers to help out with summer camps after the end of the Nicaraguan school year in November.
The hope is that La Esperanza can provide hope. Practically, thanks to the generous donations of sponsors, this means that we are currently able to support 88 Nicaraguan children in continuing their education at High School level. A further 11 have been able to go on to University, thanks to our help.
We have set up this blog to allow volunteers to share some of their experiences with La Esperanza Granada, and to provide friends and former volunteers with news of our activities.
We hope to provide an insight into the workings of a small, local organization which has allowed people from all over the world to experience wonderful insights into Nicaraguan culture and the country's beautiful people through time spent with the children in the schools.
Check out our website and stay tuned to this blog for updates of our activities and experiences in Granada.

Ciaran Tierney,
La Esperanza Granada Volunteer,
Sept. 2010