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: