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