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

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