Category Archives: Volunteering

Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

Field Trippin’ To La Playa Gigante

La Playa Gigante How do you reward kids who have perfect attendance and good behavior?  You take them on an outing to the beach!  And so, on a Saturday morning about 8:00, a group of around forty of the students who attend Education Plus Nicaragua met near the school where a hired bus waited to begin the odyssey.Waiting for the all aboard  Among the students were approximately twenty adults: volunteers affiliated with the school, other enthusiastic supporters who’d tagged along and a few parents.  There were smiles galore and anticipatory laughter and, when the “Everyone, get on!”  call finally sounded the kids scrambled aboard eagerly.

We headed south towards the Costa Rican border for about an hour and a half with the kids chattering, laughing, gazing out the windows and singing songs they’d learned in English and other favorites.Singing "My Heart Will Go On"  Above the bus driver’s head was a sign entreating “Jehovah, guard our entrance and exit now and always” and another sign above the door reminded us that the safe passage of the bus and its passengers was in the hands of The Father.   Thus ensured of the Almighty’s protection, we turned off the paved highway onto a rutted, narrow dirt road and bumped up and down and around the hills for a bit until, finally… the Pacific Ocean sparkled ahead.La Playa Gigante

And, here’s the part that totally astounded us, the kids, even though they were full of energy and itching to run into the water as fast as they could, lined up and listened as the safety rules were explained.  And … then … they… ran!  racing as fast as they could go toward the water before them.La Playa GiganteLa Playa GiganteThe huge beach, situated in a half-moon bay, was almost deserted; dark brown sand stretching long and wide with a gentle slope into the shallow water.  And, unlike so many beaches along the Pacific, it was fairly calm with just enough waves to provide some excitement for kids who were novice swimmers.  Playing in the waterOnly a few of the kids had swim suits (what luxury!) and  beach dress was anything goes, from t-shirts and shorts to underwear – it didn’t matter who wore what because fun was the order of the day.  The kids jumped in the waves, laid in the surf, splashed and yelled.  They kicked the beach balls about in impromptu games, dug holes to fill with water and buried each other in the sand. Sand in places you don't want to think about!Eating watermelon right down to the rindLunch was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven – fabulous but, of course, the perfect crust was somewhat underappreciated by the ravenous kids and devoured in about three bites. Wedges of watermelon followed and then… a sprint to the water again for more fun!

At the end of the magical afternoon, filled with laughter and many hugs, the kids and adults boarded the bus for the return trip home with happy smiles and a lot of pink noses.  The bus bumped back down the dirt road accompanied by a couple of howler monkeys in the trees.  P1010045 (800x595)The kids talked animatedly about their day and, except for two roadside stops to get rid of several gallons of soda they’d drunk immediately before the return trip – boys to the left, girls to the right and no peeking! –  the trip back to Granada was uneventful – good since all the adults were either a fixin’ to or were already dozing!I love Nicaragua

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

VolunTOURISM Versus Volunteering

One of our goals as long-term travelers is to volunteer two or three months at a time while we are in a locale for a longer stay.  Before we left the US we researched various countries, organizations and types of volunteer positions available overseas.  This led us, a few months later, to the option of joining an international volunteer agency and paying for the volunteer experience.  Following that, we discovered the in-country approach: arrive at a destination and start making personal inquiries of the locals and expats to find out what opportunities are available.

Toothbrush dayWhat we discovered in the process of our volunteer experiences is that we unwittingly became part of the “voluntourism” boom.   Voluntourism, or volunteering as a tourist, is promoted as a way to have an authentic and meaningful cultural experience (a sort of working vacation, if you will) while providing needed benefits to local individuals or communities. It provides nervous travelers to third-world countries with a hand-holding experience: contacts and a safety net with new, built-in friends.  However, it’s also an unregulated business sector which attracts huge amounts of money, advertises appealing good-works projects and draws in hoards of people wanting to do their part to improve the world. And all of this is with little or no oversight. It is both a buyer’s and a seller’s market. Almost any volunteer assignment can be found on the internet for a price and the old Latin injunction, caveat emptor, should be kept in mind.

Teaching English in GuatamalaOur first volunteer experience in Antigua, Guatemala was secured through a New Zealand agency with whom we felt relatively comfortable due to their transparent accounting profile. The time volunteering in the Antonio Escobar y Castro School was a phenomenal experience. However, the costs proved to be another matter. School girls in AntiguaThe fees ostensibly covered the room-and-board for a home-stay (which proved to be much less than satisfactory), the materials needed for the work at the school (which proved to be woefully inadequate) and the administrative costs of the company (which appeared to be more than generously staffed and housed). In our Antigua sojourn we discovered that the typical volunteer was a younger, predominantly white client who spent two weeks or less in the assignment minus the time for three or four day week-end jaunts to tourist destinations arranged by the local agency.

Activity dayWhen we started looking for our second volunteer gig, having gained some insight from our Antigua adventure, (fool me once shame on you, ….) we spoke with a trusted friend who told us about Education Plus Nicaragua and supplied an email address.  We contacted them, discussed our qualifications and their needs, met the directors of the NGO and found out they’d be delighted to have certified English teachers.Coloring  We signed on for a three month commitment and we’ve approached this experience as we would any job paid or not; we come on time prepared to work and do our best to make sure the kids learn. ColoringWe’ve discovered that there are a myriad of NGO’s worthy of our personal support and we need not pay an intermediary to perform our due diligence or secure our lodging. The current organization is small but growing.  It hires – to the extent possible – local, Nicaraguan personnel and is supported by the immediate community. In those respects it has a decent chance of becoming self-sustaining with secured capital funding from abroad.

Does all of this mean that going through an agency to volunteer is a less than worthwhile endeavor? Not necessarily. It can be quite costly. It can be a non-productive or even counter-productive experience when there is a mismatch between the volunteer and the work. And there is some evidence to support the notion that “voluntourism” has become one more commodity in the western world’s list of conspicuous consumption items. But if there is a good fit between the individual and the project and the program is reputable then wonderful experiences can await. But as always, “Let the buyer beware.”Angel smiling

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Teaching English And Volunteering In Pantanal

It’s hot in Granada during the dry season and, according to the weather forecasters, it’s going to get even hotter next month. This February the temperature has averaged in the mid-to-upper eighties.  In the neighborhood where we volunteer for Education Plus Nicaragua, Pantanal, the temperature seems to be amplified by several degrees.  The corrugated tin roof that covers the classroom at the school seems to intensify the heat. When the breeze makes an unexpected appearance it picks up the fine grit from the bare dirt yards and unpaved roads and deposits a fresh layer that sifts across and down over everything.   

PantanalFew tourists visit Pantanal and taxi drivers are reluctant to drive us to the neighborhood because of the distance from city center, the unpaved roads in much of the barrio and the detours caused by sewer extension construction. Some days, if we don’t have our usual taxi driver, Nestor, we’ll  have to ask over and over “Barrio Pantanal, por favor?” before we receive an affirmative response; most simply give a brusque shake of the head as they continue on their way.

Edu-Plus, Yanni's houseWe arrive each morning about 11:30 at the home owned by Yanni and her family where the school is currently located.  We set up the low tables and chairs which serve double duty as dining tables for those children receiving lunch or dinner and desks for the seventy or so students in one of the four classes.  lunch timeServing lunch to the youngest of the students is one of our favorite times.  The little ones, of pre-school and kindergarten age, line up with their bowls, spoons and glasses that they bring from home and wait patiently.  For some, this might be their only meal for the day.  Only a few weeks ago, when they first enrolled in the school at the beginning of January, it was a madhouse with children shouting, pushing and shoving to be first in line. Now they wait. They know there will be food for all.

HandwashingFollowing hand washing, we take turns with the other volunteers alternating between pouring the reconstituted milk into their glasses and dishing up the day’s offerings which might includeWaiting for lunch rice, beans, soy patties, cabbage slaw salad or fried plantains.  The children begin the meal time with a prayer in Spanish, hands steepled together, occasionally peeking out at one another from under their brows.   Towards the end of the meal the kids will share the food they don’t want with others and there’s always a stray dog or two from the street winding their way under the tables hopefully waiting for the scraps.

lunch time at the schoolWhen lunch is over we team up with the newly hired Nicaraguan college student, Johanna, to teach English to three classes daily, every Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 3:00.  We divide the children into small groups to facilitate both learning and control.  The materials are a mishmash of donated educational items and home-made flash cards and posters. There is a portable white board at the front of the classroom area for the teacher and students to use. Each weekend we plan out ways to introduce new vocabulary, activities and songs to make the learning fun for all of us.

group workAt the end of the afternoon, we catch a taxi home, sometimes buoyed and smiling by a day that went as we had planned with games and learning proceeding as envisioned.  Other days we leave a little disheartened or frustrated by one or another of the classes that was disruptive or uncooperative.  We’re enervated by the cacophony that surrounds the little open school room in Pantanal; the children, the barking dogs and the booming loud music and Spanish talk radio from the house next door.  We return to our area of town where the temperature seems to be not so intense, the streets are paved and we can walk in our bare feet across the cool, clean tile floors of our apartment.

But when the taxi arrives the next morning at Yanni’s house, there will be a few early arrivals waiting with smiles and eager bright-eyed faces, arms outstretched for a hug and ready to help us haul out the tables and chairs for another day.

Jumping rope - Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

Jumping rope – Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

A Fiesta in Barrio Pantanal

Barrio Pantanal The New York Times reported that in Latin America the rate of population growth has dropped dramatically recently; Nicaragua is no exception. During the last two generations urbanization, increased access to health care and women’s empowerment has translated into smaller families. Barrio PantanalBut it was hard to reconcile that account with the reality of barrio Pantanal, a neighborhood south of Granada’s mercado district. It is not a place that taxis like to go because many of the streets are not paved but rather are dirt roads or foot paths. Jim, our host, explained that of the roughly 11,000 people in Pantanal, 7,000 are children 15 years and under. In this neighborhood, many of the residents are squatters. They live on vacant land which they use until they are evicted and required to move to the next make-shift shelter.Barrio Pantanal

Feeling a little at loose ends for Christmas day we made inquiries regarding volunteer opportunities and leaped at the chance to spend the afternoon in barrio Pantanal helping Education Plus Nicaragua with a fiesta and celebration for the children it serves and including the folks in the neighborhood.  We arrived at the festival location, a modest home with neatly swept concrete and dirt floors and two newly built latrines out back.  waiting for airThe family who lives in the home has generously allowed the NGO (non-governmental organization) to use it on weekdays until a permanent home for the school is found.  Education Plus provides a much-needed nutrition program to combat the malnutrition and hunger that many of the children experience by offering a free lunch and dinner to its students.  The non-profit organization believes that children who speak English have the best chance to escape a life of limited options and poverty so high priority is placed upon teaching English as well as after-school tutoring and help with homework.  The volunteers also work on teaching and improving socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns and playing cooperatively in organized recreation programs.Two Princesses

The yard and roadway in front of the home were filled with excited children.  A handful of adult volunteers of many nationalities were sprinkled throughout the crowd.  Antonio & MelissaThe children, many in their best party clothes, were eyeing two huge inflatable bounce houses, a table filled with soft drinks, popcorn and cotton candy machines and piñatas. The dozen or so volunteers, some already working with the program, were there to enjoy a Christmas fiesta along with the children of the neighborhood.

The five hours passed quickly for it was mostly chatting briefly with individual children, helping to keep games moving along, making sure every child had their turn at the various activities and doing whatever looked like needed to be done.  The children were having a great time; there was laughter and smiles galore. Sipping sodasMuch food was consumed. There was none of the usual fighting and bickering associated with almost three-hundred kids in close proximity to one another.  Looking to the east you could see where the pavement ended and the dirt track began. You knew that the poverty and hunger were waiting, as they always are. But for that Christmas celebration, for that sun dappled afternoon, it was fiesta time.Howdy hi!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

Volunteering in La Antigua

school assemblyThere are many opportunities to volunteer in Guatemala and we spent some time researching the multitudes of volunteer agencies, deciding which effort we wanted to support and what exactly we wanted to contribute. We chose IVHQ, an international New Zealand based agency which was recommended on several websites and had volunteer opportunities all over the world.Antonio Castro y Escobar Best friendsIVHQ in turn put us in touch with their affiliate in Antigua, Maximo Nivel, who arranged a homestay, Spanish lessons and a volunteer experience teaching English at a public school. Volunteer opportunities at Maximo Nivel in Antigua and nearby communities range from working in various orphanages, daycare centers, residences for the physically and mentally disabled to medical clinics, construction projects, after school tutoring programs and teaching at public and private schools.public school for girls The sign on the front of the all-girls public school building Earth Day assembly(well over one-hundred years old) reads “La Esquela National Para Ninas No.2, Antonio Castro y Escobar”. We volunteered for two months, March and April, teaching English to four classes Monday through Thursday (grades 3-6) from 7:45 – 12:30 and on Friday 7:45-10:30 for grades 1 & 2. In Guatemala, school is free through the sixth grade after which tuition is often required and it was sad to know that, for some of these girls, their educational opportunities would end and they’d be following the traditional life of early marriage with large families.class The task of teaching English for the first time to large classes was demanding but the girls made our meager efforts hugely rewarding. It was a pleasure to walk into the school, and each classroom, and be greeted by girls who were genuinely pleased that we were there to teach.Recess in the courtyard pretty little girlPassing by students in the hallway we’d be greeted with waves, occasional hugs and, “Good morning, teacher” or “Nice to meechoo”. In retrospect, volunteering was about a cross cultural exchange in which we may have learned much more than we taught. At the end of our volunteer assignment, the school Director invited us to go on a field trip with the girls to an amusement park, IRTRA, in the capital, Guatemala City. We gladly accepted and spent a memorable last day with “our “students.Amusement park at Guatemala City By Richard and Anita, June 2013