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Mission Trip #5 – September 3, Morning impressions

Monday, September 3 – Morning impressions
I am up early, around 6am because I am still on NY time, 2 hours ahead. I slept fairly well although there was a lot of city noise – trucks, people still celebrating, and barking dogs. I looked out the window from my room to a site I couldn’t see in the darkness the night before. Brick and terra cotta tile buildings were built directly into the mountainside. The city is built on mountains which were evident by the streets we drove on yesterday but the view of homes and surrounding greenery on closely packed mountains was like something on a post card. It was one of the images that you take away with you knowing that you were in a very different land.

The view from my window

The view from my window

I took a quick shower, dressed and came downstairs to the courtyard area. The internet connection here is terrific and I was able to Skype with Vince for a while. I even walked around showing him some of the hotel although my attempts to show him the mountains failed due to the sunlight.

My mind has not stopped churning over the issues and challenges that the OHP is facing. Too much need and not enough money. While the correction of the problem will take some time – to get more sponsors in the program – I am starting to believe a redistribution of the funds we do have will be a short term solution. The other piece of the puzzle will be the 4th orphanage we visit today so I can gauge how best to proceed. I realize just how “American” I really am, ready to make lists, recalculate numbers, make plans and go forward. This is very typical of our lives in the States but I’ve learned it is not typical elsewhere, here in Nicaragua being a good example. Nica time is something I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to.

OHP Mission Trip #5, September 3, 2012

September 2, 2012 Evening

The Long Trip
Today we were in the car. And then we were in the car some more. We left NiCasa around 7:45 and arrived at the orphanage in San Fernando, Nueva Segovia around 11:30. A long trip but hopefully definitely worth it.

The drive up was wonderful – who knew that Nicaragua had such a beautiful side to it? As we gradually moved out of the urban Managua area, we entered countryside with rolling mountains that got bigger the farther north we went. We were headed straight up to the Honduras border, even Mauricio hadn’t been here before. Cows tethered to the side of the road and more use of horses and horse and carts for transportation. The highway itself is the Pan American highway that runs all of Central America (Chase and I were excited to say we traveled on it. My father traveled this once too but that’s another story). Mauricio and I kept up a running commentary guessing the name of the song or artist on the radio but after a while, we all became quieter as we took in the countryside. It was very impressive and I was so happy to be seeing it. Chase took a continual flow of pictures out the car window.

Beautiful view

Beautiful view

We passed through the city of Sebaco (Mauricio called it the “armpit” of Nicaragua for some unknown reason), then through Tipitaka (this was a song the girls used to sing in Girls Scouts, who knew it was a real place?) and then further north to Esteli and finally Ocatal. And the further north we went, the nicer the cities got. They were cleaner and the homes were nicer; less dogs on the street as well as less trash. Quite a difference from Managua and something everyone should see to gain a more complete perspective of what Nicaragua has to offer.
Northern Street Life

Street Life

In between the cities, the rural countryside was dotted with houses along the side of the highway but they were more substantial, built of bricks or wood with real roofs and always the omnipresent clothes on the line drying in the warm air. Gathering firewood is an ever needed requirement and we saw many people doing this. We saw people carrying wood on their heads, on motorcycles, on horses, on bikes and on their backs.
Every day life

Every day life

And did I mention the weather? It couldn’t have been more beautiful. The sky was an amazing blue with huge puffy white clouds against a backdrop of mountains that peaked and valleyed randomly. The temperature was somewhere in the 70’s with little humidity. Just before reaching Ocatal where we would turn off the highway to reach San Fernando and the orphanage, we stopped for a snack and bathroom break. Mauricio had been stalwartly driving for over 3 ½ hours and we all wanted to get out and stretch.

Pit Stop

Pit Stop

Once in the convenient store, the boys all loaded up on junk food – fried pork skin called Chimicangua or something like that, Pringles, soda, etc. Me? I had a yogurt. I felt like such a girl.
Junk food

Junk food

Hogar de San Fernando
After another 30 minutes of driving, we reached Hogar de San Fernando, the orphanage in Nueva Segovia. Sister Delia met us as we arrived as did the children. What we found was quite different than what I expected.

The house the orphanage is in was actually the home of Mother Theresa (not, not that one), but the nun who started their congregation – the Sisters of the Divine Face of the Resurrected Christ. Apparently, she had been born in this house and after the Sandinista revolution in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, she had started an orphanage for all of the children that had lost parents during the war. The buildings had been unused for over 18 years but at the end of last year, it had been re-opened as an orphanage. The first few months were spent getting it back into livable shape although it has a ways to go. The furniture and beds were haphazard but in much better shape than I expected.

Sister Delia was very pleasant, straightforward and had that same “can-do” approach that I had so admired in other nuns that I had met here. She seemed not deterred one bit by the fact that they didn’t have a properly working kitchen, that she had very little food to feed the children, no basic medical supplies and the fact that she was the only nun living with these 16 children, aged 6 months to 15 years old. While she had another woman who lived at the orphanage with her, she held an outside job and only helped when she was able to.

Kitchen at San Fernando

Kitchen at San Fernando

At one point, a chicken strolled in from outside and started pecking at the beads on my ankle bracelet.
Strolling chickens

Strolling chickens

I asked many questions about what she was trying to accomplish and what her challenges were. Then we asked if she had access to the internet and she shocked me by saying yes! What a welcome answer! But although it’s not at the facility itself, she said she is fully computer literate and can use the internet café across the street. I asked about communicating with her directly to exchange information about the children and the conditions and she was fully agreeable. This was a first and I was thrilled. She gave me her email address and I will contact her next week to exchange updated information on the children.

The Children
Unfortunately, there were only 5 children there as the others had gone to see family over the weekend. One was an adorable 6 month old boy named Osmani who we took turns holding. While we were talking with Sister Delia, she held him and gave him a bottle. The bottle contained only milk, without any supplements in it. And while I was dismayed at this, she said that he had already gained 7 pounds since coming to the orphanage 4 weeks ago. Since my little grandson Ian is 3 months and every pound is a milestone for any baby this size, I understood what the 7 pounds meant in terms of accomplishment.

Meeting Osmani

Meeting Osmani

She then took us on a tour of the facility which while it needs a lot of work, was relatively neat and clean. All the children’s bunk beds were made and orderly, with Sister Delia’s bed in the same room as the younger girls. The house itself is old and the floors are in disrepair with broken and missing bricks. The plumbing was also old but working and they did have electric. She said that they have a donor who is giving them a $100 a month that is helping to keep the lights and water on but they had very little food and were receiving little help in this regard. El Crucero sends a food shipment once a month – which dismayed me quite a bit. This nun was more or less on her own with 16 children to care for and little help.
Chase and Osmani

Chase and Osmani

Next on to photos of all the children and gift giving. Chase has become very adept at taking pictures of the children. He also loves to have them climb on him which occurred whenever we had any down time. For the photo shoot, Fabricio – who pitches in whenever I ask and is really a great help in addition to translating continually – made out the name cards for each child to hold while Chase took their picture.

Little Nayali

Little Nayali

Kevin was a surprise!

Kevin was a surprise!

Afterwards, we dispensed the presents we had brought (Mom, Alix and Becky – we did great job with all of our packaging!) – and the children all ended up with something. We left gifts for the remaining 11 children that were not there. Two of the children that were there were actually two that I knew from El Crucero. I recognized little Kevin as the nephew of Sr. M&M, one of the nuns I have such a special place in my heart for and also Xiomara, a young teenage girl. I don’t know why either was there but will ask Madre when I see her Monday when we return to El Crucero.

Sor Delia and the children at San Fernando

Sor Delia and the children at San Fernando

As we were leaving, I handed Sister Delia 3000 cordoba, about $120. This would help her buy food and basic medical supplies for the children. This is EXACTELY what the OHP is all about. So for those of you who sent monetary donations for me to bring on this trip, you can go to sleep tonight knowing that you provided food for a child who might not have had much to eat. That’s truly paying it forward and I hope it makes your heart glad.

Sister and I said our goodbyes after a long hug and I promised to do whatever we could to help. I must be cautious as my initial instinct is always to try to jump to the rescue but if the first steps of initial communication with Sister Delia go well, I think we may be able to really help her and the children.

In the car after driving away, I asked all three of the men what they thought. And while Mauricio was slightly hesitant, they all agreed that Sister Delia seemed to be truthful and forthright and definitely determined to gain a better life for the children.

After 3 more long hours in the car, we arrived in Matagalpa. This is a tourist city and was very busy with much going on. There were hundreds of people on the streets and traffic everywhere as we tried to make our way to the center of town. Apparently, we arrived on the day that the Matagalpa baseball team had defeated Managua in a big match up and it seemed that every resident was on the street waving a flag, beating a drum or shouting their victory to every car that passed. I’ll admit after a full day, I was a little overwhelmed– could they please stop honking those damn car horns??? – but the two guys, Chase and Fabricio, lit up like two Roman Candles and were chomping at the bit to get out of the car.

I had done some research before coming in anticipation of needing a hotel here in the city and after a little searching, we found the #1 rated hotel for the city – La Buena Onda. It is not fancy but it’s definitely cultural which is all part of the grand adventure. The young woman at the Front Desk, Scarlett, was delightful, friendly and spoke English. While I checked us in, the guys got the bags from the car, while Mauricio found a parking place.

Our Matagalpa hotel La Buena Onda - The Good Wave

Our Matagalpa hotel La Buena Onda – The Good Wave

The interior courtyard of the hotel was welcoming and very “Nicaraguan” complete with wooden tables and chairs on terra cotta tiled floors. There is even a resident rabbit – a big furry thing – that roams the first floor. My room is across the hall from the guys. No a/c but a floor fan will do, large windows covered in drapes and sounds of the still celebrating city coming through the closed windows.

Hotel bunny

Hotel bunny

At $30/night per room (yep, $30), FREE INTERNET and including a full breakfast, I felt it was a good price and the capstone to our Matagalpa adventure.

The whole fish and nothing but the fish

The whole fish and nothing but the fish

We had dinner at a seafood restaurant a block away and three of us ordered fried Roja (Red) something or other. Complete with eyes and head intact, it was delicious if a little more sociable than I’m used to. I don’t like to eat things that are still looking at me. The shrimp ceviche was different and delightful. And Chase ordered so much food that he actually couldn’t finish it all. Growing boy.

I am back in my room, glad to have the chance to post this tonight although pictures will have to wait until Chase can get them to me. I will try to do this asap as I know that the pictures are a big part of this blog. We will have breakfast around 7:30 then off for the drive to Juigalpa. After that, it’s back to El Crucero and then finally home base NiCasa. It will be another very long day. Tuesday we come home.

What a trip this has been. While it is not yet over, the last two days have been so busy, both of doing and thinking, that I am full to overflowing with thoughts. There is much I want to do and I feel a gnawing urgency to help in many directions. There is so much need and as I held and kissed and hugged the children whether at El Crucero or Caritas or San Fernando, my passion and determination for helping them ALL rises to the top and feels like it will explode right out of me. I must find more sponsors. I must find more people who can help me help them. Tomorrow is another day.

OHP Mission trip #5 – September 2, 2012

Sunday, September 02, 2012

I am actually writing this on Saturday night and plan to upload it to Sunday morning before we leave for Nueva Segovia. This is the orphanage that is way up north near the Honduras border. It is near Ocotal, if you want to Google it. 

We haven’t got internet where we are staying after also our only alternative is to go to the other location and get online there which I will do tomorrow.

Coyote James
We had a very, very full day Saturday. First we changed our American dollars to Nicaragua Cordoba’s with Coyote James. The amount of money he carries around the street in huge wads is fascinating as are the men with guns providing security.

Coyote James

Coyote James

La Chureca – The Dump
Our next stop was to visit La Chureca, the Managua dump. I wanted Chase to see it – you really have to see it to believe it – and I hadn’t been there in several years.

Life in the dump

Life in the dump

Ever present dump fires

Ever present dump fires

I had been told that the government had made improvements and moved some of the people out to live elsewhere but while the amount of people may have been less, those that were there were still living in the squalor and filth that I remember. Such an injustice to see human beings living like this. The children swarmed our car as Mauricio slowed down to avoid landmine size craters in the road that I was afraid would swallow our truck. I reached out to give the children candy and while I was smiling at them, my heart ached. Their faces were so dirty, most had no shoes and their eyes so serious. I saw two little girls sharing a pair of shoes. One had a shoe on her right; the other had a shoe on her left. Chase was quiet as we left and I was choked up and fighting back tears.

A chico in la Chureca

A chico in la Chureca

TipTop Lunch
We stopped for a quick lunch at Tip Top, the local fast food chicken place. Think Chick Filet in the U.S. Chase wants to try everything new and Fabricio our translator, who is the same age, is always providing suggestions for him that he enjoys.

Pinata Party!
Next we went to Caritas, the in-country organization that helps the HIV+ children that are now part of the OHP. We have begun hosting a monthly piñata party for the children’s birthdays and today’s party seemed to be a big success. While most of the children do not smile and have much-too-serious eyes, there is something about whacking a 3’ paper mache doll stuffed with candy that got them all to smiling. With great delight, they scrambled on the ground for any dropped candy. Chase saw that a little one couldn’t get in to the melee and so waded in himself, grabbed some candy and then brought it over to him and his sister who were both very grateful and full of smiles.

Helping Out

Helping Out

Friendly girl

Friendly girl

Chase and a friend

Chase and a friend



Then we gave out gifts to the children. Fabricio suggested that we lay everything I had brought out on a table and let the children come up one by one and select what they wanted. He kept asking if there would be enough and I assured him there would be. While there was a room full of kids – about 50 – and I had not counted what I brought, I had no doubt that we would be fine. And we were, everyone got something and most got more. It was definitely a loaves and fishes moment. And when Chase wasn’t taking pictures, he was right in there with the kids, giving out toys crouched down from his 6’4” height so he didn’t tower over them.

We met with the Director after the party and planned a strategy for increasing our help. My goal is to begin a monthly allowance program similar to what we are doing for the orphanages that will allow Caritas to help with food, basic medical and education. This is what the OHP is all about. We’ll need more sponsors. More to come.

Vanessa's cookies

Vanessa’s cookies

That morning, I had given Mauricio the gifts we brought for him which included Vanessa’s special home made cookies. I had to insist that he share them with Chase and Fabricio and they all agreed they were delicious and a perfect afternoon snack.

On to El Crucero
It was about 4:30 at this point but our day was not yet done. Next we made the 45 minute drive up the mountain to El Crucero. And although we knew that only a few of the children were there, it was still great to see them. Many of them remembered me and I remembered them and most of their names. It was really wonderful to be hugged by so many smiling faces. Chaos reigned as we gave out the gifts and Chase loved having the boys climb all over him. We met with Madre, and said we would return on Monday for an updated child report and to take pictures of the other children who would be back by then. One of them was my Allison who I did not see today. I did see 2 of my 3 girls sponsor children. Both Wendy Guadalupe who is Alix’s sponsor child and Orquidia Guadalupe who is Vanessa’s sponsor child. I realized that both girls share the nickname “Lupe.” They both really liked their gifts as did all of the others. I didn’t see Becky and Brian’s little Andrea, that will have to wait until Monday.

Sayda's hug

Sayda’s hug

It was a wild and crazy hour while all of this was going on and it is only now that I can start to absorb the feelings of seeing the children after over a year has passed. The boys Carlos and Kenneth are both taller. They were the first two children we saw and both remembered me and ran up for a hug. Next up was little Maria, Madre’s niece who was happy to hold onto my hand even though she didn’t know me that well and then it was Sayda, who ran to me and threw her arms around me. I asked if she was still planning to be a Nun and with her beatific smile said yes. Later I saw the rest – Sorayda with her serious eyes, Mileydis my shadow who was glued to my hip and helped me give out all the presents, Katherine Soza the very troubled young teen and her two sisters Wendy and Ashley. Not to forget adorable Joseph who is 4 now and grown so much in a year. Seeing them all was the best part…just the best part.

Joseph, Chase, Kenneth, Carlos

Joseph, Chase, Kenneth, Carlos

A Nicaraguan Dinner
We left to go to dinner to a great place that I had been to before where the servers wear traditional costume and the food is great and local. Me and my three guys rehashed the events of the day, shared a great meal together and the conversation was easy and friendly. It was a very satisfying dinner at the end of a very satisfying day. Before we left, Chase asked to have his picture taken with the two armed guards across the street.

Chase and the guards

Chase and the guards

I must say that Mauricio has been absolutely wonderful and accommodating; he keeps telling me I’m the boss and whatever I want is ok. I keep asking him if he could please teach my husband Vince this. And Fabricio is an excellent translator with a great sense of humor. He also has great compassion for helping young children here and has formed his own non-profit called Nicayuda which helps bring preschool education to 5 year olds. It’s on Facebook, check it out. There is much laughing going on when we are all in the truck where we have spent a great deal of time.

We leave early Sunday morning for Nueva Segovia, then to Matagalpa Sunday night. Hopefully, the hotel we will stay in will have internet but if not, I won’t be able to post again until Monday afternoon or evening. We have two very full days and will be covering many miles in the truck. There will be much to tell you about. Thanks for reading.

OHP Trip #5, September 1, 2012

September 1, Saturday 7am
Welcome to NiCasa
I’ve been up since 5am, 7am NY time. The sound of the roosters crowing and dogs barking letting me know I am in Nicaragua. After an uneventful visit through Customs, Mauricio picked us up at the airport, then drove us to the supermarket to pick up a few things; juice, water, cookies, bread and P&J. Mauricio looked the same as ever with his big grin that filled up his cheerful face. I gave him a big hug which he returned in kind.

We arrived!

We arrived!

While driving to NiCasa, the OHP compound where we are staying, we discussed our itinerary. Mauricio informed me that Madre was not going to be at El Crucero on Saturday morning as had been planned on; instead she would be at the University. This puts a serious cramp in our plans and this morning we will have to figure out how and what to do. Mauricio and Fabricio will be here at 8am.

We can’t log in to the internet yet – so sorry family! – but when Mauricio arrives, we’ll give Sr. Debbie a call and straighten it out. I’ll post before we leave for the day so Vince won’t think I’ve been abducted by aboriginal Indians. I’m not sure there are actually any in the country anyway …. 

I am sitting in the big room that is used for meals when the large mission trips come. I can hear the sound of loud cawing birds – I never did learn their names – the roosters – still/always – and trucks. I hear the traffic on the large Central Hgwy #2 that is just up the dirt road from here. This highway runs through Central America and I can see in my mind the right turn to Honduras and the left to Costa Rica, although both are many miles away. My imagination portrays it to me as dotted lines on a treasure map, with adventure in either direction.

Chase is still sleeping. But I know when he wakes, he will have the same big grin he had last night. He is excited and enthusiastic, the perfect traveling companion. He found a note in a drawer in his room that he thought was specially for him.

A sign for Chase

A sign for Chase

The agenda is in limbo
Today at 2pm, we will visit Caritas and Johanna, our contact there. A lovely woman I have met once or twice; I remember her soft eyes that seemed to radiate compassion. Among her other responsibilities on behalf of Caritas, she works with the 85 HIV+ children that are now part of the OHP program. Today, they have arranged for us to attend a piñata party held monthly to celebrate the birthdays of children born this month. This will be a wonderful event to attend and I know without a doubt, emotional. I have been told to expect about 50 children and their foster families. I’ll ask to Chase lots of pictures, although only from behind or the side of the children. The stigma of HIV is huge here and the children’s privacy is paramount.

It is this party, was added to our trip this past Wednesday that threw our original itinerary out the window as we were supposed to visit El Crucero on Saturday afternoon. And while I am grateful to have the opportunity to visit with these children and give out presents, I am anxious about what will actually occur during the next 3 days. I had made a new plan with Oscar, Mauricio’s brother who lives in NY (he is the MoH’s VP of Nicaraguan Operations) on Thursday who then relayed it to Mauricio. But after talking to Mauricio last night, I am not sure what will happen next.

Mauricio also told me that many of the children I expected to find at El Crucero will be at yet another location in Matagalpa (the coffee farm), for a commemorative service for Mother Theresa, whose death 15 years ago will be remembered, and so yet another wrinkle…. I feel it is so important to visit all of the orphanages, especially the two new ones, (I want to see ALL of the children!) but this plan is now in jeopardy.

I am trying slow down to Nica time – leave my NY time and sensibilities and constant rushing around behind me and just relax. Go with the flow. Each time these plan changes have happened in the past here, everything has all worked out and God has sent me where I needed to go. I think I’ll put this in His hands. It’s easier to remember that when you are down here for some reason. That’s another one of the gifts of this place.

….Later, 9:30am. All is resolved and we are more or less back on track. We will be leaving shortly for Caritas and the piñata party. I have re-distributed the many toys and school supplies that Chase and I brought down and have a suitcase FULL of gifts for the HIV children. I’m sure there will be enough to go around and then some. Afterwards, we will go to El Crucero to meet with Madre and the children. We may have to go back on Monday to see the children that are not going to be there today but with Mauricio, it seems all is possible.

Discussing changes to the itinerary

Discussing changes to the itinerary

The Day Begins
First this morning we will go see Mauricio’s coyote friend – the street money changer. Chase should get a kick out of that. Then we will go to La Chureca, the giant Managua dump where many families live. Sr. Debbie has told me that it has been reduced in size and scope and some families have been displaced. If they didn’t have any place to go before, where are they now? We should also drive past the Banana camps, the shelters located in downtown Managua where the poor banana pickers live. All things that Chase should see.

That’s if we can get this damn internet connected. With help from Bill Murray, and if you are reading this, then we have been successful. I’ll put some pictures up tonight, when we return.

OHP Trip 5 – August 31, 2012

August 31, 2012 – Friday

I’m on the plane now and will sync up in Atlanta where I meet Chase. Trip so far has been very uneventful although I’m not so far into it yet. My nephew Nick picked me up at home and brought me to Newark airport. He and Vince put my bags into Nick’s little BMW but I was afraid Nick would get a hernia from lifting the two 50 pounders! Once at the airport, I checked my bags right at curbside and the skycap pulled the big one out of the truck for us. It was well worth the $3 tip. I didn’t have to lift them yet and hopefully won’t have to! Oh-oh Chase……

Decadent lunch

Decadent lunch

After a decadent lunch of burger and fries (so I didn’t finish it all, ok??!) I went to my gate, made a few last minute phone calls, talked to my daughter Alixandria (since we talk at least once or twice a day, we both know we’ll be missing our fix over the next few days) and then was on the plane. And as soon we left the ground, I passed out like a dead person for 30 minutes. Where did that come from? I always sleep great on planes. Must be the background hummmmm….

I have been thinking a lot about how to improve the OHP. By that I mean how to improve the program so that it is more forward and future thinking. We don’t want to only provide funds just to help the children get through their childhood and teenage years. With at least 10 – 12 girls that are already in their mid to late teens, the time is now more than ever to find out how we can get them the training and educational programs that will carry them into a self-sustained and effective adulthood. They MUST learn what their capabilities and potential are. Now how do we do that? How do I work within the cultural boundaries and very real limitations of time and distance to get them thinking bigger, reaching higher? Not sure yet, but I’m thinking……

4 days to go for trip #5

So my suitcases are more or less packed, and some how, all 63 gifts that we have packaged up individually for every one of the children at the four orphanages fit into two suitcases. Ok, so they are big suitcases. I will look forward to giving everything away and bringing them home empty.

Chase has the job of bringing down all of the school supplies and personal items that were donated. I had to mail two boxes of them to Chase in West Virginia where he is back to college at WVU, my husband Vince’s alma matter. We will get these donations down there! Thanks to all who sent them. And big thanks to the folks who donated funds for use while there – all total, we received over $600. It will be put to good use.

And so with 4 days to go, I’m finalizing the agenda, looking at pictures of the children and looking forward to seeing them in person. I have high hopes for this trip. Your prayers are always welcome, we can always use the extra help.

Returning to Nicaragua 2012

I will be returning to Nicaragua on August 31 – September 4. It will be a short but packed trip. With two travel days on either end, we only have 3 days to accomplish everything I want to do.

I will be traveling with our friend Chase Vasale. He will be helping me with photos and video of the children, part time translator and full time child entertainer. The little boys will LOVE climbing on him.

We have added two new orphanages to the OHP program. These are two small orphanages that are part of the same organization as the two current ones – El Crucero and Juan Pablo. I am anxious to meet the new children and the nuns at these facilities. I will also be able to see for myself how many children are at each – getting current information is still very slow and painful – and also assess the facilities themselves to see how we can help.

I will be blogging regularly while there, at least while I can. There will be times where we will not be within internet range. The two orphanages are way out in the country, far from Managua, the capital. Chase and I are looking forward to the adventure. Nicaragua, for all it’s sadness and poverty, is a beautiful country full of lush green jungle and people who live a much, much simpler life than I. I am looking forward to meeting them along the way.

Stay tuned….

Mission #4 – July 31, 2011

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The next morning was Sunday and mass at 7am. I had not been to a Roman Catholic mass in a long time. As I have said, the chapel is truly beautiful and I was looking forward to attending despite my own beliefs about the religion. All of the children were in attendance as were the Nuns, Mariel, Elena and I. The beautiful part of it was you could tell that the children wanted to be there. They seemed to find a sense of tranquility and safety here as was evident by their participation. It was a real treat when one of the Nuns began to play the guitar, Madre played the tambourine, and everyone began to sing. The little boys kept time by banging the pews on beat with the music, using them as an impromptu drum. I smiled at Carlito while he was banging away and he returned huge grin. Although I couldn’t follow the words, the mass was similar to my own Episcopal services so I didn’t feel out of sync. And while I didn’t understand the priest’s sermon in Spanish, when everyone began laughing at something he said, it was evident that he had a sense of humor. This was refreshing and I was glad to see that religion need not be “mucho serioso” all the time here.

After mass and a breakfast of scrambled eggs (yes, real scrambled eggs made by Sor M&M!) we left for La Finca, taking Allison with us. The drive was pleasant and I saw different areas of Nicaragua that I had not seen or known before. We drove through a city on the way, Jinotepe I think, and stopped briefly at a large church there. Madre spoke to someone and then hopped back in the truck. As we moved out of the city and back into the country, closer to the farm, we stopped to pick up three more nuns. We were already packed into the truck so two of the nuns sat on Madre in the front seat and the other squeezed in with the 4 of us in the back. Apparently these were the same nuns that lived at La Finca and they had walked into town for Sunday mass. They were easily 2 miles away from church when we found them on their return walk with another 1 mile to go; can you imagine a 6 mile trip to attend mass? That’s impressive!

Allison & me

The main farm building was not what I expected. It was large, open and spacious. And while it was not new, it did not seem to be in the same state of disrepair so evident at el Crucero. The nuns living area in the center of the building was pristine and the surrounding areas had terracotta floor tiles swept clean and large windows.

La Finca building

Allison had recognized three nuns and went happily off with them. Madre then took Mariel, Elena and I out for a tour. What I saw brought a huge smile to my face. This was a working farm! There were many types of produce and fruit being grown in orderly and well tended gardens. There were hundreds of tomatoes plants staked with strong branches and string, squash, peppers, rows and rows of red beans, watermelon, pumpkin, corn, and guava, mango, orange, mandarin and spice trees. And a few fruits I’d never even heard of! I was amazed and told Madre so.

Hundreds of tomato plants

She said that there biggest problem was not enough manpower to harvest and in the past, they had local workers do this for a 50/50 split of the produce. Her new plan was to hire a local family that they knew that would live and work at the farm, tend it and harvest it Then the Nuns would sell the produce at local markets and supermarkets. With this much produce; this would surely reap good profits. This woman was a dynamic business woman as well! I told her this and she laughed and hugged me.

At one point, Madre stood holding a shovel that consisted of a strong tree branch and a shovel head tied on with twine in one hand and talking on her cell phone on the other. The incongruousness of this made me laugh out loud.

Madre and shovel at La Finca

We worked our way back to the house, stopping to see what was left of the animals that the boys hadn’t sold out from under them. A herd of something that looked like a cross between a sheep and a goat ran by and there were also a bunch of chickens walking about eating what they found on the ground.
Once inside the house, the Nuns served us a refreshing cold drink (they had a working refrigerator) made of juice from one of the nameless Nicaraguan fruits on the farm. This was the same small yellow fruit that Madre had asked me to take a bite out of while we were walking. I did so and although I didn’t eat it, I didn’t mind the taste. The fruit drink was very good.

Mariel, Madre and mangos

Mariel and Elena went off to collect guava and mangos to bring back with them. I took this opportunity to take a walk by myself back up in to the fields. As I walked, I discovered Allison with one of the Nuns and our driver, trying to get some small fruit down from a large tree. After throwing sticks at the fruit, the driver climbed into the tree and began shaking the branches. As the fruits fell, Allison squealed with delight as she ran around helping the Sister to pick them up and put them in the bucket. I left her happily helping.

Allison collecting fruit

Farther up I encountered a pathway created by rain runoff with an army of ants marching up, each one holding a small piece of a leaf. There were thousands of them going by, oblivious to me or anything else. They were so industrious and I stopped to watch.

Marching ants

The tranquility of this place had seeped in and I felt a peace that I hadn’t known in a while. The sky was a beautiful blue, large white clouds and a comfortable temperature provided a different picture of Nicaragua. There was so much potential here; and it seemed that Madre was well on her way to reaping the benefits that would help them all. I let the peace of the place and the knowledge that good things were happening restore me.

Chapel at La Finca

Spending more time than I realized, I returned to find everyone waiting for me. We said “adios” to the 3 Sisters and piled back into the truck. After about 30 minutes, we arrived at the coffee farm in Masatepe. This was an added bonus as we didn’t know we would be traveling here as well. Madre had some business to take care of here but before she did so, she gave us a tour.

This facility is where the Novices come to study to be a nun. It is also a retreat center used by visitors who pay to do so, a coffee bean farm, and the local church. It was clearly self-sustaining. The retreat area was lovely with plants purposely planted for beauty and appeal, a gazebo to enjoy the gardens and immaculately tiled floors on the walkways. There were numerous buildings including a large chapel/church that was beautifully maintained as all chapels in Nica seemed to be.

Retreat Gardens

Madre left us to walk around, while Allison was again happy to play with people that she knew. Two of the young woman that had been at El Crucero and at Juan Pablo were there, Olga and Iveth, and she was happy to accompany them. Apparently, the nuns, the children and young adults all moved between facilities frequently.

Mariel, Elena and I walked through the coffee bean trees. I found it fascinating as I had never seen coffee growing before and the small green beans, not yet ready for harvest, covered every tree. The plants were strong and healthy-looking and well tended. I asked Madre later on about selling coffee which I know she planned to do. I also asked if she would have decaf available since this was not easy to find and she said yes. She explained that her brother had a coffee farm and he had given her guidance on what was needed. I know we will be able to help her sell this when it is harvested.

Coffee beans

We were served a lovely lunch of chicken, rice, cabbage slaw and plantains. After a while, Madre came to collect us and we started our return trip to El Crucero. Once there, Madre told us the driver would bring me back to the MoH compound and would also drop off Mariel and Elena. We went to get our bags and I began to say goodbye to the children. I didn’t like this part at all.

Unfortunately or fortunately, there weren’t many of them around but a few of the ever present little boys were. Kenneth, a serious little boy with pretty eyes and a shy smile, came up and put his arm around my waist and demanded to know when I would return. The tears I was trying to hold back started to come anyway and I choked out a “no se” as I really didn’t know when I would be returning. He wasn’t happy with that answer and started to press me further. “Enero?” January? “Febrero?” February? Again I told him I didn’t know as my mind reeled with chaos. When could I return? I just wasn’t sure but I didn’t like to think about not seeing all of them for a long period of time. Of course, I couldn’t convey any of this to him so I smiled down at him, squeezed him hard and kissed his forehead.


Sor M&M had been busy making cards with the children to give to their sponsors. I had given her a list matching each child up with their sponsors. In a few cases, due to attrition and non-renewals of sponsorships this year, there were some children without sponsors listed. I intended to re-shuffle sponsorship assignments when I returned home as we now had a number of new children to add to the program, but in the meantime, Carlito didn’t have a sponsor next to his name. Sor M&M questioned me about this and when I started to say, I would be assigning a new sponsor, I stopped and looked at Carlito’s hopeful little face. When I saw what began to be a crestfallen disappointment, I knew I needed to come up with a better answer. Luckily, Mariel solved the problem by volunteering that her mother Rita planned to sponsor a child and the issue was resolved. Carlito was very happy to know that his Madrina’s name was Rita.

Madre had suggested that I not say goodbye to Allison as this would most likely upset her. Not so much because I was leaving but because she wouldn’t be. I understood this of course but was disappointed not to be able to give her a kiss and hug until next time.

The truck was waiting and the three of us began to walk over to the main house to say goodbye to Madre. Sor M&M was going to follow shortly as she was still working on the cards. She seems to enjoy making them and was painstakingly cutting out flowers when I left her.

Madre was waiting by the door but she was not going to make the ride with us as it would only be a waste of what was left of the afternoon. I was not looking forward to saying goodbye to her either. As we hugged each other, Elena translated for me as I told her that I was so grateful to have been able to stay with her and so happy to see all of the progress that she had made. I promised that I would continue to try to help as much as we could. She then surprised me and said “none of this would have possible without my help”. Now, I know this is absolutely not true as she has been a whirlwind of progress and determination since February however, I was touched that she felt I had helped. I was full on crying when we hugged again.

Sor M&M arrived with the promised cards and I said another difficult goodbye. It is very possible that she will not be at El Crucero when I return next year and I may never see her again. This reality was in the back of my mind and I hugged her and the tears that had stopped, started up again. She smiled her beatific smile at me and we hugged one last time and I jumped in the truck. I will trust to God as to where our paths will lead us but she will be one of those people that I will never forget.

I said goodbye to Mariel when we dropped her off; she too will not be here when I return although I am sure we can keep in touch. I thanked her for all the good she has done the children; it has been a real blessing to them. Elena rode with me to the compound so she could instruct the driver and I said goodbye and thank you to her as well as I got out.

Once in the compound, a few people asked about my latest visit and I was happy to tell them. My agenda on these trips is such that I operate outside of the norm and this is puzzling to some people. I appreciated the opportunity to explain what I do and why I do it and especially what my goals are for the children.

After a very welcome shower, I sorted out my packing as I would be leaving with Sr. Debbie for the airport early the next morning. Later that evening, I sat with the group at our nightly meeting and my mind drifted to everything I had experienced on this trip. I was feeling much better than I had anticipated. Originally, I had been anxious about coming as I had begun to feel that we were making little progress. But now I felt that progress was indeed being made after all. (Vince had said just this to me before I left, I should have listened to him.) Most of the progress was due to Madre’s efforts but in a small way, I hope that we have helped also. This re-energized me for the work I would do when I returned home.

And I was ready to return home. The next morning I was packed and ready by 7am and we left at 8. I rode in the back of the truck (love that!) and enjoyed the sunshine and breeze while having some alone time to say goodbye to Nicaragua for a while. Hasta luego! I took a cab from the Caritas building where Sr. Debbie had her next meeting so that I would arrive at the airport with enough time.

Once at the airport and through security, I sat at the gate for a few hours which I didn’t mind at all since they had free wireless – who knew? I was even able to Skype with Vince for a little bit. I boarded my plane to Houston and without any complications arrived in Newark at 10:30pm later that evening. I was very happy to hug my husband who was waiting for me. And one of the first things I asked him was – will you come back to Nicaragua with me the next time I go?

Me and a little one

Mission #4 – July 30, 2011

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Friday morning and we are off to build home shelters. I had done this on my first mission trip with Vanessa in February 2010 but didn’t think I would get to participate this time. We all bounced along in the back of the pick up truck; the Mission volunteers and the family and friends of the people that would get a new home shelter that day. I love riding in the back of the truck; it’s not exactly something you have the opportunity to do back in the States. The blowing wind cooled things off for a little while at least.

Riding in the back of the truck

We arrived at the first home shelter site and hiked up the hill. We met the young mother who was to receive the home shelter and was there to help along with her two children. Right next to where the new foundation of concrete blocks had been set was the structure they were all living in now. I took a family “before” picture of their current shelter with it’s rusted aluminum sheet walls, plastic bags and bits and pieces of wood holding it together and would later take another picture of them in front of their new home.


And after (with Colleen, home shelter sponsor)

The mother and her young son were helping the others build while we did a lot of watching. This felt very uncomfortable however; I understood that the reality is, most of us would just be in the way. At least I know I would. I was happy to help carry things around but I know from past experience that banging the hell out of those nails still doesn’t send them into that Nicaraguan wood! It is incredibly hard and dense. So I kept myself busy by looking for any children that might be nearby.

In a shelter next door, there was a young boy, about 2, playing in the dirt. I went over to him and knelt down to say hello. He had one of the dirtiest little faces I have ever seen; literally covered in dirt as was the rest of him. He had a wary look in his eyes so I smiled and asked if I could take his picture. When I showed it to him afterwards; he broke into a fit of giggles that surprised me and made me laugh as well. He thought the picture of himself was just hysterical and I was pleased that this small thing could make him so happy.

Sweet dirty little boy

His laughs brought other children over and before I knew it, I was snapping one picture after another, just to make them all laugh. I might not be helping too much with the home shelter but at least I had done something that made these little people happy for a time.

Happy children

Diana, our 13 year old translator was a real treat. I had met her at the compound and her English was so good, that I actually asked if she was an American. There wasn’t a trace of an accent. Since I knew we would be without a translator on our home shelter expedition, I had asked if she might be allowed to come and she was thrilled with the opportunity. During a lull in the action, Diana and I talked about her dreams for the future. She shared some things about her family, in particular information about her mother which led us into a conversation about the types of choices Diana would make for her future. I reminded her that whatever choice she did make, it was hers to make. She had the right to say “no” and to choose when she wanted to have children. I encouraged her to work hard in school and to go on to university. But in reality, she needed little encouragement from me as she already knew that she wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. Although she wanted to visit the U.S., she planned to return home to Nicaragua to practice medicine with her people. I felt very heartened and hopeful that this young woman was an example of the next generation that will bring positive change to her country.

After the second home shelter was completed, we rode back in the bed of the truck again but this time it started to rain and rain hard. Within a few minutes, we were all soaked through, our hair and faces streaming with water. I thought it was all pretty cool since the rain washed off the sweat and dust and cooled us off. Since we had a one-shower per day limit at the compound, I felt getting drenched by the rain as a good thing.

Diana had done such a fantastic job translating, that I called Sr. Debbie to ask if she might come with us to Juan Pablo later that afternoon. I knew that I would be talking with Sor (Sister) Andrea and the language barrier would be a real problem. Diane was delighted when we received word that this special request had been approved. I suggested that she continue to offer her services to the MoH, especially at the medical clinic and she said she would be happy to.

Once back, I dried off and re-grouped since I had to pack to stay overnight at El Crucero once again. I needed only to bring a few things plus my notebook and folders but it always takes a while to make sure I have it all. So I was late for lunch – again. Bev, a true lunch-lady of the kindest sort allowed me to get some food. I appreciated her help AND that she didn’t scold me. I was pretty tired of being scolded about one rule or another. I seemed to be continually breaking them despite my efforts at compliance. There are A LOT of rules on mission and a lot of Type “A” personalities that feel the need to enforce them.

About 6 of us drove to Juan Pablo with Chico the driver in one of the rented vans. When we arrived, Sor Andrea let us in through the iron barred gate that was a necessary security protection. She seemed to remember me and greeted me cordially. Sor Andrea is not the warmest of the sisters I have met on mission but she has an incredibly hard job that I cannot imagine doing. She is responsible for the children 24/7 in a hot, old, small building populated with up to 30 children all under 7. There are two other nuns who help plus some of the older girls from El Crucero. Still, it is unimaginable to think of doing this – what goes through her mind when she wakes in the morning? She is kind to the children though and does a wonderful job of teaching them so by the time they move up to El Crucero for school, many of them are already reading at 5 years old.

Sor Andrea

Juan Pablo was quieter than I had ever seen it. Since it was Saturday, the day care children that are dropped off during the week were not there so only the “internals”, the children that lived there permanently were there, save one little boy dropped off for the day.

I immediately looked for Allison and found her sitting in a small chair. She was unusually quiet and a little shy when I greeted her and although I think she knew who I was, she didn’t talk to or engage with me. I left her alone so that she might get used to all of us being there and Diana and I went off to give out some of the beautiful handmade dresses that Bev had given me before we left. Then I wanted to talk to Sor Andrea about the children and the status at Juan Pablo. The other ladies that had come with me were all enthusiastic about playing with the children and before I knew it, they were all mostly on the floor keeping the children occupied. I was happy to see this as there wasn’t much going on before we got there so I presume that this play time would be the highlight of their day.

Playing on the floor

When a street vendor went by selling ice cream, I ran out and bought ice pops for everyone, children, the missioners and the nuns. We all enjoyed the cool treat although the littlest ones needed to be washed from head to toe when they were finished as they were covered in sticky, melted ice pops!

I had brought a large floor puzzle that kept them everyone busy and when I was done talking to Sor Andrea, I began taking pictures of the children. Orquidia Guadalupe or Lupe, my daughter Vanessa’s sponsor child looked so pretty in her new dress, as did Rosita, the little fireball and Allison who had gotten involved in the activities. Also there was Josue, Rosita’s little brother who had gotten so big since I last saw him and Jose, a new baby that was only 5 weeks old. His 17 year old mother was also staying at Juan Pablo.

3 new dresses

I asked if I could take a picture of the two of them together and although she said yes, she refused to look at the camera. When I showed her the picture, she smiled but I saw the tear tracks that ran down her face. My heart broke as I realized that she might be embarrassed to have her picture taken and I reached over to stroke her face and tried to tell her it would be all right. I had known in advance that she was there and knew also that her story was difficult. I wanted to do something to comfort her though and with Diana’s help talked to her a little about her plans for the future. I encouraged her to go back to school and to finish her studies. She didn’t seem to think this was necessary but I persisted until she smiled in what I hoped might be agreement.

Aracelli and baby Jose

I made a tour of the facility, looking at the kitchen and living areas. At this point, I had been there enough times that I felt I could go into these private areas; I was looking for improvement and areas that needed help. Unfortunately, I was not pleased to find that there were cockroaches in the kitchen and the refrigerator was not full of food.

Madre Griselda was scheduled to meet me at Juan Pablo at 4pm to pick up me and Allison but she surprised me and arrived early. The others from Mission left with Chico and Madre and I began our attempt to have Allison come with us. But she seemed to sense that something was going on, because she had become sullen and quiet and was sitting in her chair quietly clutching her little bag. Madre asked her if she wanted to come and then the drama began.

She ran to the back room and into her bed crying and wailing that she didn’t want to go; she wanted to go home to her mama. I let Madre talk to her as I didn’t think I would be much help; it was the Nuns she knew the best. Madre was so patient and gentle with her; not once did I see her get angry at what was effectively a temper tantrum, no matter how understandable. This attitude of kindness and patience is something I have seen over and over again and it amazes me. I’m a mother an know how challenging and trying children can be; these women never seem to lose their patience. Incredible.

In the meantime, I asked Sor Andrea if I could bring Allison’s things – clothes or toys – with us. She said she had nothing to bring. The impact of this would hit me later, after the drama had subsided, as I realized that this little girl did not own a thing. No toys, no clothes, not anything that did not belong to the communal whole. The unfairness of this infuriated me although I realized that it was a consequence of institutional living but I didn’t have to like it.

Allison was not calming down so drastic measures were called for. Arelyis, the mother of Rosita and Josue had to physically pick her up and put her into the truck, while Allison was screaming all the while. Madre had also decided to bring Rosita with us in an effort to placate Allison but also because Rosita would be moving back up to El Crucero in the near future as well. She, Allison and Lupe were all the same age and would begin school soon.

Once in the truck, Allison continued to whimper although the screaming and the tears had stopped. It is very difficult to communicate with an upset child when you don’t speak their language very well so since I couldn’t say anything that would help, I started to sing quietly instead. I sang all of the verses of Mary had a Little Lamb three times and the Mockingbird song (you know the one, Mamma’s gonna’ buy you a mockingbird…). And when I ran out of words, I made them up. I don’t really know if it helped but it didn’t hurt. We played with the few random toys that we had brought with us and eventually, both girls started smiling.

Smiles at last

By the time we left the city and started driving up the mountain, Allison and Rosita were both eagerly looking at the window at the scenery. While Rosita had been back and forth quite a few times, Allison had not made the trip as frequently so it was exciting for her; I could see it in her face. This made me happy since the whole point of making this change was to give her new experiences.

Once we arrived at El Crucero, Madre went about her business and I went with the 2 little girls to the dormitory area. But first, Allison ran around the courtyard in the brilliant sun shine whooping with delight. The picture of her big smile and her hair flying as she ran is frozen in my mind. This is what I wanted her to have, a chance and a place to run.

By now, the other little children had come to greet the 2 girls and they were running around in a pack. The rest of the afternoon passed and as I walked with the various little children to another building (there are multiple buildings in the compound), I was surprised to see Mariel and Elena. While I knew they were there on Saturday, they had not planned to stay overnight. However, the older girls had begged them to do so and I found them all watching a movie on Mariel’s laptop. I was happy to see them and really happy that we would now have Elena as a translator.

After dinner with the older girls and Sor M&M, I was asked to come see a special Powerpoint presentation that Mariel had helped the girls prepare for me. Each of the slides had a picture of one of the children followed by their age, birth date, favorite hobby or sports team and their dreams for the future. Each child read their own bio out loud and it was sweet to see who would read shyly and who didn’t. I really enjoyed it and told them all I was very proud of them. I then asked them to prepare one for me for my next visit that included how they planned to make their dreams come true.

That night, after the children had gone to bed, I sat in the other room writing in my journal. Sor M&M joined me and we had a conversation using my little yellow Spanish-English book when we got stuck on a word. Since Sor M&M has no English and my Spanish is limited, this was quite often. I asked about her family and her health and felt that our conversation was between two friends that were getting to know each other a little better. She then talked about her vocation and her belief in God, or El Senor as they refer to God, and how she was always searching for answers. I told her that I found my answers to God in helping the children. She smiled at that.

Allison had settled in for bed although she had asked me numerous times when she was going back to Juan Pablo. I told her “No se”, or I don’t know, which wasn’t true but we had decided to hold off on telling her the full story for a little while longer. So we lay in the small bunk – wow, was this thing hard! – and I waited for her to fall asleep. Once she did, she tossed and turned only a little but a few times, she rolled right into me and bonked me in the head. Little children sleep the same way all over the world.

Sleeping and dreaming

Mission #4 July 28, 2011

July 28, 2011

I left for El Crucero on Thursday morning around 8am. I asked my driver Hiro, to stop at the food store on the way so that I could buy food to bring with me. As we made the 40 minute trip, I watched the landscape change from the city to the mountainous countryside and I realized I was finally flying solo. I was on my own adventure now and would need to rely on my own initiative. I was supposed to meet both Mariel, the volunteer psychologist working at the orphanages for MoH and Elena the translator at El Crucero later in the morning, but this was my mini-mission. I was in a third world country, no one was guiding my actions but me and I was equal parts excited and anxious.

Alison was not coming with me. She had told Mariel that she didn’t want to go to El Crucero, she just wanted to go home. Allison is struggling greatly at the baby orphanage – Juan Pablo (aka Casa Cuna), as her mother is now dropping off her new baby brother and while he gets to go home at night, Allison must remain at the orphanage. Needless to say, this is devastating to her as she faces an almost daily rejection by her own mother. She has been acting out and misbehaving which is not at all usual for her. I am even more anxious for her to go to El Crucero permanently for this reason among many others. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t see her but certainly wasn’t going to force her to come. I would make other arrangements to see her.

I arrived at El Crucero around 9am, it was still pretty early but I was happy when I could read the pleased look of recognition on Madre’s face as she realized who I was. She immediately called me by name and came to embrace me. It was a warm feeling. I had only met this woman in February and while I had stayed there then, a lot of time had passed in between.

The driver and one of the novices (there are 6 young woman studying to become nuns that also live at El Crucero), helped to bring in the food, gifts, clothes and other donations from the back of the truck. As we brought the food into the kitchen area, Madre laughed and opened the refrigerator and freezer door to show me what was inside. I was amazed to see it was full of food! Completely full! I was thrilled to see this and it brought tears to my eyes. I found out later that one of the many things she has accomplished in the last few months is to make arrangements with 4 or 5 different food stores and providers that supply weekly donations of food – milk, meat, cheese, eggs, bread, fruit and vegetables – all the items that we have wanted them to have. She had made some amazing progress and I thought this an auspicious start to my visit.

A full refrigerator!

Madre was very busy, as she had 70 adults attending a school reunion and after initial pleasantries and stumbling through without a translator, I told her I was fine and that she should go take care of whatever she had to do. I used this time to walk around the compound, hoping to greet any children I might find. It was during school hours so only a few were outside, mostly the little girls and boys. Nadezna came running to greet me with a big hug. She was followed by Mileydis, and the sisters, Maria and Lupe (Wendy Guadulupe). Then the little boys, Alexis, Carlito, Kenneth and little Kevin ran over to me and hugged me as well. They weren’t completely sure who I was, but I think they realized that they had seen me before and I looked familiar and fun. I have found that the children are demonstrative; showering you with hugs and kisses. I realize that in some part, this is due to their own emotional issues of abandonment and lack of family – they are always eager for attention and affection – but they are also really sweet children, genuinely happy to see you.

Guadlupe and Nadezna

After a while, the older girls started to appear and as I greeted most of them, I could see that they were very pleased that I remembered their names. Silsa, Veronica, Katherine, Jessica, and Naome encircled me with hugs and kisses. This was what I came for. “Recuerdome?” I asked them, “do you remember me?” and they nodded yes. Then they made a game of helping me to remember the girl’s names I couldn’t remember by giving me clues of the first and second letter of their names to help me guess. We all laughed as I sorted them out.

My lack of Spanish was hitting me really hard and I was frustrated that I had not yet mastered the language. After a while, the girls went about their own business as our semi-conversation wound down. So I wandered around, taking pictures, looking for other signs of progress and eventually ended up in the chapel as it is a quiet and beautiful place. Amidst a facility that is falling down in many places, this lovely chapel is a quiet oasis, maintained with love by the Sisters. While the disparity of this situation is difficult to comprehend – where does the money come from to keep this place pristine when the children have a leaky roof and decrepit plumbing? – I forced myself once again to not judge by my own American-girl standards. I was in their place, these were their priorities, and I was a guest. I would have to help them on their own terms or not at all.

The chapel at El Crucero

I saw Sr. M &M and went to greet her. Her big smile and sincere hug were another warm welcome as it was evident we were both happy to see each other.

Sr. M&M and Kevin, her nephew

Mariel and Elena arrived but immediately went into Mariel’s scheduled sessions with the children. She is now meeting with quite a few children on an individual basis to council and help with their emotional issues. She is definitely making progress. She also is working with the children in groups and helping them work together and learn skills to help themselves. But Mariel is leaving in October and I am saddened that this resource will be taken away from the children. I can only hope and pray that what they have learned from her, they will retain and take with them into their own futures.

Me, Elena and Mariel

The Sisters invited us to lunch of chicken, rice and a delicious cucumber salad. What a meal ! and a far cry from previous meals of rice and beans. Their food situation had turned around completely and I was delighted. We talked a little with Madre and the other Sisters and they seemed genuinely happy that we were there. It is always uncomfortable to have them wait on us and serve us, but they insist upon it; Nicaraguan courtesy.

Eating with the Nuns

Later that afternoon, the three of us, Mariel, Elena and I had a 2 hour meeting with Madre to discuss all of the children. Some of the children are no longer at the orphanage and some new children were added. Most of the reasons that children were no longer in the program were not good ones. A young baby named Enrique had gone back to live with his 19 year old mother despite the fact that she could not care for him. The Nuns were unhappy with this and are trying to encourage her to do better. Two of the older boys that lived at the farm had dropped out of school and were following an all too typical path of drinking and delinquency. Without the Nun’s knowledge, they had sold the two goats and the ox leaving them without working farm animals. Both unfortunate signs of a culture with deep rooted problems that cannot be resolved over night.

Our conversation turned to my Allison. Madre told me that she thought Allison was coming with me as she was unaware that Allison didn’t want to come. I explained this to her and then asked again, when we might be able to bring her to El Crucero permanently. She surprised me by saying that her plan had been to do this while I was there. Not wanting to let this opportunity to make this pivotal change in her young life – El Crucero might not be perfect but it is a better environment than Juan Pablo where she is now – we decided upon another plan. On Saturday, I will meet Madre at Juan Pablo and together we will all drive back to El Crucero. Her suggestion is that the “novelty” of my bringing her will over-ride her apprehension about going there. I am not completely sure that this will work out this way and fully expect that Allison will be upset however, we are all in agreement that this is the best move for her. Her two young friends who are also 5, Rosita and Orquidia Guadalupe (my daughter Vanessa’s sponsor child), will come up soon after so that they all can start first grade in January. But in the meantime, I’m sure there will be separation issues. I hope that our best intentions are the right decision. I believe in my heart that they are but I ache knowing that she will be distraught for a time.

I also found out that the surgery that Allison’s mother has been unable to facilitate due to her own problems is not as major as I had been told. This was welcome news and the hope is that living at El Crucero will make the surgery and necessary post-surgery orthotic shoes a reality. Another wonderful thing that Madre has put in place is that soon, a doctor and a dentist will visit the facility WEEKLY to check the children and the nuns. This woman is incredible. She has done all of this by networking and pushing to improve the lives of the children. I think no one can say “no” to her.

The additional part of our plan is that after staying over again on Saturday night with Allison, we will all go to the Farm, La Finca, on Sunday. I had wanted to go for a while to see what possibilities might be there for income and vocational training so this was a welcome surprise. Mariel and Elena will come up on Sunday morning to join us but for Saturday evening, I will really be on my own. Oh I wish I could speak Spanish! Juan – I should have kept studying!

Dinner of rice and beans but also the delicious Nicaraguan white cheese that made it all taste great. Dinner conversation with Madre and the other Nuns revealed the other advances she had made. Security guards are now present 7 days a week now and it was no longer necessary for the Nuns to patrol the grounds at night dressed as men, although she still had the gun. The electric transformer had been replaced by the Power company at no expense to them and an NGO was coming to inspect the old and dangerous wiring and make repairs. The children were receiving dancing and sewing lessons. And lots of food! A lot of progress in only 5 months time – what would this woman accomplish in a year!

I was exhausted and when I started to yawn at the dinner table, Madre teased me about going to bed. Mariel and Elena stayed in the main building to work on homework and I crossed the dark courtyard to the girl’s dorm alone. The night sky was very black with a wind that promised to become stronger as the night went on.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the light on in the girls dorm as there had been no electric when I was there before. Another wonderful accomplishment. After washing up in a cold bucket of water – there were no improvements to the bathrooms unfortunately – I sat on my bed while the older girls congregated around me. I took out the pictures I had brought to share with them; Vince, my girls and of course our new puppies, Sage and Gwena. I had more pictures of them than my family and the girls got a big kick out of them. They are the cutest puppies in the world after all.

The Girls Dorm

Lying in my bunk bed, with my sweatshirt as a pillow, I struggled to fall asleep even though I was tired. My brain was reeling from all that had been said and done today and from seeing all of the children once again. I felt more comfortable this time and eventually feel asleep, warm and content despite the ache in my hips from the rock hard bed.

I woke early at 5am and lay in bed for an hour listening to the quiet breathing of the girls. It was much quieter here than the Mission compound. Eventually, I heard Sr. M&M moving around in her small room off of the dorm area. When she came out, dressed in a robe and without her habit, her short black hair pillow-tumbled from sleeping, I could almost forget she was a nun. But her grace and her clear path to her own expression of faith shine from her like a beacon and her vocation is unmistakable.

Katherine, Mileydis, me and Lupe

I got up and dressed while most of the girls were still asleep, Mariel and Elena who were in bunks right next to me, included. Sr. M&M and I greeted each other with “Buenas Dias” and broad smiles. Eventually, the little boys could be heard singing and laughing next door and then everyone was up and awake. There was no school today due to a Teacher’s conferences so they had been able to sleep a little later than normal until the 6 and 7 year olds gave them no choice but to get up. Not unlike a normal family only with a lot more children and Nun’s for parents.

Breakfast was delicious pineapple – Nicaragua has the BEST pineapple- and cold cereal. Gratefully, no rice and beans. At 8:30, we had our meeting with Sr. Debbie and Mauricio to sort out some communication issues regarding the Orphan’s Hope Project. Most of these were due to growing pains of the OHP process and after an hour and half, we had covered this and other important priorities. Agreement was reached and I felt we had accomplished our goals. One major decision was made that would expand the use of the monthly funds we are providing to the Nuns via the OHP program. This is due to the fact that Madre has been so successful in obtaining donors for food. As these donors can be inconsistent, food purchases are still the priority however, we gave her the option to use the funds for other items such as personal hygiene, additional educational supplies and other items when needed. The monthly accounting receipts that are provided to us give us a listing of how the money is spent. We were all content with this change and see it as positive development.

I said goodbye to the children and knowing I would see them again Saturday made it quick and relatively painless. I rode with Sr. Debbie and her entourage the rest of the afternoon, the highlight being our meeting with the Caritas organization to discuss the HIV orphans that we plan to add to the Orphan’s Hope Project. We learned that there are 50 children and that the only information we will have is their first names due to confidentiality concerns. Because of this, we will not be able to set up individual sponsorships but instead, ask for sponsorships for the program as a whole to help with expenses for the children. We learned that only 5 of the children were in school as they did not have the funds necessary to go, something we wish to focus on. But at least they were all on the anti-viral medicine that would help sustain and prolong their threatened lives. I asked a lot of questions – of course – and got as much information as I could so I will be able to communicate the issue and the need once I return to the U.S.

Afterwards, we were able to meet with a number of the children and their families who were there to pick up supplies. Sr. Debbie had brought 7 beautiful hand-made small quilts to be given as gifts to the children. Because we were not allowed to photograph their faces, again due to confidentiality issues, I took pictures of each child, wrapped in their new quilt, from behind. It was a poignant moment for all of us as we contemplated the lives these children live.

HIV Orphan and her new quilt

I approached one young girl seated in a chair at the front of the room and knelt down to speak to her. Nancy was about 9 and had a beautiful face. I asked her if she had family there and she said no. She didn’t smile and her large brown eyes had an expression that was much too old for her young body. I have never known anyone who was HIV+, nor anyone who had died of AIDS, but if this is what it looks like, it is a terrible thing made even more so in a young child with no real life to look forward to. It was heart-breaking. Anything we can do for them, we should do and would.

A hectic afternoon followed of shopping and stops that Sr. Debbie needed to accomplish and we were back at the compound for dinner. I am sitting in the kitchen area as lights out was 30 minutes ago. Now that the internet is working, I will post this very soon. Unfortunately, it’s not wireless so I can’t do more than make a quick post but it is better than none at all.

If I can blog again on Sunday when I return from El Crucero and La Finca, I will do so. That’s of course if I’ve got any brain power left – this is all such a grand adventure – it fills me up and sucks me dry. Thanks for reading about it.

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