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OHP Mission 7, Day Two – January 8, 2015

We spent the day visiting two Safe House projects, one in Managua, the other in the city of Leon, a 1 and half hour drive away. In each, we met very dedicated people who are also volunteering their time to help put these Safe Houses together.

In Managua, we met a woman named Mariley, who is an international activist for woman’s rights. She has spoken at a U.N. Conference on Human Rights held in Zurich and recently was arrested for protesting and held in prison in Managua. She rather understatedly said she was beaten and held illegally for 24 hours in a prison known for holding political prisoners . She was only able to be released when she used the tiny cell phone she had hidden to contact fellow activists and friends who made such a ruckus that they were forced to let her go. Marliey spoke flawless English, was astoundingly beautiful and wore 4 inch hot pink patent leather stilettos. Smart, friendly and with an easy smile, this woman was none the less formidable and I told her so.

The project here was to help refurbish an existing Safe House and the MoH Safe House Project led by Kathy and Dave Fuller had provided for roof and window repairs and spoke with them at length about future projects. After discussion and agreement on how this would proceed, we left for Leon.A long car ride later, we arrived in Leon, one of the largest –and oldest – cities in Nicaragua and it’s first capital before Managua. Barry Greer who was spearheading the selection of the Safe Houses to work with had been to Leon for a 5 month stint already and promised to give us a tour of the city. I was excited about this as it was not usually part of the program.

Barry is an interesting guy. He retired and chooses to come to Nicaragua and is passionate about helping women with domestic violence situations. He has networked with many of the women’s groups here in Nicaragua and in Central America and sees himself as a “shepherd” – his own word – for what he does. He wants to help lead the women of Nicaragua to help themselves and others as they forge a path through the machismo culture of violence and marginalization towards women. He was coming back on this trip for another 5 month stay to help get this particular safe house up and running.

It was very rustic but a nice contained property surrounded by old concrete walls and new concertina wire. The buildings clearly need much work and indeed, Barry would be sleeping on a mattress he intended to buy in an empty room with zero amenities. His adventurous spirit, clear passion and easy smile were infectious and impressive.

Afterwards, many of us wanted to eat in an “authentic” place for lunch – rather than Sr. Debbie’s favorite Tip Top (Nicaragua’s version of Kentucky Fried Chicken) and we took off with Barry on a tour. Although our meal was authentic – rice and beans! – and chicken, it was nothing special but at least we could say we had done it. We met up with the Tip Top group (Sr. Debbie of course, Mauricio and his daughter Olympia) at the Leon Cathedral built in 1670. I was particularly excited as I never saw an old cathedral I didn’t want to visit, and it didn’t disappoint. With the same soaring architecture I had seen in other cathedrals in the world, the Latin flare was apparent with the gilded altar, huge frescoes of the Stations of the Cross and large statues covered in flowers and gifts throughout.

We left for our journey home, stopping only at a coyote (a money changer on the street) in Managua to exchange our American for Nicaragua currency and a trip to a food store for dinner. We bought the fixings for an unexpectedly wonderful green salad which we all agreed was just what we were in the mood for.

To bed early as our next day was an early morning leaving for San Fernando and the 5 hour journey at 6:30am.

The view from my room

The view from my room


The Christmas Tree at NiCasa - every December it bears white flowers

The Christmas Tree at NiCasa – every December it bears white flowers


NiCasa Chico the guard and Sr. Debbie

NiCasa Guard Chico and Sr. Debbie


NiCasa Guard Dogs - they are locked up when we are there but are free to roam when the compound is not occupied

NiCasa Guard Dogs – they are locked up when we are there but are free to roam when the compound is not occupied


Strip Mined Mountain along the highway

Strip Mined Mountain along the highway


Road Obstruction

Road Obstruction

Collectiva de Mujeres - the Women's Collective helps women dealing with domestic violence throughout Nicaragua

Collectiva de Mujeres – the Women’s Collective helps women dealing with domestic violence throughout Nicaragua


Barry and the faces at Managua Safe House

Barry and the faces at Managua Safe House


Women's meeting room at the clinic and safe house.  Allows women a safe haven to meet and learn.

Women’s meeting room at the clinic and safe house. Allows women a safe haven to meet and learn.


And a safe place to sleep

And a safe place to sleep


Children have a safe place too

Children have a safe place too


Beauty in the dirt

Beauty in the dirt


The Safe House Crew in Managua

The Safe House Crew in Managua


All the visitors at Managua Safe House

All the visitors at Managua Safe House


Just getting a drink

Just getting a drink


Barry explaining the vision for the Leon Safe House and clinic

Barry explaining the vision for the Leon Safe House and clinic


Mural in Leon

Mural in Leon


Safe House Crew in Leon

Safe House Crew in Leon


Me at the Leon Basilica circa 1747

Me at the Leon Basilica circa 1747


Basilica altar

Basilica altar


I don't know either

I don’t know either


What is that growing thing?

What is that growing thing?


This one's for you babe.  They are everywhere.

This one’s for you babe. They are everywhere.

OHP Mission 7 – January 7, 2015 Day One

2:00pm – Miami International layover

Leaving at 3am for a 6am flight in 13 degree weather was no picnic so I was really not at all happy when I missed my flight anyway. Although I was early enough and should have had time to spare, the 45 minute holdup at the Airtrain shuttle between terminals totally put the kibosh on my making my flight. What a nightmare. As I struggled with the 90 pounds of luggage that I had with me, shoving the cart around trying not to run anyone over and fit in the shuttle, I thought – there has to be a better way. Next time, not so many suitcases. Ugh as Sr. Debbie would say. But I was able to get on another flight at 8am to Miami, with a 5 hour layover before leaving for Managua. At least I would get there today.

Allison at about 6.  That's the smile.

Allison at about 6. That’s the smile.

This does mess up our carefully planned agenda as this was the day I was supposed to spend the afternoon at El Crucero talking to the older girls about OHP University. As this is the main focus of my trip, we will definitely reschedule the visit. I was also going to see my Allison; I haven’t seen in over 2 years, I hope she remembers me. I have been sponsoring her since she was 4, she is now 8. And whenever I think of her, I think of her smiling. I wonder what she is like – is she still friendly and outgoing? She always seemed to me to be the light in the room full of children, even when my daughter Vanessa and I first met her in 2010 at the baby orphanage in Managua, Casa Cuna. Despite the heat, the confined space, the lack of air that day (I can still feel how oppressive it was), she just bubbled around like a little butterfly, always smiling and laughing. I hope through the years and her living environment she hasn’t lost any of that.

At Miami airport, I treated myself to a lovely lunch and a glass of wine. I had the biggest salad I could find since it will be my last green food until I get home. Nicaragua doesn’t do vegetables. Iceberg lettuce is not a vegetable so that doesn’t count.

Three of the six other people that are traveling on this mission are also leaving on the flight I am now on. I will be watching for their blue MoH t-shirts since I haven’t met them. (I’m traveling incognito, my blue t-shirt is in my backpack for later.) I am looking forward to meeting and talking with all 3 of them as these are the people behind the Women’s Shelter/Safe House project. I want to learn more and hear more, they have made very good progress in the short time since the project was launched. Quite impressive.

For a small organization, the NC Mission of Hope sure gets a lot of big things done. It’s all about the people. There are some wonderful people who give their time, treasure and talent to making it all work. It’s humbling.

11pm
I had forgotten how windy it is here. The wind rips through the window screens and the leaves on the trees whistle and screech. Or is that a night bird? A big night bird… The wind has a nice sound, I like it. I don’t hear the roosters and not as many dogs barking. I guess things change, even here.

Uneventful flight from Miami after spending all day in the airport. I met up with Dave, Kathy and Barry – the Women’s Shelter/Safe House folks. A nice group. I maneuvered without issue through Customs, baggage pick up with a nice young man who wanted to help me with my 90 pounds of luggage – so I let him – and then through immigration and I was through. Mauricio’s smiling face was waiting for me and I felt like I was officially in Nica. His daughter Olympia was also there, she’ll be one of our translators. Very easy arrival all things considered since I don’t speak much Spanish but I was so tired I didn’t let it get in my way. I need to get to bed, really.

Mauricio brought us all back to NiCasa and I’m sitting in one of the back rooms on my bed typing this. I’m unpacked and sorted out and so tired I can hardly see, I’m going on 19+ hours and I’m not used to that. Vince can do it, but I can’t. But my mind is racing and reeling and it will be hard to sleep. Busy day tomorrow though so I better. Thanks for reading, hasta manana.

Mission #7 – Here I Come

By Barbara Dobilas
January 2, 2015

Wow it feels strange to write the year – 2015 – it’s been 5 years since I started this blog writing about my trips to Nicaragua. 7 missions in 5 years.

I am leaving January 7 for a 7 day trip to Nicaragua. (What’s with the 7’s already??) I’m traveling with Sr. Debbie Blow, my dear friend and Executive Director of the NC Mission of Hope, Kathy Eppler, another good friend and MoH Treasurer and Dave and Kathy Fuller, new friends I hope to make and the people behind the Women’s Shelter Program and Suzanne Charette, a new employee with MoH.

I have a full agenda for OHP related business and will be visiting each of the 4 orphanages, seeing the children, taking their pictures, getting updates from the Nuns and in the case of at least 2 of the orphanages, checking on new facility repairs like the roof in San Fernando. The work has been completed and I’m looking forward to seeing the end result. Roof 9 12-14

I will also be meeting with one of my favorite people in Nica, Johanna Pedroni who runs a Foundation with her husband and helps poor and uneducated women learn life skills so they can make a living and support themselves and their families. This type of empowerment means so much to me as I know it is the ONLY way women can help themselves step up and out of poverty. Women must have the capability to take care of themselves, it won’t be done for them. This requires not only the education and training but a mind-set change. They need to believe they can be independent and strong.

OHP University will be my biggest focus and I hope to speak with many of the 15 girls that are close to University age to explain to them how we can help and what their responsibilities are to earn that help. I will be meeting with our first OHP University student Sayda who is in her second year of medical school. She’s our first test case and so far, has been a success. Sayda is excited to show me her University – UNAN – https://www.unan.edu.ni/ – and I am excited to see it.

Lots to do before I leave, especially since the holidays kept me very busy and I have much to catch up on. I hope you will check in to read my blog starting next week as I try to be very regular in posting – as long as I have internet!

Thanks for your support and feel free to share this blog with a friend.

OHP Trip #6 – I’m home

June 3, 2013
Got back last night, late around 11pm when we finally walked in the door. Due to flight delays and my bag not arriving with me, we were at the airport a real, long time.

My bag is supposed to be delivered today and I hope it gets here soon. All of my paperwork and notes regarding the children and facilities is in there! I have a mountain of paperwork and communication to get started on.

I’m happy that we accomplished a number of things on this trip but as always, there is more work to be done. Some new ideas and some new people will continue to allow the Orphan’s Hope Project to find ways to help the children. And me? I get to keep my memories of their hugs and their smiles close to my heart, until next time.

So back to the real world, back to work but boy, that long hot shower last night really felt good.

Thanks for all your support.

OHP Trip #6 June 1, 2013 – Day Four

Day 4 June 1 –

Sr. Debbie had a jam packed day planned and our first meeting this morning was in Managua at 8am. We met there with Johanna Pedroni who, along with her husband, has started a foundation that is building a Women’s Clinic and Training center in an old hotel in the heart of Managua. Johanna is one of those women that impress you as soon as you meet her. Friendly, vivacious and intelligent, I knew I was in the presence of someone who gets things done. My kind of lady.

We toured the old hotel, first viewing the parts that have been partially renovated and then the second part, which had not. To see what they had already done, from the shell of an abandoned building was impressive. She was excited to show us the rooms for the clinic waiting room, the doctor’s examination, gynecological examination, physical therapy and nurses training room. The Mission of Hope had donated the hospital beds and painted a few of the rooms, and they were planning to paint more on the next mission in July. James was here to assess the supplies and work effort needed.

Juan Pablo II BEFORE

Juan Pablo II BEFORE

Juan Pablo II - AFTER

Juan Pablo II – AFTER

But it was great to be able to see this success story unfolding. Johanna and her husband owned a successful, upscale restaurant – the restaurant we had eaten in on Thursday evening – and are in the upper echelon of Managuan society. They are both movers and shakers in the city and have an impressive and powerful group of friends and acquaintances that are instrumental in helping the dream of the foundation unfold. They are true examples of how those that have, help pay it forward for those who have not.

Johanna then explained their plans for the training center, specifically to help poor women learn skills so they can support themselves and their families. They plan to offer courses in learning Computer Training, Home Health Aid, Seamstress, Accounting and Ophthalmology assistants and Paint Contractor. This last, something they are just about to start, will teach women how to measure a room, decide on the best paints for the materials and spec out how to get the job done. This sounded like a very practical skill that a woman could assuredly earn a living doing.

Johanna Pedroni at Juan Pablo II

Johanna Pedroni at Juan Pablo II

While Johanna is talking, my mind immediately thinks of my girls at El Crucero, specifically the 6 or 7 teenagers who will be graduating high school in the next few years. While I still intend to encourage their attendance in University, and offer financial help from the OHP, from a practical perspective, this will not be the right option for every girl. I have been frustrated at the lack of skills training currently being provided and my inquiries have been met with vague, unsatisfactory answers from Madre as to her plans for the girls. So why not offer skills training to the girls at this facility?

And that’s just what I asked Johanna. She knew that I worked with the orphans and was immediately receptive to the idea. In fact, her eyes lit up and a she was already smiling and nodding before I finished speaking. We agreed that I will contact Madre with the beginnings of this idea and put her in touch with Johanna. Of course there will be challenges – not all skills can be taught to girls under 18 and for those still in school, school must come first. But with some perseverance and creative thinking, this could be a reality. I saw this as the door being opened to my dream of providing my girls with a mechanism to earn a living. No, what I really mean is having a career performing a skill that they are trained for, proficient at and proud of. This is the next step up for them and something I am passionate about so I’m puttin’ it out there in the universe and will do whatever I can to make it a reality.

Johanna and I hugged, and then we hugged again and I said I would contact her very soon. This will be the first order of business when I return home to the U.S.

Next, a quick stop to the masonary store to check on options for stone benches for the planned Memorial Garden to be built in the back of the NiCasa property. I can see this area this from my bedroom door and right in the center is a beautiful, large shade tree that just calls out for a bench and a birdbath. It will be dedicated in honor of past Missioners who have died.

Shopping for a memorial bench

Shopping for a memorial bench

We drove to a barrio called Cedro Galan. A barrio is a poor village and a frequent stop on any mission visit to Nicaragua. It is here that people live in huts and cobbled together structures made of left over metal, tree limbs and garbage bags. The lucky ones have a home shelter, built by MoH that consists of a 10’ x 13’ single, dirt floor room with a roof and open doorway. My daughter Vanessa and I had helped to construct two on our first trip to Nicaragua in 2010.

These areas are extremely poor. The children run barefoot through the dirt, deftly dodging broken glass, shredded metal, garbage and other dangers. I shudder to think of the disease that is ever present. Trees and overgrown bushes fill in the spaces between the dwellings. Clothes are hanging on barbed wire, malnourished dogs are everywhere. Once we saw a giant pig tied up to a tree. The women in these barrios look beaten and tired and alone. Men are not as evident, leading me to believe that most of these women are alone in raising their children in this inhospitable place.

And yet, they make their homes here. Some of the children go to school, but some do not. But the children play with each other and run in packs like little wild things as their laughter rings through the air. They sound no different than other children the world over, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.

We were here to give handmade quilts donated by a woman who is helping a young widow and her son. This donor had previously paid for the construction of a home shelter for this young mother and had asked Sr. Debbie to deliver the quilts to her on this visit. The mother came out to meet us holding her young son Brandon, about 16 months old, in her arms. She was followed by several other children who she told us were her niece and nephews plus her elderly aunt. While Fabricio translated, Sr. Debbie made the presentation in a distinguished and sensitive manner and the mother’s shy but hesitant smile was nice to see. Sr. Debbie then gave quilts to the other children and the aunt, who seemed thrilled with the beautiful gift. In this type of extreme poverty, these quilts are a treasure.

Donated quilts

Donated quilts

A quilt for a little girl

A quilt for a little girl

Stop number 4 – and all before lunch – was to the Guadalupe clinic and a meeting with Berta Amalia. Berta, a poor woman in her 60’s, has made it her life’s work to help this medical clinic function in the center of Managua. They provide medicines and doctor care to the many impoverished people in the city. The Mission of Hope has been helping the clinic for a number of years. But we were here to talk about another project instead.

A donor had recently given the Mission of Hope a substantial amount of money to be used to help poor women in Nicaragua. 8 women were chosen to receive the funds, and they in turn were charged with helping 10 other poor women. The 8 women who are administering the funds were free to select 10 women of their choice who were in dire need. The donor has asked for details on the women being chosen and Fabricio, has been assigned the task of collecting the information; pictures, bios on both the women administrators and those receiving the funds. This meeting was to introduce Berta to Fabricio so that they could continue the partnership and move the project forward.

Sr. Debbie, James and I watched as Fabricio, 22, took over, speaking with Berta in a mature and respectful manner about how they would communicate, what information was needed and in what format and exchanging contact information. We were all very gratified to see this excellent example of empowerment that effectively put the responsibility of the success of this project on these two people who live here. Just what the Mission is striving to accomplish.

Empowerment in Action

Empowerment in Action

Finally, lunch time. And guess where? Yep, Tip Top. Sr. Debbie just didn’t want to eat anywhere else. At least the chicken is good although I don’t want to see another piece of fried chicken for a while.

After lunch we visited a local Chiqulistagua school where the Mission had helped to plant and fund a garden then on to San Antonio school in yet another barrio. The Mission will help paint a few rooms on this upcoming July mission trip and again, James need to access the situation while I took pictures.

San Antonio School front

San Antonio School front

San Antonio school

San Antonio school

This school was poor and old and dirty but children are being educated here. With help, it could be made into a nicer environment, which is what the Mission is trying to do. Across the dirt road was a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. We encountered a man – Victor – who was burning brush to fight slugs in the field before planting a crop of papaya.

Working the fields

Working the fields

Our final stop of the day was to meet a young girl and her mother. She is a beautiful young girl, 7 years old, with blond hair, blue eyes and very fair – unusual for a Nicaraguan. She reminded me of my own daughters who looked similar at her age and Mauricio even commented that this little girl could have been my daughter. She was very proud to show us her report card with excellent grades.

Excellent grades

Excellent grades

About 2 months ago, Laura (not her real name) was raped by a 16 year old neighbor. Pause, full stop. Yes, she is 7. Her mother had moved her and her older sister and brother to a rented home to be safe from the neighbor who was threatening to harm her and burn down their house if they prosecuted him for the rape. They are renting a small home but the mother has recently lost her job as an accounting assistant and she is desperately trying to plan her next move. We were there to give her clothes donated by the Mission and also money to help them for the immediate future.

While Sr. Debbie, Mauricio and Fabricio talked with the mother about what could be done to help, I intentionally pulled Laura to the side so she would not overhear the conversation. She was a charming and sweet little girl, smiling and laughing, never giving any indication of the trauma she has suffered. She showed me her guinea pig Lolitta, then we went outside so she could show me her cartwheels. It took all my self control not to wrap my arms around this child and cry. She looked so much like my girls at that age and my mind was screaming – how could someone harm such a beautiful little girl?

It was time to leave but with no clear resolution in site, we said our goodbyes with heavy hearts. As we drove away, we discussed various options and I said, more than anything we need to help this mom get a job. There are some contacts here that may be able to help and Sr. Debbie is going to make some calls to see if something can be done.

The Mission of Hope is planning to build a Safe House in the next several years for women and children that are in exactly this type of situation. It is still in the planning stages and cannot help Laura and her family now, something we were all acutely aware of.

Back to NiCasa. Sr. Debbie and the others had meetings but I had some down time to process, unwind and work on the pictures I had been taking over the last few days. At about 5pm, we left for dinner but first a quick stop at Juan Pablo to pick up paperwork promised by Madre and Sor Carmen regarding the new children at El Crucero.

I really hate going to Juan Pablo. It is about as depressing as it gets. While there are much fewer children there now, it is still miserably hot and stuffy, and right in the middle of one of the worst areas of Managua. The front doors are locked behind a steel gate and on either side are low lifes and unsavory characters. Not a place where small children should live. Nor the sisters who are charged with caring for them.

It is being run mainly as a day care center now so there are only a few children who stay overnight. We saw three children on this visit, two new babies and Angel, a 6 year old that I knew from previous visits. As a matter of fact, my daughter Vanessa and I had met him on our first fateful visit here in 2010 when I decided to start the Orphan’s Hope Project. Angel has brain damage from living with his mother on the streets as an infant and cannot communicate. Instead, he screams. Which he did tonight when I said hello and at every other opportunity. Madre and I had spoken about him and she told me he is undergoing treatment and may be adopted. I so hope this can happen and that someone will give him a loving home where he can grow to his fullest potential.

The other two babies were a little girl, about 2, named June who trotted right up to Sr. Debbie and James and launched herself into their arms and a 9 month old boy named Osmani. While the young Sister Suzanne (she looked like she was 19) filled out the rest of the paperwork I was there to pick up, I held Osmani and James held June. When we started to leave, June threw an all-out temper tantrum screaming that she wanted to go with James. It was heartbreaking.

It’s been a good trip and in hindsight, I am pleased at what we have been able to help with. In addition to the gifts and school supplies I brought with me, the donations I received from sponsors and supporters will help pay for major dental work for Sor Andrea at El Crucero (since she is taking care of my kids so well in the library, we need to take care of her), new screens and windows at San Fernando (without either mosquitoes and bugs are ever present and so is the risk of dengue fever), food for the children there, translator help and of course, ice cream for the little ones. Yep, I’d say a damn good use of the money entrusted to me.

Today was an exhausting day and mentally I’m whipped. I’m glad to be going home tomorrow. I miss my husband, my family and my puppies Gwena and Sage. It’s been an eye opening trip. I feel progress was made for the OHP which is always my intention but I also learned a lot about other ways that the Mission is helping here with the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua. The focus is shifting to empowerment and I am in complete agreement with this. People must learn to help themselves or any positive changes will not be sustainable. It will take time, it will take cultural changes, but you know the old saying – if you give a man a fish, they will eat for a day. But if you teach a man or a woman to fish, they can feed their families for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, our collective efforts will accomplish just that.

Mission Team 50A

Mission Team 50A

OHP Trip #6 May 2013 – Day Three

Day 3 – San Fernando May 31, 2013

We left a bright and early 7:30am for our long trip to San Fernando. I had gotten up extra early hoping to Skype with Vince but the internet that worked so great the night before was down again due to the torrential rain. Mauricio and Fabricio arrived, we packed up all of the things we had to bring with us and got on our way. In addition to the toys and other gifts for the children I had purchased with OHP donations and brought with me, I was happy when Sr. Debbie suggested that we also bring 2 boxes of school supplies that they had in the storage building. These extra supplies, shipped down in the 2 or 3 containers sent each year by the Mission of Hope from Plattsburgh contain a variety of materials – all well needed here in Nicaragua. In addition to the school supplies, they have sent hospital beds and equipment, furniture, computers, refrigerators and even a full dental office of equipment. All of this is donated to the Mission of Hope. It is really wonderful that these items, which would become waste in our landfills in the U.S., can be put to such good use here. It’s a testament to the hard work of the many volunteers that coordinate, pack, record and ship these containers for the Mission. Each container is about the size of a tractor trailer.

After driving through the city of Managua, we turned onto the Pan American highway, Route 1, that starts in Mexico and ends in South America. Luckily we weren’t traveling the full length but we did have a ways to go. We passed the time talking, eating the snacks we had brought with us and I did some computer work on the numerous pictures that I had been taking. Interspersed throughout the trip was a frequent “Oh My God!” from Sr. Debbie in the front seat whenever another driver was too aggressive or the road was too windy. We teased her unmercifully for this.

I really enjoy looking at the countryside on this drive north. An hour out of Managua, the landscape changes to a mountainous and lush countryside. Along the highway, houses of all shapes and sizes ranging from small, simple one room structures with clothes hanging on the line to more expansive brick homes with landscaped front yards. We passed horses, cattle and a few goats and pigs all tended by men walking them along the road to pasture. We also passed rice paddies, which we were surprised to see. Another crop, along with beef and coffee, that Nicaragua produces and exports.

We stopped in a small city named Cevaco, for a pit stop. Fabricio knew that I wanted to bring fresh fruits and vegetables up to the orphanage and suggested that we purchase them at the local market there. The abundance of beautiful produce was impressive. Vendors were lined up side by side with heaping piles of tomatoes, huge carrots, onions, potatoes and numerous fruits – pineapple, melon, mango, wauva, calala, starfruit and papaya. I hadn’t changed any of my US dollars to Nicaraguan Cordoba but have come to find out that most places will accept American cash. 8 bags of fruit and vegetables later, all for $10, we were on our way.

Fruit and Vegetable Market in Cevaco

Fruit and Vegetable Market in Cevaco

Choosing tomatoes

Choosing tomatoes

James, who hates having his picture taken, took one of himself so I thought I’d share. James could give lessons on being agreeable and he always carried the bags!

Agreeable James

Agreeable James

Two hours later, we were in Ocatal, a very northern city and where we made the right hand turn off the highway to head towards San Fernando. We stopped in this city to purchase more food for the orphanage – chicken, milk, eggs, diapers, baby formula and cereal. We had hoped to find a place to eat lunch – Sr. Debbie was insisting again on Tip Top, the fast food chicken place as this is the only place she is comfortable eating at – but we didn’t find anything. We snacked on more junk food and were back on the road for the remaining 30 minute drive. At this point, we had been in the car for over 5 hours.

Last year on this trip, we had crossed a very narrow, small bridge that spanned a gorge, about 20’ deep. Mauricio and Fabricio had been telling Sr. Debbie about this for days, trying hard to scare her and they had succeeded. Every time we crossed a bridge, of any size, Sr. Debbie asked “is this it?” We finally arrived at the single lane bridge, just as narrow and intimidating as last year. As we approached, a school bus was barreling down the road in the other direction. Sr. Debbie took one look at the bridge, then at the school bus and screamed “OH MY GOD! Mauricio!!” which we all found pretty hilarious. Then Mauricio even stopped on the bridge to further prolong the event, Sr. Debbie screaming all the while.

OH MY GOD!  We are going over that bridge!

OH MY GOD! We are going over that bridge!

We finally, finally arrived at San Fernando. Sor Delia, So Daisy and all the children greeted us with big smiles and then sang a song of thanksgiving as they had just finished their lunch. There are 15 children here now, ages 15 months to 15 years. We brought in all of the food, gifts and supplies and it wasn’t long before we spread out all the gifts for the children to choose from. They were all laughing and smiling as everyone got to select whatever they wanted and I was glad we had plenty to go around.

Giving gifts

Giving gifts

I turned to see Sor Delia blowing bubbles for the smaller children as they squealed with laughter and then wanted to try for themselves. She has a wonderful way with the children, loving, kind and playful. The obviously love her in return as they surround her and the smallest ones grab the skirt of her white habit. With all of these little grubby hands, I don’t how she keeps it white.

Sor Delia playing with Osmani

Sor Delia playing with Osmani

Although several children had left, I saw a few that I knew – two girls especially that had previously been at El Crucero. Xiomara, the oldest remembered me and I her as she came to greet me. Next was Katherine, a 12 year old who is troubled and has had a terrible childhood. She had been lashing out and aggressive with the other children at El Crucero so the decision was made to send her north where she might do better in a new environment. It seemed to be working as she had a smile on her face – something I rarely saw when I had seen her previously – and she came to me for a hug. I asked if she remembered me and she said yes and hugged me again. When talking with Sor Delia a little later, I asked about her and was told that she is doing well in school, is not as aggressive and has made friends at school and with the other girls at the orphanage. I was very, very pleased to hear this. This young girl needs some goodness in her life. When Sor Delia told me that her and Sor Daisy, the young nun who also lived there and helped with the children, did their homework with them, celebrated each child’s birthday and ate at a communal table, I believed this would go a long way to bringing Katherine, as well as the other children some family normalcy as much as was possible given their environment.

Me and Katherine

Me and Katherine

It was hot and very humid at the facility and outside we were besieged by little bugs that were happily chewing on my legs and feet. It was very distracting trying to talk to Sor Delia while slapping and swatting at myself.

Meeting at San Fernando

Meeting at San Fernando

I was disappointed to see the facility hadn’t changed since the previous year. All rooms were neat but in need of repair with broken bricks in much of the floor and a number of broken doors. They didn’t have a working refrigerator only a deep freezer with not much food in it. Spare furniture – only a few tables and chairs, a very primitive kitchen with a two burner propane stovetop and no oven. They used a wood burning fireplace to cook large pots. Sor Delia told us that someone was donating a full size stove which was good to hear. The dorm rooms were also neat but the bathroom, such as it was, was very basic and lacked a toilet seat. They did have running water and electricity however which was a plus.

Sor Daisy and Osmani

Sor Daisy and Osmani

We have been sending OHP funds since last year and I had hoped for more. As we spoke with Sor Delia, we were told that the monies were not being sent to her directly as we had expected but instead were being handled by El Crucero. We all agreed that the monies would be better utilized if Sor Delia made decisions on what to buy rather than having supplies sent to her. She would also have access to the funds if an emergency arose. We kindly but firmly told her that from now on, the monies would be sent to her monthly via Western Union which she happily agreed to.

While we were meeting with Sor Delia, James had been taking pictures to show MoH leadership. We all agreed that we wanted to do more to help. Sor Delia said that she wanted to have screens put on all windows to keep bugs, and in particular, mosquitoes out. She is still recovering from Dengue fever and is concerned for the children’s health as well. The total cost for this is $2400, of which she had already raised $1100. Conferring among ourselves, we agreed that we had OHP and other funds that could finance the balance. Sor Delia was delighted and her smile was radiant. She also said she would like a ceiling put in as the single roof doesn’t keep the cold or heat out. We asked her to speak directly with Mauricio for this and other improvement projects and we would help where we were able.

As planned, we wanted to buy ice cream for all the children and they were waiting. While we continued to play with the children, Sr. Debbie and Mauricio went to buy some and when they returned, the children squealed with delight. Sor Delia said “what do you say? – just like a mother would remind her own children and they screamed “Gracias!”. Then she said “in English?” and they shouted “Thank you”. I loved that she was making this effort with them.

The children and Sisters at San Fernando

The children and Sisters at San Fernando

After 2.5 hours, it was time to leave. We all knew we had a long trip home. Hugs and kisses and “hasta luego” and we were out the door. Sor Delia and the children crowding around the small opening, waving to us as we drove away.

This vision is still with me as we continue our drive home. We are still 2 hours away and it has been pouring with rain intermittently which is slowing us down. That and the frequent trucks that clog this central highway are making the trip even longer. We are all anxious to get back, have a decent meal and a very needed shower. Despite the very long drive – and Mauricio is stll at the wheel – I am very glad that Sr. Debbie and James have seen San Fernando. With their first hand knowledge, they can help me help Sor Delia and the children.

Children at the door

Children at the door

Second Day – Sr. Debbie’s agenda

It’s 7:00pm and I’m exhausted. Ok, so it’s really 9pm EST back in the real world, but we had a busy day and I’m pooped.

We started our day with a meeting with Johanna at CARITAS. We were pleasantly surprised when she provided 3 months of paperwork, receipts and photos for both the HIV+ children sponsored by the OHP plus other programs coordinated through MoH. It was a pleasant surprise to find someone with organizational skills.

Johanna at Caritas

Johanna at Caritas

We agreed on how to handle this in the future so that information is received regularly and funds can be given each month to continue aiding these families.
Meeting at Caritas

Meeting at Caritas

Party at Caritas

Party at Caritas

Next we took a long drive up into the mountains again to the Parajito Azul Vinca (or farm). This farm is built on a piece of donated property that houses 15 – 18 mentally disabled men aged 25 – 52. Sr. Debbie explained that most of the men had been born without issues but due to malnutrition, untreated illnesses or abuse, they had varying degrees of disabilities.

Martha and her boys at the farm

Martha and her boys at the farm

Martha Rivas

Martha Rivas

Martha Rivas, is the driving force behind this flourishing enterprise where they have made significant changes in the property and now grow and harvest coffee, papayas and over 720 tomato plants from seeds donated by the MoH. Martha takes care of these men helping with cooking, medical needs and cleaning – kind of like a house mother but she obviously cares for them and has made this her life’s devotion. All of the men are handicapped in some way but their enthusiasm and big smiles were infectious. Some were shy, some very friendly but this place was obviously a success story and a we were all smiling when we drove away.

On the drive, we stopped at a roadside stand to purchase fresh pineapple, just picked from the tree. Cost? $2.00. I gave the woman $3.00 and felt like I’d gotten a bargain.

I'll take 2 pineapples por favor

I’ll take 2 pineapples por favor

Next a visit to Diriamba (we spent a lot of time in the car today) and a visit to a future community center run by the Nuns who also manage a hospital in the area. We were there to see what project work the upcoming summer missioners could help with when they are here in July.

On the trip back, we made a brief and unexpected stop back at El Crucero to give Joseph a suit sent to him by his sponsors Jimmy and Carol Dumont. While only a short visit, I was happy to stop by to see the children again but as they clung to me and asked me to not leave, I left with a familiar lump in my throat.

Joseph and his new suit

Joseph and his new suit

Returning to NiCasa, Sr. Debbie held meetings with the local woman who helps administer aid in the surrounding towns and barrios while James and I took pictures of the facility. I have become the official photographer on this trip and have a lot of work to do with the hundreds of pictures taken.

We had a very nice surprise in our restaurant of choice this evening – recommended by James. It is a very upscale Italian restaurant in downtown Managua, not like any I’ve been to before. Contemporary, with plenty of air conditioning, excellent service and good food, it was a nice way to end the day.

Sr. Debbie and Fabricio at dinner

Sr. Debbie and Fabricio at dinner

Tomorrow we are off to see Sor Delia and the children at San Fernando. I’m looking forward to the trip, even though it will mean about 4 hours of travel time each way. I keep encouraging Sr. Debbie to see the day and our lunch along the way as an adventure but she insists she won’t eat at any place by Tip Top chicken! In addition to not being too adventurous with her meals, she also hates bugs and spiders. Since they are all over and drawn to every light, she’s been screaming about the bugs in her room and is threatening to sleep in the van. We shall see if we find her in there tomorrow morning. WE have an early start and are leaving the compound at 7am.

May 29, 2013

First Day – El Crucero

Well, it’s official. Nicaragua has the loudest thunder I’ve heard. Hardest rain I’ve ever heard too for that matter. As I sit, listening to the cacophony of torrential water slamming against the tin roof of the NiCasa building, I wonder if it will ever stop. It started about 2 hours ago and hasn’t let us since. Sr. Debbie and James are flying into this. I can just imagine Sr. Debbie’s white-knuckle death grip on James’ knee.

I’m here at NiCasa alone. When Mauricio and Fabricio left, after I said, “sure – no problem, I’ll stay here by myself”. At the last minute I asked Fabricio “I’ll be safe here, right?” and his assurance that sure, yes I would was enough to not let me regret the opportunity to spend some time alone, re-acclimatizing in mind and body to Nica.

So once they left, I started to stroll purposefully and unafraid to the kitchen area to forage for something to eat. I left my room and rounded the corner of this big concrete building, rain thundering down on the roof, all alone except for anonymous guard – and then, the lights went out. Ok, so it’s a conspiracy. Somebody is trying to make me be afraid. Aha I say – not me! I’m don’t roll that way and so I grope my way back in the pitch black (did I say PITCH BLACKNESS) to pull out one of the battery operated lights Sor Delia had requested for orphanage in San Fernando. Once found, I resume my search for something to eat and by the time I get down to the kitchen, the lights and the power resume. So there I think – I refuse to be intimidated!

Mauricio hasn’t changed a bit and is still the friendly, stalwart Nicaraguan man that I remember. I’d rely on this man in a hurricane. Fabricio, all of 22 now is smiling and helpful and just a little enigmatic introduces me to Ariana, his friend that he as brought along after my request for an extra pair of hands and translator for our visit to El Crucero, scheduled for our afternoon meeting. After lunch at Tip Top, (Nicaragua’s Kentucky Fried Chicken quick food) we are headed into the mountains.

Stalwart Mauricio

Stalwart Mauricio

As I start to collect my scattered thoughts so I can put them down in this blog, I acknowledge, it’s been a day – a good day. Up at 2:45am to catch a 5:20am plane out of Newark, my flight uneventful, I am deposited in Managua at 11:30am. Right on time. By now, I feel as if I know the ropes and maneuver my way through getting my luggage, through customs and then waiting for my ride. All without issue. After 15 minutes or so of waiting, I finally see Fabricio – and the additional translator I had requested named Ariana – and am pleased that I don’t have to come up with a back up plan if no one shows up o get me. Since I didn’t have a back up plan, this is a very good thing. Mauricio hasn’t changed a bit and is still the friendly, stalwart Nicaraguan man that I remember. I’d rely on this man in a hurricane. Fabricio, all of 22 now is smiling and helpful and just a little enigmatic introduces me to Ariana, his friend that he as brought along after my request for an extra pair of hands and translator for our visit to El Crucero, scheduled for our afternoon meeting. After lunch at Tip Top, (Nicaragua’s Kentucky Fried Chicken quick food) we are headed into the mountains.

Me and Fabricio

Me and Fabricio

Ariana

Ariana

The rain that is still thundering as I write this, hadn’t yet started but was definitely threatening as we drove up the mountain. Heavy overcast skies, seemed to turn the air into thick, grey soup. We arrive at El Crucero to be welcomed by 2 nuns that I remember but not their names and then are greeted with a warm hug by Madre Griselda. She hasn’t changed a bit either – it must be the air and humid climate here – it’s absolutely a preservation miracle.
Saying hello

We discover upon entering the compound that today they are holding a Mother’s Day celebration for the local village children and their mothers. My kids – meaning the OHP children – are intermingled with about 100 people all watching various children perform on stage in native dress to fast, pulsing Latin beat. We watch for a while as they take turns performing. The children are obviously delighted and it is fun to watch but mindful of my own agenda, we leave to go speak with Madre about stuff. Ie: what’s happening at El Crucero.

We spend an hour discussing all of my agenda points. Did I just say Agenda Points? What am I – back at Citigroup? I am well aware that “agenda points” in not in the vernacular here and kind of laugh at my ridiculousness. I have to remind myself to stay to the point, don’t veer off course and don’t get hi-jacked into discussing things that aren’t relevant. Since I am only making a single trip per year, I need to get the information I need. Or so I tell myself anyway. While we are talking, Ariana is making the rounds and taking pictures of the facility. My only instruction to her – other than how to use the camera – was just take pictures of everything and everybody. We could sort the photos out later.

I am pleased to note that photos of the facility show improvements in the dorm rooms and most especially in the new roof over much of the complex – a donation from another NGO. Madre tells us about the situation at El Crucero – they have a good, steady food supply now, either by donations or supplementation with the OHP monthly funds we provide – and that is a big relief. Something that was one of the very original goals of the OHP is now status quo. The children also have regular medical care provided by a doctor that visits monthly and to my surprise, DAILY visits by a psychologist who sees every one of the children on a regular basis. Since most of these children have some type of childhood trauma – abandonment, abuse – sexual or otherwise, malnutrition, – this focus on their mental and emotional health is a very welcome piece of information. We then discuss the children, those with special needs – not as many as their once were but still too many – and the future prospects of both the older girls and the boys. Some of the older girls have been moved to the orphanage at Juigalapa – the facility that is light years ahead of the others in terms of accommodations and supplies – and I am told that all of the girls are doing quite well there. As for the boys, who I am concerned will be in limbo once they reach puberty – (orphanages run by Nuns that consist mainly of girls aren’t particularly conducive to having teen age boys around for obvious reasons) and am told that they have been offered yet another facility that they may use to open a orphanage for boys. No decision yet however, so this is up in the air.

Madre then takes us to view the new library or Story Room as they call it. I was delighted! It is a big open room with beautifully painted murals on the walls, a ring of small chairs just screaming STORY TIME and wall to wall books. Sor Andrea, the nun who had previously been at the Managua Casa Cuna/ Juan Pablo orphanage is in charge here. When we walked in the room, she was there smiling and obviously very proud and at home. A little background here is that this Sister is the one who used to be responsible for the smallest of the children at the always hot, sticky, overcrowded and small orphanage located in the bowels of Managua. On a block lined with rundown buildings and prostitute and drug dealers bookending the stgreet, she was a testament to the faith that drives these women to do what they do. It was truly a difficult place – and I am understating the description by a mile – to live and work. I saw her each time I visited and she never smiled. Never. The only enjoyment she seemed to get was the education she imparted to the little ones before they were transferred to El Crucero once they were old enough for formal school. Each 4 and 5 year old knew how to read before arriving there; all due to Sor Andrea’s efforts. So to see her smiling and so obviously in her efforts melted my heart and brought a lump to my throat. After my genuine exclamations of joy to see this room filled with books (I love books), I went to her, held her hand and asked if she was happy to be here in this place with all these books available for the children. Fabricio did a masterful job of translating for me but my real intention was for her to feel, through the grip I had on her hand, how happy I was for her AND the children. Truly a blessing all around.

The new library with Sor Carmen and Madre

The new library witha smiling Sor Carmen and Madre

Short facility tour over, we set to the chaos of getting new pictures of the children and giving out gifts. Thanks to both Fabricio and Ariana, this was accomplished in a slightly less chaotic fashion than in the past but once the word spread to the children – who were still in the throws of all the activity from the Mothers’ Day celebration and residual villagers still around – that we had gifts, they started hovering. I was very pleased to talk to each one of the children individually (with Fabricio’s help translating of course ) and saw so many of the kids that I have seen each year.

Me with Mileydis, Carlos, Sara and Joseph

Me with Mileydis, Carlos, Sara and Joseph

Sara, Mileydis – my smart-as-a-whip little friend, Wendy and Maria the two sisters, Kenneth, Carlos, Alexis, the three musketters and of course my Allison, all bubbly and smiling and missing her two front teeth.
The hug I was waiting for

The hug I was waiting for

Me and Allison

Me and Allison

They are all so big but I do a fairly good job of getting their names right despite the fact that they have all changed. And then the new girls Xochital who is 9 and so small from malnutrition that she is more like a 7 year old, beautiful but hesitant Estefany a teenager with secrets behind her eyes, and Priscilla, yet another young girl with a childhood history that she doesn’t deserve. Did I tell you again what a delight it is to be with them? Truly truly this is my gift for any small efforts on my part to help them. They are all at once bubbly and shy, friendly and reserved and then once they see that my intentions are good, my hugs are genuine and I will kiss everyone that I find in my arms, they relax and the chaos truly begins. Pictures taken, gifts given out and a disappointing number of children not available for pictures and we are almost done.

The afternoon has sped by and it is close to 3 hours since we arrived. I know the others are tired and the evening is getting close. The air has been oppressive and it feels as if we are actually in the clouds – which we probably are – since the sky has been gloomy and threatening since we arrived. I am glad that I had seen Allison at the beginning of our visit because she is nowhere to be found now. Of the one day that I am there for this entire year, her mother, Haydelina is also here in honor of the Mother’s Day celebration. Knowing that their relationship is truly bitter sweet but that Allison will want to spend as much time with her as possible, I find out later that she has taken Allison home for the weekend and I miss my opportunity to talk to her or even say goodbye for another year. I am happy to have had the brief hugs that I had earlier and tell myself to just let it be. I don’t have to see her to love her. I know she cannot know this but I will keep coming back so eventually, she will.

The kids – especially the boys – want to know when I am coming back. When? What month? They want specifics and I am surprised but not really since they ask the same thing every time I am there. The boys always wanting a promise and a date. Since I don’t have one, I start to choke up and say “No se” or “I don’t know” – which they accept, with a puzzled frown – how come I don’t know?? – and then I ask for big hug from them all.

Saying goodbye

Saying goodbye

A flurry of hugs and flying pony tails and hair in my mouth as I am kissing each one and hugging them all. I take a special moment to tell Mileydis – she is so bright and so special and deserves so much more – that she is special and smart and that if she studies real hard and does well in school, I will be sure that she goes to University when she is old enough. This is no ideal promise, I will make this happen if only, IF ONLY, she can make that far without falling into the same trap her parents and most of the parents of these many children have done. She needs a skill and/or an education that will give her the ladder out of this rural poverty. She cannot be just another girl who will have a child while still a child, crushing her opportunities. She is special to me this one, as they all are, but she is more so. I want her to know this and hope that in some small way, she understands and believes me.
The children

Me and the children

Once in the truck, I am quiet: absorbing, de-compressing, thinking. As always, Nicaragua, and especially these children – my children – cause an onslaught of emotion, ideas and hopes. Have I gotten satisfactory answers to my concerns regarding vocational skills, internet use, and opportunities for the older girls? Yes but no and I hope that the new promise of a new Sister – Sor Carmen – to communicate with will facilitate these issues further. But I know that I am up against – and I say this with reckless American determination – a culture that does not and will not change overnight. If I can help save just a few of these children from the future that is looming – the no-escape, no alternative future – I will be happy. But satisfied? No, never. Not until all of them have a means to reach their fullest potential and bring their country with them. The rain is still coming down in torrents. That’s 3 straight hours. I have no internet so will have to wait until tomorrow to try to post this once Sr. Debbie and James are here and can help me sort it out. I’m still alone here – just me and the bugs that have flown in while I tried to get some air into the stillness of my room – and I realize that day one is done.

Trip #6 -Leaving in 4 days…

I’ll be leaving on my next trip to Nicaragua next Wednesday. I’ll be spending most of this weekend getting ready….thank you to those who sent donations. I did some shopping and although I thought I might only bring a suitcase, that won’t be the case. I definitely bought enough for two suitcases full!

I know the children will be thrilled and especially with the gifts and letters from their sponsors. They love this personal contact.

In addition to toys, games and school supplies for the children, I also have a bag full of things to give to our contact at CARITAS.ORG. Although we won’t get to meet with the children, I know that she will be sure the pencils, pens, toiletries and toys will be distributed to children who can really use them.

Please be sure to share this blog with a friend, family or co-worker who might be interested in what we are trying to do to help the children.

Just Packed suitcases- almost full!

Just Packed suitcases- almost full!

Returning to Nicaragua – OHP trip #6 May 2013

I will be returning to Nicaragua (my 6th trip!) on May 29 – June 2. I will be traveling with Sr. Debbie Blow, Executive Director of MoH (and my dear friend) and James Carlin (current President of the Board for the MoH and another good friend) so needless to say, I’m very excited!

We all have specific tasks to achieve on this trip. I will be visiting two of the four orphanages to see the children, take pictures and meet with the Sisters in charge to discuss ongoing aspects of the Orphan’s Hope Project. As I mentioned previously, I will focus on getting the internet and college funding for the teenage girls as a priority. Wish me luck – this will take some powerful communication on my part to bridge the gap between cultures. Their priorities are not always ours but in this, I hope to win them over….only time will tell.

I’m really happy that Sr. Debbie and James will be traveling with me up to San Fernando, to the orphanage in northern Nicaragua. I have promised both of them that the trip itself is wonderful, just seeing another part of the country was a gift. But of course, visiting with Sr. Delia and the 16 children there is our main focus. I expect to see improvements now that they are receiving monthly funding from OHP.

We will also be visiting a number of other places that Mission of Hope is helping – most I’ve not been to before. This is the part of the agenda that belongs to Sr. Debbie and James and I’m happy to go along for the ride. We will visit a Women’s Shelter, a very poor public school and a children’s hospital. (That last one has me worried about my own reaction to poor and sick children. Let’s just say my control wavers significantly. But I know I can count on Sr. Debbie to pinch me to help). We will also visit with Caritas- (http://www.caritas.org/) the organization we are working with to help the HIV orphans. They too are receiving money monthly from OHP and I am eager to hear updates on this and the children.

I’m looking forward to this trip. It’s been 9 months since my last visit and the children are growing and getting bigger. Of course, the highlight of the trip will be the children’s welcoming smiles and hugs. It’s really the best part. I especially want to hug my Allison (who lost her two front teeth!) and my new sponsored child, Osmani, a 9 month old baby boy in San Fernando.

Alisson Tatiana Centeno

Alisson Tatiana Centeno

Meeting Osmani

Meeting Osmani

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