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Education Plus: A “love-based” organization nurturing children and their families in Nicaragua

When Courtney Regan founded TravelStruck in 2012, she also co-founded Give a Day Global which connects travelers with one day volunteer experiences.  These unique opportunities to experience a different side of the communities travelers are visiting are often the highlights of trips, and ones that leave a lasting impression.

 

Emily Crichton came across a New York Times article about Courtney and voluntourism, and subsequently reached out to TravelStruck to design a 6-week trip exploring and volunteering Central and South America.  In this blog post she writes about one of these special experiences at Education Plus in Granada, Nicaragua. 

Photo credit: eduplusnicaragua.org

 

When Jim offered to take me on a tour of Pantanal - one of Granada's poorest barrios and the number one source of Granada's criminals, child prostitutes, and street children - I was simultaneously excited and nervous. I didn’t feel unsafe, so much as unworthy. Surely the locals would think I was just another privileged gringa volunteer invading their turf. Jim, on the other hand, had earned their respect and acceptance. Though the American expat’s 6-foot plus caucasian frame towers above his neighbors, and he speaks less-than-fluent Spanish ("it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks and I'm a very old dog" he proclaims), Jim knows every man's, woman's, and child's name that we encounter in the community. He greets everyone with a giant bear hug and beaming smile. When he asks someone "Como estas? Todo bien?", he genuinely wants to know the answer. In turn, the people of the community allow Jim, along with his small team of volunteers and his limited resources at Education Plus, to provide food, education, health-checkups, and activities (including, but not limited to, book club, sports, yoga, field trips, a peer-elected student council, and service club) for their children in order to “eliminate malnutrition, instill core values, and give them the resources and opportunities they need to rise above their impoverished circumstances.”

 

"1 in 4 children in Pantanal live on less than $1 per day"

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

Education Plus Nicaragua was founded on November 12, 2012 as an after-school program within the home of 8-year old Prisila Castillo. Forty children from the neighborhood came that first day to take classes from three volunteers, while Prisila’s mother and aunt cooked food for them. Today, the school has grown both in staff and students, relocated to a dedicated space in the community, and been renamed to Casa de los Sueños (“House of Dreams”). Yet, it remains a safe and nurturing place, where Pantanal’s children come to attend classes, eat, play, receive periodic medical attention, and fulfill their potential. Additionally, children are provided with filtered drinking water throughout the day, sanitary flushing toilets, and a handwashing station - luxuries that homes in the community are lacking. In addition to unsanitary conditions, substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, malnutrition, and lack of education are common throughout the community. Homes in Pantanal are mostly dirt-floor shacks that provide little protection from the elements, loosely assembled with whatever materials are available, and lacking in modern amenities, such as running water and electricity. The meal provided each day at CDLS may be the only one a child eats that day. The encouragement they receive from a teacher or the hug they get from a volunteer are sources of unconditional love that are not guaranteed at home.

 

"The median income of the poor in Nicaragua covers only 24% of the cost of the basic food basket. - World Food Program"

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

Though rich in natural resources and culture (with no shortage of safe and beautiful tourist destinations), Nicaragua is amongst the poorest of countries in the Americas. It also has the highest primary school dropout rate in Central America, highest rate of teen pregnancy in Latin America, and has a history of political unrest. In fact, just weeks after I left the country, violence overtook the streets of Nicaragua's capital - eventually spreading to other cities, including Granada - and has been an ongoing issue since*.

 

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

In a country where children have numerous reasons to give up on dreaming for a better life, Jim's students believe that going to university and overcoming the obstacles their families face is actually within their reach. During my brief time with the organization, I helped teach their English-language classes and sat in on a few others, where the kids engaged in everything from art and acting to reading and math. When class wasn’t in session, we did what every kid wants to do… put puzzles together, swang on the monkey bars, tossed a ball around, and danced (and did we dance! Every school in the world should have a weekly dance party. It really feeds the soul). At the end of the day, my facial muscles hurt from smiling so much. I can’t remember another time that I’ve received so many hugs in one day. I can only imagine what it feels like for the kids living in Pantanal to experience that energy. How magical.

 

"In Nicaragua, only 4 in 10 children will make it past 5th grade. In impoverished areas like Pantanal, that rate is much lower. - UNICEF"

 

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Nicaragua has such enormous hurdles to overcome with the country’s beauty and the warmth I was met with at CDLS. Perhaps it’s this dichotomy that makes volunteering there so gratifying. I can’t wait to go back and do check-ups & health education with Education Plus once I get my California nursing license. If nothing else, there will be smiling faces, lots of hugs, and someone eager to learn English or get pushed on the swings. And don’t think for a second that I’m not going to dance like nobody’s watching.

 

Follow the links to find out more about volunteering, making a donation, or sponsoring a child. Education Plus on Facebook

 

E-mail: info@eduplusnicaragua.org

 

Volunteering at Education Plus

Education Plus is open from 9:00am – 6:00pm daily. The organization operates with the help of a small staff and volunteers, along with support from various partners and donors. They welcome volunteers from all cultures and backgrounds, and ask that volunteers stay at least a month (but they do make exceptions). Additionally, they offer a one-day volunteer experience or 1/2 day neighborhood tour. Spanish is not required, but it is extremely helpful. There is no fee for volunteering, however, there is a nominal fee of USD $40.00 per groups of 4 people or less for the one-day tour, which contributes to school supplies and services for the children.

 

Granada

Most of Education Plus’ volunteers choose to stay in Granada’s colonial center. Clean, tourist-friendly hotels, hostels, and apartments are plentiful and affordable. I stayed at Hotel Plaza Colon, a sustainable boutique hotel situated on the main Plaza. It has been the home of many of the renowned families of Granada, the last of whom decided to renovate the property into a hotel. In fact, the current facade of Plaza Colon is the same as it was at the turn of the 19th century.

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

When you’re not volunteering, take advantage of Granada’s amazing scenery, fascinating attractions, and delicious food. Top picks:

  • Simply walking around Parque Central and its immediate surrounding area can occupy an entire day, as beautiful colonial architecture, old churches, boutiques, street vendors, musicians, and cafes/restaurants/bars line the cobblestone streets. You can also tour the town in one of the horse-drawn carriages parked along the Plaza**. Most of the drivers are Spanish-speaking only, but I planned ahead and had an English-speaking guide accompany me on the ride.

  • Start your city tour at the Museo de Chocolate (because who can possibly tour a city without getting a chocolate buzz first?).

  • Visit Iglesia La Merced for sweeping views of the city from the bell tower. 

  • Venture to the Cementerio de Granada, filled with striking mausoleums and tombs, including those of six Nicaraguan presidents.

  • Walk through the Convento y Museo San Francisco, which simultaneously houses an old convent and one of the most interesting museums in the region.

  • For relief from the Granada heat, seek out one of the street carts selling freshly squeezed juice in a bag. It’s not only packaged para llevar, but it’s made right before your eyes, so you know it’s going to be good.

  • Kayak or hire a small boat to take you around Las Isletas. This network of over 360 islands formed when Volcan Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago. In addition to enjoying the lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and splendor of Lake Nicaragua, you’ll also pass by some gorgeous high-end homes (I hear you can rent some of them too). Grab almuerzo and a cerveza at one of the little island restaurants along the way.

  • Eat nacatamales!

  • Things I didn’t have time to do, but wish I had: hike up Volcan Masaya; hang out at Laguna de Apoyo; visit Isla de Ometepe.

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

*The recent violence actually started as peaceful protests stemming from outrage at President Daniel Ortega’s attempt to reform the country's pension system. Over a thousand people have been injured and more than 110 people have been killed in the country since mid-April, amid clashes between forces loyal to President Daniel Ortega and opposition groups demanding his removal. If you’re considering visiting Nicaragua, check official travel advisories first.

 

Photo credit: Emily Crichton

 

**It was a lovely ride, but I admit, I was skeptical about whether or not the operation is ethical. My guide explained to me that it has been a family business since the mid-1800s, that they take great care of the horses, and take great pride in their work. Our driver was certainly nothing but professional and courteous (he also knew EVERYONE in town, so I nicknamed him “el jefe”. That gave him a chuckle). I don’t have the answer and there are mixed opinions out there, so you be the judge.

 

 

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