by Nat Frothingham
At this very moment, seven young men and women from Nicaragua—all in their 20s—are visiting Vermont and New Hampshire with an extended stay in Montpelier and a strong, recent presence at Montpelier High School.
The visitors, led by a trip leader Ariel Alejandro Soza Escorcia who has an almost total command of English, participated in a lively dinner, music, dance and theater party at Bethany Church in Montpelier on October 17.
Describing the event in a follow-up e-mail message to The Bridge, Planting Hope Board Co-Chair Emily Sloan wrote: “It turned into a great event: all tables filled; all enjoyed the various dance and theater performances; then all danced happily and exuberantly well past 9 p.m.”
The current visit traces its roots to Beth Merrill and the founding of Planting Hope in 2001.
Beth, who continues on today as the organization’s executive director, made her first contact with the Central American country of Nicaragua while on a college internship there. As part of that internship she was asked to teach in a local Nicaraguan school while the regular teacher was on a maternity leave. As the Planting Hope website explains, “Through this experience she made deep connections with the families in the La Chispa neighborhood of Matagalpa … a city in the central coffee-growing mountains of the country.”
Several years later, Beth visited Nicaragua again and asked members of the La Chispa community what they needed most. Their answer was, “A library.”
She returned to Montpelier, raised the money to build a library, and Planting Hope was born.
Now, 13 years after its founding, Planting Hope has grown by leaps and bounds. In a typical year, Planting Hope is bringing six or seven separate service learning delegations of North Americans (and a delegation typically consists of 20 people or less of various age groups from schools, universities and local communities) for 10-day visits to Matagalpa and a chance to live with a host family, hear Spanish being spoken and share the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.
Emily Sloan talked about what a delegation member experiences in a typical day. Waking up in the home of a host family and having breakfast. washing your clothes on a stone surface before heading out to participate in a range of activities that might include making puppets, sharing games, absorbing Spanish as it is spoken and shadowing children in the classroom of a local school.
“It’s so immediate and real,” said Emily about her two visits to Nicaragua. “You live with a family. You share their lives.” Nicaraguan trip leader Ariel Escorcia made almost the same point saying, “You live the real life. They live the real life with the people in Nicaragua.”
Emily was also impressed by what a visit to Nicaragua could mean for North American teens. “Seeing North American kids getting outside of their country, watching the exchange between the two cultures.”
At the October 17 dinner and dance party, there were colorful, printed programs on each table in the downstairs activity room at Bethany Church. The printed program included a biographical sketch and a photo of each of the seven visiting Nicaraguans.
In the printed program, one woman introduced herself with these words: “My name is Nereyda, and I am 28 years old. I am a mother of two beautiful children and have worked with Foster Hope since 2002. I speak very little English but a teacher I had once told me that it you can say five words from another language, you speak the other language.”
One young man from Nicaragua, Marvin Antonio Kraudy Flores, introduced himself in the printed program by telling the story of his struggle through youth.
“I grew up working. My father bought land to grow corn and beans and raise pigs. He would slaughter the pigs and send the meat to restaurants in San Ramon. He would send us out after 6:00 p.m. to sell nacatamales in the street. It was going well, but then things went downhill. My dad hit my mom a lot, and we defended her. My mom built a plastic house apart from my father on the land. She sent us to sell firewood and if we didn’t sell it, she’d hit us … When I was 12 years old I decided to sell scratch-off lottery tickets. Later I sold newspapers. After that I shined shoes which was a good business ….”
Flores tells of seeing a dance troupe come to Matagalpa. “I leaned their moves, watching them closely and practicing each night at home. The troupe leader asked me to study dance with them.” Eventually Flores became active in theater. Later he became a marching band leader for the elementary school, also a soccer and basketball referee and a girls’ soccer coach. Now he’s working with Planting Hope teaching dance, music, theater and physical education at the Coffee Camps and with the project’s Mobile Library for Peace.
Some of the young North Americans who have visited Nicaragua with Planting Hope shared their perspectives on what the experience had meant for them.
Tarran Clammer, a Planting Hope participant from U-32 High School, compared Nicaraguans to North Americans. “Their lives are less based on money. I think their lives are based on each other, on the community,” he said.
Emily noted her daughter, Zivah, felt welcome and at home and relaxed during her stay in Nicaragua. “You make long-lasting relationships in 10 days,” her daughter had said.
Planting Hope participant Sam Darmstadt noted that Nicaraguan houses are smaller than North American houses. He said that in Nicaragua there are not as many material things as there are in the United States. “People are happier. People are always smiling,” he said. When he got back to this country from Nicaragua, he asked his parents, “When can I go back?”
For more information about becoming part of Planting Hope’s service learning delegations and/or month-long internships in San Ramon please visit www.plantinghope.org. Or contact Beth Merrill at firstname.lastname@example.org.