Editor’s note: Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. And aside from a few surfers and tourists, most people who fly into its capital, Managua, are on a service trip. In June, two groups of Napans visited Nicaragua with different missions in different towns. Lenore Hirsch writes about her recent trip in this first in a series, and in a future edition, will recount the experience of the New Technology High School group in Nicaragua.

Children growing up in Empalme de Boaco eat a diet of rice and beans, have one or two school uniforms that get washed frequently by hand, and must wash themselves without indoor plumbing. Yet they manage to come to school clean and neat with a twinkle in their eyes. At a dusty intersection of two main roads an hour northeast of Managua, the town is home to several thousand people who subsist by selling food and drinks to bus riders.

Jake Scheideman of St. Helena started a foundation, Developing Communities, to help this town after stumbling across it 20 years ago. He has brought Americans there ever since to build houses, a ball field and a high school, and to paint and improve various buildings in the town. The foundation provides scholarships for students and facilitated the introduction of the Internet.

For my second trip in 2009, I persuaded music teacher Marianne Lyon to come with me to the elementary school to teach 350 kids in grades kindergarten to 6 songs in Spanish and English. With the help of Deb Wallace, principal of Napa Valley Language Academy, and Deb’s daughters Brianna and Melody, we had a wonderful week of music and dance, culminating in a program for the whole community.

We had talked about returning ever since, and finally everyone’s schedules were in sync. Marianne planned a program of songs and games we could teach in a week. With husbands Steve Wallace and Jim Lyon, both educators, we flew to Managua in mid-June. In response to my email query, principal Vilmar Cantillano told me what he most wanted for his school: musical instruments. A couple of Napa teachers who were not able to come along gave us money to buy them.

Cantillano met us in Managua, and we spent a happy morning purchasing drums and lyres for their marching-style band, as well as a guitar for the principal. We arrived in Empalme de Boaco Monday afternoon. School was in session, but the staff and kids had organized a reception for our little group. Students performed folk dances and recited poetry; familiar teachers gave speeches welcoming us back.

After an invigorating afternoon, we visited my favorite place in town — the shiny gas station that went in a few years back —the only place with air conditioning, toilets, and a cooler full of water and soft drinks. We visited many times in order to survive the tropical heat and humidity. After refreshing ourselves, we appeared for dinner at the cafe where we had made arrangements for a local woman, Lorena, to cook for us.

Nicaraguan rice and beans, gallo pinto, is the foundation of every meal. Staff serves it to the kids at school daily; some do not get much else to eat. They pick mangoes and other fruit when they find it. Lorena usually fed us chicken, some kind of rice, fruit drinks she makes herself, and homemade plantain chips, which are slightly salty, crisp, and disappear fast.

We stayed at an old resort t 10 minutes down the road; it’s memorable for the hot springs that ensure warm showers and a relaxing bedtime soak in the mineral pools on the grounds.

Maestros Steve and Jim introduced our project in each classroom, passed out blow-up globes, and showed the kids the locations of Bangladesh, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Cuba, and Rwanda. For the next four days, we taught two classes at a time a song and game from each country. The children proved to be quick learners of the foreign words in the Asian and African chants. The dances were challenging but fun. The principal told us that attendance increased during our visit.

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One afternoon during a break in our schedule, I set out to find my former scholarship student, Jaquelin. Four years ago, at age 15, she had a baby girl. I had urged her then to go back to school. I found Jaquelin at her mother’s house, a two-room crumbling adobe building with a tin roof and an outdoor kitchen. It is home for four adults and numerous children. Jaquelin greeted me with her daughter by her side and a 2-month-old son on her hip. She told me a third child had died. I was thrilled to see her framed high school graduation picture on the wall. She is planning to attend university on the weekends to become a nurse.

Back at school, the children filled pages with words and drawings about the games and we assembled their work into classroom books. We invited them to bring their families on Saturday morning to show off the new games. Deb led a group in practicing “This Little Light of Mine” in Spanish. We ordered some special cakes and drove 20 minutes to Boaco Friday night to pick them up, enjoying dinner out at Alpino restaurant.

Half of the kids showed up on Saturday to play the games. A few parents even joined in the dancing. After our program, the band put on an impressive performance, considering they only had a couple of days to practice with the new instruments. Most important in declaring their competency to the world, they were loud! Before serving cake, the school staff presented each of us a certificate of appreciation. The kind words of Nirma, a favorite teacher whom I first met six years ago, brought tears to my eyes. She thanked us for our friendship and for returning from so far away to our “family” in Nicaragua.

We heard from teachers and parents of their interest in learning English. The high school principal said that in order to get jobs, the kids need to know English and computers. Perhaps there is an organization that would send an English teacher to the town to work with the whole community.

We ended our time in Nicaragua with a few days in the city of León and at Las Peñitas beach, soaking up colonial architecture, local culture and art, and more than a few bottles of our favorite local beer, Victoria Frost.

For more information about Developing Communities, visit DevelopingCommunities.com.

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