Tag Archives: central america

An Education in San Benito

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Village of San Benito, Nicaragua
(photo credit: Brittany Policastro)

San Benito is a community of 88 beautiful families (350 people) located in the Department of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. There are 94 energetic, curious students enrolled in primary school in San Benito. They currently study with two teachers in a private house. Since the house is only comprised of one room, the children attend school in two groups: Kindergarten through third grade in the morning and fourth through sixth grades in the afternoon.

Jerry Samuel, age 11 (photo credit: Mary Kate Ruffing)

Jerry Samuel, age 11
(photo credit: Mary Kate Ruffing)

In Nicaragua, the school year runs from February to November (based around the harvest season), and elementary education is free and compulsory. Although it is still customary for children to work for their parents from a young age, especially in farming communities like San Benitio, this village has made the commitment to their children to make education a priority, and to give their children a choice when it comes to creating their future.

Jerry Samuel, pictured above, was my favorite kid I met in San Benito. I know you’re not supposed to do that. Pick favorites. But if you had met this kid, you’d understand. Jerry followed our group around during our week’s stay in the village; not like a lost puppy, but a benevolent mayor. He smiled with his lips only slightly parted, but laughed in a way that made you feel like your jokes (or at least your broken Spanish words) were funny. I played Jenga with Jerry after dinner most nights, and gave him half of a leather shoelace the day we departed from the village. I kept the other half and tied it around my wrist. Jerry tied his to a plastic bottle and swung it in circles on the ground, like a Nicaraguan village version of SkipIt. I’ll never forget him.

Pato, pato... ganso! (Photo credit: Ella Cuda)

Pato, pato… ganso!
(Photo credit: Ella Cuda)

A San Benito community member, Sandra Miranda, said: “Education is the biggest need in our community. We would like to have a nice and comfortable building where our kids will receive the bread of knowledge. We want to see future doctors and teachers. I would also like to learn to read and write because I did not have the opportunity when I was a kid.”

"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children." - Gandhi

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” -Gandhi
(photo credit: Charly Simpson)

Worldwide, there are 57 million children of primary school age without access to a classroom. Nearly one in six people around the world cannot read or write. No country has ever achieved continuous and rapid economic growth without first having at least 40% of its adults literate.

The above photo is of a student in the neighboring village of Los 40. He carries his desk to school because there aren’t any in the classroom. Through our project with buildOn, each new school is supplied with necessary supplies, including desks.

Mi familia - Perla y Arsineo

(L to R) Julie, Perla, Mary Kate and Arsenio – Our Host family / Our new friends

The people of San Benito are farmers, are their staple crops are coffee, cacao, corn and beans. In Nicaragua today, coffee supports the 45,000 families that own and operate small farms. Though the farmers are extremely proud of their land and product, they are also vulnerable. People’s vulnerability to the fluctuating coffee prices depends upon their location in the coffee commodity chain and their access to assets such as land, credit, diversified income sources and social networks.

One night, sitting outside on white plastic chairs under the blanket of stars, I asked our host dad, Arsenio, if he was happy with the price he receives for the coffee he grows and sells. I was told that Arsenio grew a unique variety of bean, one unlike his peers, and it was very special. Still, Arsenio shook his head no. The coffee farmers we spoke with receive $.50 to $1.00 for one large paint bucket full of beans. It’s unjust, because the labor it takes to grow and harvest coffee, as you can imagine, is quite extensive.

However, from my understanding, farmers like Arensio are less vulnerable to losing their livelihood, and that of their family, if coffee prices were to plummet below the already low selling price. This is because San Benito is aided by another nonprofit organization who has helped the village thrive in self-sufficiency: Agros International provided the resources for the San Benito families to set up shop in this growing village – namely land for homes, gardens, and cash-crops.

Dina, age 6

Dina, age 6

“When you educate a man you educate one person, when you educate a women you educate an entire family.” – African Proverb

When women and girls have the chance to advance their lives through education, the entire community reaps the benefits. At buildOn, the partner organization with whom we built the school, gender equality is the cornerstone of their methodology.

On the job site, men and women worked side-by-side performing the physical labor to build the school. Women are encouraged to step outside traditional gender norms and try different tasks, such as laying bricks, digging the foundation and mixing concrete. Indeed, the women of San Benito plunged their shovels deeply and fervently into the earth, literally breaking ground on their children’s’ futures.

As a condition of partnering with buildOn, each village makes a promise to send their daughters to school in equal numbers with their sons. Dina, pictured above, will certainly hold her own among the boys. She is feisty and fun, sassy and smart. I can’t wait to for the world to meet her.

Home

Home

We stayed with host families in San Benito, sleeping on cots, and living as they did: simply and purposefully. We generated no waste; there is no trash pick up in San Benito. Meals consisted primarily of rice and beans, though we also ate yucca and eggs from chickens kept in the back yard. We fell asleep to the sounds of roosters crowing, dogs barking, and monkeys howling.

Three meals daily were cooked over an open fire by the woman of the house, an idea that sounds quaint, but is truly terrible for their lungs. I hated hearing our host mom, Perla, coughing at night because of her work to cook our meals. This detail of her life is one of things I want to be different for her and her peers. I researched this issue upon my return home, and discovered that open-fire cooking is a major health issue in developing countries: exposure to cooking over an open fire causes over two million deaths from chronic lung diseases every year. To me, someone who has studied and celebrated the beauty of food, I felt like I had discovered another dark underbelly of its life. It was unsettling, to say the least. The good news is that there are people working on this issue – namely The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to whom the U.S. government has committed up to $105 million for research and debt financing for large-scale cookware businesses.

Perla had the most beautiful garden in the village. She spoke lovingly of her three-year-old daughter, Anna, who was staying with her mother in town for the week on holiday. Her daughter, she told us, would learn English. In fact, Perla traveled to the city of Matagalpa once-a-month or so to take English classes. My friend (and roommate) Mary Kate discovered Perla’s interest in English by finding a page torn from an English work book lying in the compost pile. Indeed Perla was shy about her English at first, shy about a lot of things in the beginning. But by the end of the week, we were exchanging words in both of our mother languages. Mary Kate and I were brought to tears during the closing ceremony when Perla got up in front of the whole village to speak, to say her thanks, and her goodbye; she was the first woman in the village to do this, followed only by two others, and it must have taken a lot of courage and conviction to make the decision to speak up and out in public.

Though our Spanish was lacking, or probably because of it, Mary Kate and I formed a quick and solid bond with Perla and Arsenio. The day we left, Arsenio told us that we would live with him forever – “en el corazon” (in his heart).

buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.

buildOn teams build schools with villages that have historically had no adequate school structure – where students are squeezed into dark and crumbling mud huts, or are taught under trees when the weather permits, or have to walk multiple miles to a neighboring village, or can’t attend school at all.

Our group raised $50,000 to build this school in San Benito and to travel there to be a part of its construction. We worked every day from 7am to 11pm, alongside men and women who live in the village and will directly benefit from the construction of the school. Barriers between our two groups were quickly disassembled. Working side by side, for a common purpose, blurred the lines between an “us” and a “them”, and it was clear that we were all there for the same reason: for the education of the 94 children of San Benito.

Stones, age 5

Stones, age 5

Leaving San Benito was emotional. Since our goodbye and subsequent return to Philadelphia, I’ve come to the conclusion that sincere, deep, and lasting connections are formed in environments saturated by vulnerability. Not vulnerability as in a place of imminent danger or doom, but vulnerability as a state of uncertainty, awkwardness, discomfort – or a farmer’s perpetual uncertainty of his crop – because in the attempt to soften these blows you reach out your hand to the person next to you. And because that person may be a perfect stranger, or just someone you don’t typically sleep next to, you expand – you have to crack open or you’ll crack up. You let yourself be vulnerable by falling back into a night of Nicaraguan stars deep enough that you’re destined to swim up with a discovery, or at least a shoelace, in your pocket.

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The school as it stands today! Almost complete!

Hey, thanks.  Love, Jerry and Julie

Hey, thanks. Love, Jerry and Julie

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To there – from here – with help

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“For one month follow the yes and don’t fight with no. Give more cooperation to the yes – that is from where you will be united. No never helps to attain unity. It is always yes that helps, because yes is acceptance, yes is trust, yes is prayer.”    – Osho

savasana

This morning, I posed a question to a friend:

“If today you had a strong desire to jump on a plane and go to another country for a week, if that place was calling you, would you do it?” Like many of you, I suspect, his answer was “no”. His reasons are probably yours, too: (lack of) money, plans and time.

I recognize my proposition as a tad nonsensical, but not far off from the space where I believe you should take flight if you’re called. Where do you want to go? And how are you going to get there?

When I was invited to move to Italy for a year, I was riding a wave of semi-irrational momentum that only brought me pause the night I sat at my kitchen table in Philadelphia, hunched over a glowing Excel spreadsheet with a phone pressed to my ear, my very rational mother on the other end.

“I can’t gooooo,” I wailed. I was staring at the screen of numbers – big numbers with dollar signs. My mother is extremely talented at managing, saving and moving dollars, an all-around rock star at her relationship with money, and she replied: “You’re right. You can’t.”

I could have folded at this point. Given up on this expensive dream. Cursed the lack of a trust fund. Instead, I called my sister. Though she didn’t give me money, she did tell me how much she had taken out in student loans for graduate school.

Then I sold my car and cashed in my vacation days. I left my job and I moved to Italy.

italy road

It wasn’t exactly waking up one day and putting a plane ticket on a credit card, but figuring out the numbers did feel satisfying, like scratching a hard-to-reach itch. When you want something bad enough, you get fueled to find and finish ways to make it happen. If you get too scared, or if there is a bigger plan in store for you, momentum usually dies and your Excel sheet wins.

Now, two years later, I’m planning my travels to Nicaragua with a group of yoga teacher trainees to build a school in a village there. You might think that getting to a hot country lacking in luxury would be easier than getting to the lush vineyards of northern Italy, but the legwork involved in coming up with the money to get to Nicaragua has proven to be more complex, challenging and uncomfortable by far.

While getting to Italy necessitated signing papers and promissory notes, getting to Nicaragua involves me asking other people to pay for it. Think that sounds weird? So do I. To participate in the school build project, each trainee has to raise $5,000 to fund a portion of the school building materials and their room and board with a host family in the village. While I could, hypothetically, pay my own way, this would be cheating the type of journey this is supposed to be (and is kind of against the rules of my training). So I’m challenging myself to do something uncomfortable. I’m challenging myself to be comfortable with asking for help.

Partnering with local mayor’s offices and a number of local NGOs, buildOn has constructed 94 schools throughout the regions of León, Chinandega, Nueva Segovia, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Madriz. These schools have built a new generation of readers and writers with limitless opportunities.

Partnering with local mayor’s offices and a number of local NGOs, buildOn has constructed 94 schools throughout the regions of León, Chinandega, Nueva Segovia, Esteli, Matagalpa, and Madriz. These schools have built a new generation of readers and writers with limitless opportunities.

Help given freely and without prompting – like when someone takes half of the six grocery bags you’re carrying out of your hand so that you can get your keys out of your pocket, or cleans the dishes after dinner because you did the cooking – feels pretty loving and fair.

But asking for help? Hard. Asking for money? Even worse. Asking for help makes me feel vulnerable, guilty, needy and annoying. Why should you help me? Help yourself! You work hard for your money! Go buy that plane ticket to Nepal and get yourself a nice cup of tea.

fold gratitude

Through this process of trying to get myself to Nicaragua by fundraising, I realized that a “You find your way and I’ll find mine” attitude is my default mode of operation, and it’s hindering. Yet it’s not surprising. I come from a lineage of strong, capable women and men – nurses and steel workers and breadwinners; the caretakers, not the ones being taken care of.

I wonder if the Nicaraguan men and women with whom we will build the school felt – and may feel when we get there – uncomfortable asking for help. There is no way that they could afford the materials for this new building without the assistance of buildOn, the non-profit facilitating the project, or the fundraising efforts of our Beyond Asana yoga teacher training group. It’s a lot of money. It’s taking a lot of time. It can feel like a burden. And yet I’m happy to do it.

Lajero School Volunteers, Nicaragua

Lajero School Volunteers, Nicaragua

But first –

To help others, I want to allow myself to experience what it feels like to be helped. To ask for support and to receive it. To live up to the responsibility I’m offering to accept. To let myself feel real, heavy gratitude toward another person for making something happen, and not just proud of myself for balancing my Excel sheet.

Asking isn’t easy and receiving isn’t a given. But I’m learning that when you let others help you, you give them the chance to be powerful and bright. When you let others help you, you relinquish control. You believe that you’re worthy of care and attention. When you let others help you, momentum and grace is gathered into a force infused with the energy of thousands and that vastly surpasses what could come from just one pair of hands.

Being on the receiving end of help allows you to learn what gratitude truly is, to say thank you… and mean it.

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Thank you to everyone who has made an individual donation on my buildOn page. At the halfway mark of my yoga teacher training, I am, fittingly halfway toward my fundraising goal. Thank you to the organizations whose foundational and generous support is helping to raise fuller funds faster:

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Australian artist Helena Rosebery sketched gorgeous "Veggie Asana" notecards for donor incentive gifts. View her work & imaginative design services at  http://www.facebook.com/bobiro.graphics

“The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Australian artist Helena Rosebery sketched gorgeous “Veggie Asana” notecards for donor incentive gifts. View her work & imaginative design services at http://www.facebook.com/bobiro.graphics

Meghan Nunes, Arbonne Independent Consultant & colleagues are donating a portion of summer sales to the Nicaragua school build project, having already contributed $250. Visit Meghan's page to buy fresh Arbonne skin care and health products at http://www.facebook.com/MeghanNunesArbonneI

Meghan Nunes, Arbonne Independent Consultant & colleagues are donating a portion of summer sales to the Nicaragua school build project, having already contributed $250. Visit Meghan’s page to buy fresh Arbonne skin care and health products at https://www.facebook.com/MeghanNunesArbonneIC

The fun guys over at Jackie Party Tops are donating each tank sale ($25) bought with the online promo code YOGA to the project. Head over to www.jackiepartytops.com to purchase (Women & Men's sizes)

The fun guys over at Jackie Party Tops are donating each tank sale ($25) bought with the online promo code YOGA to the project. Head over to http://www.jackiepartytops.com to purchase colorful tanks for women & men

Nicole Smith, owner of Pacific Yoga, Philadelphia's newest yoga studio in Fishtown, is hosting once-a-month First Friday pay-what-you-can donation classes from 6:00-7:30. All proceeds go to the project. www.pacificyogaphilly.com

Nicole Smith, owner of Pacific Yoga, Philadelphia’s newest yoga studio in Fishtown, is hosting once-a-month First Friday pay-what-you-can donation classes from 6:00-7:30 through November. All proceeds go to the project. http://www.pacificyogaphilly.com

Thank you to my teachers and my teachers’ teachers. To the leaders of the Beyond Asana yoga teacher training, Brittany Policastro and Maura Manzo. And to buildOn for their vision and organization.

Beyond Asana founded by Brittany Policastro Philadelphia, PA www.beyondasana.org

Founded by Brittany Policastro Philadelphia, PA http://www.beyondasana.org