How It All Started
On August 15th, 2008, I packed up my bags and embarked on an indefinite journey to Nicaragua. My initial plan was to write travel guides for a travel-writing publication called Viva Travel Guides. There was a ‘travel-writing boot camp’ held in Granada, Nicaragua on August 18th, which was a one-week crash course in travel writing. Afterwards, the attendees were given their assignments to write about restaurants, hotels and other tourist activities in various places in Nicaragua.
My assignments were in Rivas, San Juan del Sur, and the Rio San Juan region (the desolate area along the river bordering Costa Rica.) The payment was $3.00 per 80-word review and the assignments added up to over one hundred. No travel expenses were covered.
I began the journey with my best friend Dafina Williams, who met me in Granada. Together we traveled to San Juan del Sur, a small surfer town in the southwest area of Nicaragua. We arrived on September 1st, and five days later, she left and I was there–alone in Nicaragua with a list of assignments and a wide-open future. I spent a month in San Juan del Sur, and fell in love with the laid-back lifestyle and open, passionate culture. I left to finish my other assignments along the Rio San Juan, and spent October, backpacking alone through the rain in remote locations of Nicaragua, many without Internet connections, phone service or even electricity.
By December, it became obvious that I could not continue supporting myself writing travel guides. Traveling was more expensive than living in one place, and I had spent a great deal more money than I had made. Running out of funds, I found myself back in San Juan, and began looking for apartments. A couple Nicaraguan friends I had made directed me towards the neighborhood, ‘La Planta,’ where a family offered me a room in their house for $40/month. The house had unfinished, cement walls and floors, and the room contained a single bed with a hard mattress, a fan and a small window with adjustable, plastic panes. The family did everything to make it accommodating to me, and brought me a dilapidated wooden table, covered with a red and green Christmas tablecloth to use as a desk and gave me one of their plastic chairs. I set up my computer and books, and unpacked my suitcase, hanging my clothes from a clothesline suspended across the ceiling. The house had a small, dank bathroom without running water and I became accustomed to bathing by dumping buckets of cold water on myself, and flushing the toilet, by throwing water in there, as well. I learned to conserve water by filling up half-buckets, and not conditioning my hair. The ceilings weren’t completely attached to the tin roof, allotting room for ventilation but also allowing insects in, and causing a lot of dust to cover my sheets, books and computer. I woke up in the morning sweaty, itchy and uncomfortable to the sounds of roosters crowing and the smell of rice and beans and fried fish.
Although the people of the Planta were clearly very poor, I was also considerably broke, considering the fact I had debts in the states I could not get on hold, pilfering large quantities of money from my savings, while I ceased to make any sort of income. Every dollar I spent was one step closer to having to return to the States, which I was determined not to do, so I spent as little as possible. The family I lived with, Martha Lisia, her three kids (Edwin, Yan Francisco and Adriana) and her husband Juan Carlos, a fisherman, took me in with open arms when I needed it the most. I had become lost, lonely and detached from my friends, family and past. I was in a period of complete confusion and alienation. They offered me home-cooked food when they could, brought me coffee and cookies in the morning, took care of me when I was sick and offered me general life advice, heeding warnings about local scam-artists and disapproving of late-night fiestas. The whole neighborhood was pretty much the same way. The neighbors invited me into their houses to sit on plastic chairs, among dogs, roosters and babies and talk about life philosophies and cultural perspectives. Although not educated, the people in the neighborhood were very insightful and had a strong sense of community I had never felt before in the States. I was the only ‘gringa’ (a term that in Nicaragua refers to anyone European, Canadian or from the United States) who had ever lived in the neighborhood. Instead of alienating or ridiculing me, they accepted me with open arms. I became an honorary Nicaraguan and member of ‘La Planta.’ Since the community was all about sharing everything they had, no matter what it was, I felt a strong desire to share something with them. While I didn’t have any money to give, there was one thing I did have that could benefit them: English. People in the neighborhood began to ask me when I was going to teach them English. “I don’t know,’ I said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’ve never taught English before.’ “It’s easy,” they told me. “Just start at the basics.”
In February, another best friend of mine, Julia Gavin came to visit with her mom, Pat McFarland. Fifteen years ago, Pat had started her own organization called “Special Vacations,” for ‘Special People with Unlimited Abilities.” The organization takes developmentally disabled adults on exciting trips to stimulate them and allow them to embrace their inner-child and escape their otherwise monotonous lifestyles. I told her about my idea. “Just start it,” she told me. “It doesn’t matter if you have any materials or anything. Even if it’s just four people in your living room, just start it now. Actions speak louder than words.” I had become isolated in the barrio, and unaware of all the opportunities in the world of tourism brewing just down the hill. Pat informed me of the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Movil, Nicaragua’s first lending library, which had tables, chairs and a whiteboard. I asked them if I could use their space. “Of course,” they said nonchalantly. I was dumbfounded. “You mean, no one else is using it?’ “Nope, it’s all yours!” To start things off, Pat donated fifty dollars, which Julia and I used to buy notebooks, juice and cookies for the first class, and make photocopies. I posted a sign on the wall of my house that said, ‘Free English Classes. Sign up here.’ In Nicaragua, kids go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon. So I decided to hold two classes, one afternoon class and one morning class. The founder of the library, Jane Mirandette, was very supportive and offered us her materials, supplies and support. With that, along with Pat’s donation, Julia and I began to teach the kids of the Barrio Planta English. We met at my house twice a day and walked the kids about twenty minutes down to the library. They were enthusiastic, ambitious, energetic and eager to learn. Teaching came naturally and we worked together to ensure their language development skills. The classes began growing and growing. Parents showed up at my door daily to enlist their kids in the program, and I never had the heart to turn down anyone. The kids loved the classes, but it didn’t stop there. After class, they always wanted to do something more. “Let’s go to the beach!’ they’d exclaim. Or, “Let’s play soccer!” “What do you want to do on Saturday?” they’d ask me. “I don’t want to go home, it’s boring!” I began to realize that the kids had no idea of how to channel their abundant energy. That they were smart, creative, full of passion, love and life and that we genuinely enjoyed being around each other. We began to develop our own community within the neighborhood community, except ours was full of hope, potential and mutual dedication.
In mid-March, I was called home, back to Philadelphia for an urgent family emergency. Julia and I both left within a matter of days, leaving little warning and a group of devastated children. I was almost entirely out of money, but determined to make it back to La Planta to continue the community I had built. I thought about spending the summer in the states to save up enough money to return and continue teaching, but the concept seemed lengthy, draining and unpromising, especially given the economic situation there. My father, a professional, nationally recognized fundraiser, suggested I use the library’s non-profit organization as a temporary, parent non-profit in order to accept tax-deductible donations. I talked with Jane from the library, and she enthusiastically approved, eager to help my cause. A good friend of mine, James P. Cates, a lawyer from Oklahoma with property in San Juan del Sur offered to donate $1,000.00. With that first donation, I had enough to guarantee supplies and at least a month and a half of survival in San Juan del Sur, and I was on my way back.
When I arrived in May, the kids were extremely excited, and apparently word had spread throughout the neighborhood about the classes. I re-held sign ups to allot enough time to really prepare and re-launch classes. The outcome was unbelievable. While the morning class remained at about ten, the afternoon class, full of the younger kids, grew to over fifty, of whom I had to separate into two different classes; one from 2pm-4pm, the other from 4pm-6pm. I returned from Philadelphia alone, and launched adult classes, as well, in the evenings. Between the four separate classes and hours of walking a day, I was beginning to burn out from sheer exhaustion, when my Aunt Jo Ann and Uncle Dave along with two of their three daughters, Danielle (14) and Melissa (16) arrived to help me out with the classes, bring supplies and really get things off the ground. When Pat McFarland visited, she said to me, “If you have a great idea, and it comes from the heart, and you’re genuinely passionate about it, you’ll be surprised to see how many people will support you and guide you and how things will seamlessly and naturally fall into place.” When I started this project, I felt like that; like I was free-falling with blind faith. I still feel like that every day, never knowing if the project will make it, or how long I can keep everything together with such limited funds, starting from scratch. But there is one thing I know for sure: this program started out and is entirely based on genuine love, respect and community pride, as well as the desire of passionate, absorbent children to be stimulated, educated and nurtured; not just enough to grow, but enough to flourish. With proper nourishment, they will also branch out to effect other generations of overlooked youth with the potential to change the world, based on their talent, dedication, passion and thanks to the Barrio Planta Project, their hope and education.
Founder & Director