Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Buford ‘Amigos’ Strain To Finish Village For Poor

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 27, 2005

In 2003 Gladys Rivas was living with her husband and three children in a shack made of metal scraps with a dirt floor outside of Chinandega, Nicaragua. Along with some 120 other families, they lived amidst the wafting stench of burning garbage from the city dump next door. Survivors of the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, they languished in squalor for years, hoping and praying for deliverance.

Hope came through Amigos for Christ, the Buford group that began to bring seeds of rebirth to this area of Nicaragua after the hurricane.

When faced with the plight of the Rivas family and their neighbors, it didn’t matter to Amigos for Christ that they had no funds for this project. The relief and development organization had already partnered with other groups to relocate some 300 families from the El Limonal slum at the dump. Amigos had built the village of Santa Matilde for the families with cement homes with gardens, a school, health clinic and electricity.

So in July 2003 they purchased 51 more acres of dusty farmland in the shadows of a volcano and held a groundbreaking ceremony during the visit of an Atlanta mission team. As temperatures crept over 100 degrees, Amigos director John Bland said, “Take a good look at this place as it is now, and hopefully in five years it’s going to be full of people and kids and better lives.” He asked the suffering families to “hang in there” and prayed to God. “We know you led us here for a reason and this is going to be hard work, but we know that when you guide us all things are possible.”

The following May, Amigos moved the 120 families out of the dump and into temporary plastic shelters. A year and a half later, they still are living in the shelters, eagerly waiting to move into permanent homes under construction in a village that will be named Villa Catalina. Their children attend the new village’s elementary school, which provides them a balanced meal in its feeding center, the first buildings constructed by Amigos.

This year Amigos for Christ, with the help of 17 mission teams from parishes and other groups across North Georgia, was able to build the first 40 permanent houses for Villa Catalina. It held its second annual Outback Fiesta Sept. 17 to raise support for its critical work to transform lives in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. At least half of the 5.4 million residents live in poverty. The country has been ravished by several natural disasters and civil war since 1971.

Despite the stress of reduced donations in this year of crises worldwide, Amigos is determined to keep planting those seeds of hope and rebuilding.

“The projects are advancing and with faith and hope we will complete them if things continue,” Rivas said at the fundraiser. “If families keep helping us, we will be able to move out of the temporary shelters and to our own homes, our biggest dream … We have to fight and keep our sense of purpose to live. And you have to carry on for the children, parents, friends, relatives. You have to be a strong person to help those who need you and are weaker than you.”

One of her daughters is enrolled in the new elementary school, which eventually will be expanded to include a high school. Her 13-year-old is receiving Amigos financial support to attend high school, while helping children with projects like planting trees at the Catalina school, which now has desks, potable water and electricity. Her daughter dreams of becoming a nurse, the same dream her mother once had.

“For her it’s a great alternative,” Rivas said. “Many youth don’t continue with high school because their parents don’t have the resources to pay, but thanks to this program of Amigos for Christ many youth dream of being professionals through a better education.”

Bland said that Amigos has experienced a decrease in donations, which is understandable due to the recent disasters around the world, but he is determined to raise funds and get these people into decent homes.

“Our struggle with Amigos is really for money for houses. We’re in a real tough situation financially because of all the disasters,” he said. “Living under tents for two years” has been difficult for the families they are trying to help, he said. “They’re enduring a lot to persevere to an end goal to get a home and also a better life. There’s a lot of hope, but the day-to-day struggle is difficult.”

The fundraiser drew some 2,000 people throughout the afternoon to Rock Springs Farm. From children to seniors they shopped for Nicaraguan crafts, Spanish children’s books and other items, took a shot at Bland in the dunk tank, listened to bands and dined on food provided by one of the sponsors, Outback Steakhouse. Posters of their work showed girls in plaid uniforms waving and a Nicaraguan boy wearing a St. John Neumann Church T-shirt smiling as he ate a hot meal. A sign quoted Romans 12:13: “When God’s children are in need be the one to help them.”

The new Catalina school serves about 180 children. Amigos is paying for the six teachers’ salaries and 22 sponsors donate $25 a month each to help students pay for tuition, supplies and transportation to attend secondary school in Chinandega. Creating educational opportunities and changing attitudes is critical, as Amigos reports that in rural areas such as those around Chinandega fewer than half of Nicaraguan children have access to education. Nationally the literacy rate is only 67.5 percent for those over 15. Bland estimated that although 60 to 70 percent of the children in these 120 families had had “a little school,” many drop out as parents are apathetic or need the children to start working by about seventh grade to help financially. He said the goal is to have the government take over the Catalina elementary school as it gets more established, as it did with the Santa Matilde village school they established.

Bland spoke to the many Amigos supporters about their accomplishments and goals.

“Thanks to you and your economic gifts, your collaboration, we were able to build a school building and feeding center and along with a feeding center a 10,000 gallon tank for water, which is a huge need for the community. When we have love for our neighbor and know that he needs help (and respond) we can make a great world, and thanks to everybody here our community is moving forward. We have 40 houses built,” he said. “We have a school. We have electrical energy for our well for drinking water.”

They are eager now to complete the project.

“We just finished the first steps. We need 80 more houses at $3,800 each. We need other school classrooms. We need a distribution system for the water tank. We need money for little cooperatives … which gives people a chance to make a living,” he said. “Our needs our great … Anything you can do, we’re very appreciative of it.”

Rivas then spoke in Spanish with Bland interpreting of her community’s vision of living with dignity.

“We live in extreme difficulty in these tents … Please don’t leave me alone. I need you and if next year God allows me to be here it’s to thank you that I no longer live in a tent and my community is the best of Chinandega because of you,” she said, wearing an Amigos T-shirt. “May God bless North America and your children because young people are the future of this country. Don’t give in to drugs or vices of the world … Be strong with God in your hearts, be strong and nothing will defeat you.”

Each of the cement block homes will have three rooms, 500 square feet and be on a 7,200-square-foot lot, having an attached kitchen and an outdoor latrine, as well as a micro-farm to grow fruits and vegetables. Two members of each family, assisted by trained builders, will construct their own home, and will move in after all are complete.

The new community business cooperative for about 27 families consists thus far of organic farming, compost production, breeding Chinese pigs, chicken farming and a thrift store to sell donated clothing. With about 30 acres to farm they have already planted yucca, corn, squash and bananas. Bland said as the “economy is just horrible in Nicaragua” and about 80 percent in this community are unemployed or underemployed, this will help generate some additional money as they sell produce in the city. They’re teaching families basic business practices.

“We provide the upfront capital to get it going,” Bland said. “Once they receive the fruits of their harvest the cooperative is up to them.”

Amigos is erecting a distribution system large enough to pump clean water closer to all the homes and to serve the farming cooperative through a 10,000-gallon, 30-foot-high water tank and an electrical submersible pump and network of pipes. The new transformer will some day provide the village electricity.

On the medical front, the San Martin de Porres Hospital that Amigos substantially helped to fund is offering services to those who otherwise couldn’t afford treatment. In February an Amigos plastic surgery team from Colorado operated successfully there on 38 children, including a 4-year-old girl who can now speak for the first time. A general surgery team went down in March and performed almost 70 surgeries. An orthopedic team is scheduled for December. They seek donations of money, medical supplies or professional services.

Bland’s wife Sabrina, a nurse, directs the rural health program, which is a mobile clinic that visits 14 villages. Amigos hired a doctor to work full time in Santa Matilde and Villa Catalina. She spoke of the improved health of Catalina residents and said they are also giving talks there on nutrition, parasite prevention and dental hygiene, providing vitamins, and planning to build a permanent health clinic.

Sabrina Bland also noted that as a Christian faith-based organization they foster spiritual development. Last summer they presented a vacation Bible school and had “lots of baptisms” celebrated by Father Fred Wendel, pastor of Prince of Peace Church in Buford, and Father Francisco Estrada. She said they have many long-term volunteers, and are very ecumenical. “You see that spirit that we’re all Christ’s hands and feet. We’re all here for the same purpose to help (them) have a better life.”

Student Megan Fitzgerald, who is studying Spanish and communications, spent last summer in Nicaragua with the Blands and other Amigos.

“People in Villa Catalina are amazing. I looked forward every day in going out to the village and seeing all the people run up to you,” she said. “I’m always in awe of how content people are with what they have and that they’re content with having their families and health and getting opportunities for their children to go to school.”

Amigos began through the youth ministry program at Prince of Peace Church, which took a youth mission trip to Chinandega in 1999 following Hurricane Mitch to aid Italian missionary Father Marco Dessy in his work to educate and empower impoverished children and families. Bland, a former Peace Corps volunteer along with Sabrina, went on the trip as a youth ministry volunteer and then felt the call to get more involved after seeing “the incredible need.” Bland sold his share in a computer software business and established Amigos as a nonprofit group. The organization thus far has provided $14 million in goods, services and money, with 97 percent of the funds going directly to the Nicaraguans.

Lester Salinas, Amigos’ director in Nicaragua, came to the fiesta to educate the public about their work and stressed both their efficiency and determination.

“The work we’re doing is real, and it can be done with a little bit of resources. Our crew is so small but so willing to help that we can perform a lot of things without having a lot of money,” said the youthful engineer. “The first day of construction there was great joy on their faces. They were willing to help in the process because it’s going to be their future.”

Salinas also spoke of the value of the cooperative.

“In Nicaragua unemployment is so high that it’s not enough to give a home but something they can live with and all of this is meant to promote jobs,” he said. “These families have been given a new life and our hope is to give them a new place where they can grow and learn for generations to come.”

Jessica Kiefer, a student at the University of Georgia, was part of that first Prince of Peace youth mission trip, which awakened her to the reality of embedded mass poverty just a short plane ride away in Central America. She plans to return next year and recalled how on that first trip they helped establish one small village named Esperanza.

“Now I see pictures, hear stories and it’s completely changed, so much progress with the hospitals, schools, paved roads. It’s just wonderful to see how far it’s come since 1998,” Kiefer said.

Volunteer Rick Floress and his family have also been enriched and educated. One of his young sons was a champion fundraiser in Amigos’ spring bike-a-thon.

“It’s great experience for them to see other cultures and how other people live and they’ll be able to appreciate people for what they are, not what they have,” said Floress. “On the first trip they (had) just closed on the land and now to see how far it’s come, the biggest difference is the people. We spent a little time at El Limonal, the dump, and the kids looked dead, wouldn’t interact or talk to you. Now people will come talk to you. The people are so welcoming and so loving and to me that’s probably more incredible than the physical changes at the village.”

Mission trips give him a healthy sense of perspective. “It really centers me, living in a world where my biggest problem during the day is traffic on I-85 or getting a lot of calls at the office compared to their worst day, which is a rain storm that wipes out their homes. It really puts things in perspective. The simple life helps me stay centered and stay focused on what really matters.”

Amigos relies on these volunteers, who, in turn, are blessed as they apply their unique gifts to build up God’s kingdom in Chinandega.

Meg McLincha designs artwork for Amigos and said she translates what God puts on her heart into the art. A nurse, she also noted the difference in residents’ health.

“A lot of health issues are due to malnourishment and dehydration. We’ve taken care of water issues and feeding them protein over the years. We’ve seen a big change … To see the difference in people, it’s phenomenal. The well digging alone has made such a difference. Some had to walk an incredible distance to carry a five gallon bucket. Have you ever carried a five-gallon bucket on your head?”

She believes God is smiling upon his Amigos for Christ in Georgia.

“You think about in six years how this organization has grown since it took that first trip in April after the hurricane,” she said. “And the most amazing thing is how far reaching it is.”

For information visit To contact the organization call (770) 614-9250 or e-mail