By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 2, 2006
The Amigos for Christ nonprofit is helping hundreds of children in Nicaragua every year to get a primary school education, feeding over 700 youngsters nutritious daily meals, and enabling 63 students to attend secondary or vocational school in the Central American nation where about 33 percent are illiterate.
This year some of the 17 mission teams who traveled there have been building 120 cement-block houses in the new Villa Catalina community on land Amigos purchased outside the city of Chinandega. The nonprofit relocated families two years ago to temporary plastic shelters at Villa Catalina from a squalid slum near a city dump.
The organization based in Buford held its annual fiesta Sept. 30 at Suwanee Town Center Park to educate people on all its humanitarian projects in Nicaragua, which also include digging wells, establishing schools and health clinics, and developing businesses. The event included a Sept. 29 golf tournament at Lake Lanier.
Executive director John Bland said the number of students on secondary school scholarships tripled from 20 last year to 63 this year. This work is critical as 28 percent of first-graders don’t complete sixth grade, and about 48 percent of Nicaraguans are unemployed or underemployed.
“The education coordinator is doing lots of follow-up making sure the students realize what they want to do to realize their dreams,” he said. “We try to let them know that school will affect the rest of their life.”
They hope to help more youth attend college in the hemisphere’s second poorest nation, where Bland estimates students need $35 to $75 a month in tuition support. “We have four kids on scholarships for college, not yet (youth) at Villa Catalina, but we’re hoping, that’s the plan.”
Bland, who spent the summer in Nicaragua with his wife Sabrina and three children, said it’s an intense and exciting time at Villa Catalina as families and Amigos staff complete work before the Dec. 7 dedication ceremony.
Founded in 1999, Amigos grew out of a Catholic youth group project at Prince of Peace Church where Bland served as a youth leader. Drawn to Nicaragua following the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, it focuses primarily on development in this country of 5.57 million where at least half the population lives in poverty. So far the organization has provided over $20 million to the poor, with 97.6 percent going to Nicaragua. Donations come from individuals, churches and family foundations.
On this fresh fall day, rock and bluegrass bands played, lay missionaries gave testimonies, and booths displayed information on projects and opportunities to donate, from buying a female pig for $75 for a family who agrees to give piglets to neighbors to touring a model Villa Catalina home. In a video, Bland stated their view that “these are God’s children, and he doesn’t intend for them to live that way. He put us, his Amigos for Christ, on this earth to help them out.”
Ashley Collins, a student at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville, spent the summer in Nicaragua and is recruiting his college friends to get involved. One other volunteer spent all summer there and about 15 donated three to five weeks.
“I couldn’t pass up going down there and helping out again. It was a very, very willing sacrifice,” he reflected. “Just being there, it’s definitely played a major part in my life.”
He focused on supporting the students getting secondary school scholarships.
“I helped students learn how to organize their time, to get things done. They don’t have a lot of support systems. They have to do so many hours of community service in Villa Catalina. I make them accountable for themselves,” he explained. “A lot of them really worked hard at it, and they want to continue to college. The majority of them do.”
Some get discouraged because it’s so difficult even for college graduates to find work. “That was part of my job, to encourage them so that they can open up opportunities for the next generation.”
Now fluent in “street Spanish,” he noted how Villa Catalina students have struggled to study while living in the temporary shelters. “They’re still getting used to this whole concept of personal responsibility. … At Villa Catalina once they get in the houses they’ll be able to … get some hope.” Parental support is “a big thing. A lot don’t have that because the parents themselves can’t read.”
He added that he’s glad to share his faith with his Nicaraguan friends by “just talking with the guys about basic morality and human dignity, just to get them to think. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking philosophy, to lead people to God through reason.” But he knows that their focus is “food, housing and survival.”
“What I’m looking forward to is when they have the basics so they can start thinking on things like God.”
Strolling through the fiesta were Ken Athaide and his daughter Katie, 15, who made their first mission trip this summer with others from Holy Spirit Church. Katie liked how they worked closely with the Nicaraguans, despite the language barrier.
“They have so much faith and live so poorly and have so much determination. … They have been through so much. It’s taught me to work through all the obstacles I have,” the Marist School student said. “You appreciate things more like running water and a working bathroom. We’ve seen how they live and just have gratitude and humility.”
Of Indian heritage and a frequent international business traveler, her father has often seen the destitute poor, but this was his first time to serve them directly.
In a world where roughly half the population lives on less than $2 a day, “it’s humbling to think so many people live that way each day,” he said.
He was impressed by the effectiveness of the projects, and hopes Amigos, which has a staff of 23 in Nicaragua, can get more churches and priests involved. Many fathers have expressed interest in a men’s trip.
“It’s run very well. (Bland) has a vision. He’s got a heart and a head, and he uses both. He’s always thinking about how to make it successful and use his resources wisely. So I’ve been impressed by that, and he’s also thinking long-term,” Athaide said.
Amigos purchased the land for Villa Catalina in 2003, moved families into the temporary “champas” in 2004, and families and Amigos built a temporary primary school and planted yucca, corn, squash and bananas. The permanent school was completed in 2005, as were the first 60 homes. The elementary school now has about 200 students and they are trying to raise money to build a school for grades four through six. They pay the teacher salaries but hope to have the Nicaraguan government take over as it did with the other primary school Amigos opened in Santa Matilde village. Amigos provides balanced meals for students at both schools and elsewhere, a powerful incentive for good school attendance.
Scholarship students receive help with transportation to a secondary or vocation school in Chinandega, supplies and tuition. Amigos seeks individuals to sponsor students or a teacher’s salary, as well as volunteers to hold a school supply drive or Spanish book fundraiser to stock the nascent elementary schools’ libraries.
A 10,000-gallon water tank with an electrical pump now graces Villa Catalina, providing clean drinking water and workers are installing a pipe system to carry it to homes, which will each have a detachable kitchen, outdoor latrine and shower and 7,200 square feet with space for gardens. A well system provides crop irrigation for about 20 acres of land being cultivated for corn, rice and organic vegetables. Amigos has drilled over 50 wells for rural communities and orphanages as “clean drinking water is a huge problem there,” said Bland, a Peace Corps veteran along with his wife.
As healthcare services in Nicaragua are primarily located in urban areas, the nonprofit operates a mobile medical unit that visits villages across northwest Nicaragua and built a small hospital near Chinandega that opens when American and other volunteer doctors and nurses come to perform surgery. It staffs two city clinics in Chinandega, and sent four surgical brigades to Nicaragua this year. Next year Amigos will begin building 15 health clinics at the sites the mobile unit visits.
One of Bland’s long-term goals is to empower the people by helping them to earn a living wage by learning a trade and basic business skills. At Villa Catalina they’ve helped them form a cooperative of 12 families, in which money and resources are shared among community members and which focuses on organic farming, compost production, pig and chicken farming and a thrift store. They now have 1,000 chickens and about 56 pigs there. “We want to keep it as much organic as possible. Earthworm farms are producing organic compost. It’s really awesome.”
Bland is now studying the Grameen Bank micro-financing model, which provides lower interest loans to the poor, a model for which Bangladesh economist Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Bland wants to raise money and use that model to provide low-interest, no-collateral loans.
“That is, by far, the biggest need for small farmers and small businesses for women, that they have a little capital with low-interest loans to get the business going and make money to survive,” he said. “Right now loans there are between 28 and 40 percent interest, and that’s insane. They go to these small banks with loan sharks and with that they are eking out a living. With what they can produce they should be able to produce a lot better living. … They are very resourceful but don’t have any capital to start anything with.”
As they dig, stir and pound missionaries are inspired by the success of the Santa Matilde village housing over 326 families established outside Chinandega by Amigos in partnership with Italian missionary Father Marco Dessy’s foundation and other nonprofits. They too were relocated from shacks in the Limonal slum where the government had placed many after Hurricane Mitch destroyed their homes and killed thousands in 1998. In addition, Santa Matilde has a health clinic and children in school.
But just beyond Santa Matilde is another impoverished community of about 300 people called Nuestra Salvación filled with crude shacks at the edge of a deep ravine that is eroding. They too have an urgent need for food, clean water and medical care, and the organization has recently built them a feeding center and hopes to eventually purchase nearby farmland for them.
Craig Covell, a parishioner at St. Monica’s Church, Duluth, is glad to join in this life-saving work. Feeling restless in retirement, he decided to volunteer at the Amigos office to make “a positive impact” and feel “younger, more productive.” In his mid-60s, he made his first mission trip this year and was impressed by how industrious Nicaraguan workers are.
“They’ve been dealt a lousy hand, but they’re playing it to the hilt. When you see some of the clever things they do with junk—a couple of car tires become (part of) a horse cart,” said the volunteer.
He was also impressed by the sincerity of local teens, who worked “like troopers” on mission trips to Nicaragua.
“If you give them the opportunity they are willing to do good work. They want to do something to help people. They (just) don’t have money. A week of my time is nothing, but to a 16-year-old a week or any time, spring break, that’s a tremendous donation, and kids come out year after year.”
He likes how the organization embodies the Gospel in practical action.
“To me it’s a lot more important to make sure people have a roof over their heads and that their bellies are full before they start reading the Bible. Aren’t we showing the Christian faith a lot more by making sure they have a roof?” he asked. “Their philosophy is teach them how to fish, and they do that with the houses being built, the chicken farms, raising pigs and swine and vegetables, and providing water.”
And that water is truly life giving.
“We don’t think about how running water is fantastic. … Now they’re going to be able to go out the front door and get it. They don’t have to haul it,” he said. “Running water and electricity and things like that make them really happy.”
But as they get more and more of those essentials, Bland is looking forward in coming years to helping improve their quality of life and offering spiritual support to the majority Catholic population. He invites Catholics to consider one to two years of service or simply to get involved. He recently met with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory seeking his blessing on their work.
“One of the things we asked for is more help with lay missionaries—maybe retired folks. We’d really like them to be involved in spiritual aspects of what we’re doing, lay missionaries to develop the spiritual programs, religious education, that sort of thing. And of course (we always need) medical and agricultural support,” said the director. “From a spiritual perspective we want to concentrate more on people’s lives. We want to help people to help themselves a lot more. You’ve got to stay focused on the long-term situation since everybody in Nicaragua is so poor.”
For information visit www.amigosforchrist.org or call (770) 614-9250.