By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 5, 2018
BUFORD—The Buford-based Amigos for Christ nonprofit serving Nicaragua’s poorest has canceled all summer mission trips due to the Central American nation’s recent political unrest, violence and roadblocks. Yet several Nicaraguan churches both Catholic and evangelical near the organization’s Chinandega headquarters have stepped in to serve their neighbors and partner with Amigos to meet its Summer of Sanitation project goal—to finish construction of 100 modern bathrooms and a clean water system for El Pedregal village.
Amigos continues, through the political tempest, to transform lives one village at a time in the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest nation of six million. El Pedregal has nearly 200 families and is the 18th community served by Amigos.
Nicaragua has experienced large protests against the government since mid-April, with some turning violent.
“Here in Chinandega we’re able to get around without any problems, and we’re able to continue at full speed. The negative is that groups that come down here—we normally have about 1,800 people come down each year, and we’ve had to postpone the trips until we can tell people it’s going to be OK to travel,” reported executive director John Bland from the group’s headquarters, located about three hours from Managua, the capital city. Nevertheless, “we decided to start reaching out to all the local churches and organizations and see if they’d want to come and do one-day mission trips. It’s been phenomenal to see people from their own country taking time away from their work, which is tough, to come and work in other communities and to serve in the same way.”
Working together on sanitation
In El Pedregal families had no running water and their hand-dug shallow wells all contained E. coli, contaminated from nearby latrines. While treating residents for diarrhea, intestinal parasites and severe dehydration, Amigos is also providing water for life.
“We drill a deep well about 160 feet, and we’ve got good clean water so we’re going to pump that into a tank and distribute through pipes and gravity to everybody’s home,” said Bland. “A lot of the communities that we worked with for years and years and they built their water system—now they have been offering to come and dig another community’s well, which is exactly what we wanted to happen.”
Bland, who lives in Nicaragua with his family, returned to Atlanta in late June for a Nicaragua evening of prayer at Transfiguration Church in Marietta. The parish had to cancel its planned mission trip with nearly 60 participants. Bland also updated Amigos supporters on work to transform lives through community leadership, water and sanitation, education, health care and economic development.
“We’re trying to model Jesus, and his model was to make disciples and those disciples go out and make other disciples and we’re doing the same thing through service, through actual removing of the barriers that prevent people from moving forward in their lives,” he said. “There are some very basic things that are barriers in people’s lives to growth, just having clean water or having school to go to. And when the local people are able to serve other people to eliminate those barriers, they in turn get to see people grow. And fortunately for me I’ve been able to see that a lot. It’s extremely rewarding, and it gives me a lot of purpose.”
Amigos has come a long way since Bland, a former software engineer, established the nonprofit in 1999 as an outgrowth of a youth mission project through Prince of Peace Church. The nonprofit now has 116 employees, a $3.6 million operating budget and a 10 percent yearly growth rate. And it’s among Charity Navigator’s top 1 percent of charitable organizations with its four-star rating and perfect 100 score in accountability and transparency.
About 80 percent of Amigos’ workers are Nicaraguan, which is a key to growth and sustainability.
“We settled on five goals and when you find those things that work, we focus on doing them really well. That’s the biggest lesson over all these years is finding things that work and learn how to do them better each year and to hire all-star people who can move that forward,” he said.
“Be a light for others”
Amigos stays apolitical amidst the protests since April against President Daniel Ortega, said chief operating officer Kristin Sutton.
“In almost all the projects we have there is some level of government involvement because we don’t want to be the owners of everything we are doing. We want the things to be owned by the community and for us to do that we have to work with the city government. And we work with the country’s ministry of health with our surgical brigades. And we know some of the best people that work for the government.”
This year’s theme for missionaries is to be a light for others—even more relevant as they plow onward in service.
“Even in the midst of all this hard stuff that’s going on, our teams are going to continue to be a bright spot for communities and the local people coming to serve with us now,” said Sutton.
Thinking long term, Amigos has always invested first in local community leadership to make projects sustainable, said Bland. And they’ve either built schools or supported existing ones all in partnership with Nicaragua’s ministry of education with a goal to get kids to complete at least high school. Currently, only 43 percent of young people attend school, according to UNICEF.
“Whenever we work with a community with no school, that’s one of the first projects we do is to build a school there,” said Bland. “We’re trying to create very creative school buildings, the physical infrastructure, so that the kids really want to go, like having a really neat playground and a neat building. So it’s not only the curriculum that’s attractive, but also the physical structure is attractive so the kids can go to school because we know that education is going to change the country for the long term.”
Farmers are also going greener through crop diversification and organic certification. “Amigos has really put in a lot of effort in providing capital to farmers to increase yields but also to try new fruits and vegetables, to sell where the profit margin is higher. … We’re growing dragon fruit, a lot of papaya, getting farmers access to capital and helping them have access to market,” he said. “We’re going to be investing heavily in that over the next 10 years.”
Group to celebrate 20 years in 2019
Sutton invites former missionaries to reconnect as they plan 20th anniversary celebrations in 2019. And all are encouraged to support their homegrown nonprofit whether through a financial gift or participation in its 13th annual golf classic Oct. 5 or gala dinner Oct. 6 at Lake Lanier Islands Resort.
“One of the pillars of our organizational culture is that we operate like a family, and I think that our supporters feel that. When you give certainly of your time but even if it’s just a financial gift, you feel that you are really connected to the people that you are giving to,” said Sutton.
Sutton’s own “amazing journey” started on a University of Georgia college mission trip, where they relocated families living alongside the Chinandega trash dump. Then she worked for Amigos for nine years in Nicaragua and returned to Georgia in 2016 with her husband and two daughters.
“I love the challenge of learning new things and helping to grow the organization,” she said. “The friends that we have in Nicaragua are like family.”
And while the Amigos family has grown to include an extensive network of churches across the United States, the Catholics of north Georgia are foundational supporters.
“It’s an incredible two-way partnership between the Catholic community in Georgia and the Nicaraguan community,” Bland said. “Right now they’re going through political negotiations en route to a peaceful settlement. We’re extremely hopeful that it will be resolved, and we can start having our trips back in September.”
Read more about one woman’s service with Amigos for Christ here.