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Volunteering puts crisis in perspective (Ireland vs. Nicaragua) February 5, 2011

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The organisation sponsors 90 children through secondary school and a further 11 ‘ayudantes’ (or helpers), who work full-time for La Esperanza for US$80 (about €60) per month in return for being sponsored through University at weekends.
My job involved making videos of the volunteers at work, organising the weekly volunteer meetings, and bringing computers out to the schools where the joy of the youngsters was overwhelming.
Early on, I learned the value of acceptance and patience when an attempted Skype link-up with an American school failed. The children, so full of expectation earlier, just shrugged their shoulders and got on with things. In the Third World, things we take for granted here in Ireland don’t always work out.
For six weeks, at the same time every week, we tried to get the connection going until, almost magically, it all worked out and, finally, the little seven and eight year olds got a chance to share their experiences and life stories with youngsters in St. Louis. They took such joy out of sharing their names, favourite colours, food, or animals with the children in America.
I would have given up, but one of the more experienced volunteers taught me the importance of quiet determination. Week after week, she tried to get the connection up and running. The joy on the faces of the children was infectious when we finally got it going. It made the long wait worthwhile.
Some of the classes contained up to 60 children and most of our volunteers were assigned to work with four or five children who were identified as needing a little extra help each day. It was remarkable to watch how the bonds grew between the youngsters and the volunteers, who were mainly from Europe and North America.
In Nicaraguan schools, there is very little competition between the students. The brightest two or three answer for everyone and it does not take long for the weaker pupils to be left behind. Volunteers are required to have intermediate Spanish and to give a two month commitment to working with La Esperanza.
The volunteers gave the children, many from large or single parent families, the personal attention they craved and the parents provided unbelievable welcome when we visited their houses for afternoon homework clubs. They might have had very little, but they were generous to a fault at times.
For the children, the ‘ayudantes’ were wonderful role models. They work in their local primary schools every day, liaising with the teachers, assisting the foreign volunteers and, most importantly of all, showing the children that there is no limit to what they may achieve.
They brought home the true value of education, something I had always taken for granted, to me. To see how these 20-year olds only wanted to become teachers, to help the children in their own deprived neighbourhoods, and also to see the light of recognition in the children’s eyes when they learned something new.
I could not get over how much fun there was in the La Esperanza office and how much hope these impoverished youngsters had for the future. Hardly any children from their communities had ever attended University before. Their optimism seemed to be in marked contrast to the despair back in Ireland whenever I checked the news from home during the IMF ‘bailout’ in November. That even made headlines in Central America!
It was humbling to note how much pleasure the staff took from a simple meal out in Tip-Top, the Nicaraguan equivalent of Supermac’s, in my last week. For these young people, eating out is a rare luxury they might get to enjoy just once a year.
Living in the city for three months was a great way of improving my Spanish, as I was even able to take private lessons for US $3 per hour.
It was also a great way of making friends with people from all over the world, including Germany, Spain, France, the USA, and the UK. There always seemed to be a party on in one of the four volunteer houses and there was an incredible range of ages among my colleagues, from fresh-faced 18-year olds starting out in life to retired teachers in their 60s who brought huge expertise to the schools.
We socialised together on La Calzada, the city’s beautiful pedestrianised street, and organised trips away at weekends. In late November, there were a lot of emotional farewells at the end of the Nicaraguan school year.
Living in Nicaragua taught me that there is great joy in helping others and that the poorest people on the planet deserve to have some hope. The locals reminded me of the importance of community and friendship, the extended family, taking my time, and how to have fun with very little. Lessons to be treasured in these troubled times.


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