June 19, 2012  

Dear reader,

It is great to finally have our new newsletter template in place and actually reaching you.  I have heard from a few of our friends that they have not been receiving our monthly newsletters.  Hopefully all of the glitches have been worked out and we are back online. 

This newsletter has been written by a friend who joined me in Nicaragua in March. Jim wanted me to edit his letter describing his experience. I choose not to because I found it both humorous and touching.

Enjoy, and I look forward to you joining me on a Lending Journey Tour in the future!


p.s Looking forward to seeing many of you at our 2nd Annual fundraiser!  



"Would you go back, Dad?"

As I was sitting with my 17 year old daughter recounting my recent trip to Nicaragua with Vince Vetro, my daughter posed this question. It was not a question which I immediately responded to as I was still suffering from the "sensory overload" that I had experienced on this trip.

As many of you m
ay recall from the Fall 2011 fundraiser I was the winner of the $500.00 Travel Certificate which was the Door Prize. The Travel Certificate was to be used for Airfare to accompany Vince on a trip to one of the countries in which the charity is working.  I was quite excited to be the recipient as Vince and I know each other pretty well and our families are close. I very much enjoy spending time with Vince and I initially focused on this aspect of the trip. 
With my busy schedule and Vince' busy schedule it was difficult to find some time which worked for both of us, but we finally nailed down March 25 to March 28 as the dates for our visit to Nicaragua.

As the time got closer my focus began to shift from spending time with Vince to where I was actually going. NICARAGUA - home of the Sandinista Rebels which we all heard about in the 80's. Other than the overthrow of the government some 20 plus years ago, I had heard little about this country and had no idea of what to expect.

And off we flew! 
We flew out of Toronto early on the morning of March 25 and after a race through Miami International for our connector, we arrived at Managua International Airport in the early afternoon (a couple of hours of time zone change working in our favour).

As we were on our final approach I looked out the window and from the air saw what looked like cities in Mexico or the Caribbean where I have previously landed. I was soon to find out how wrong I was.

Our Arrival 
We were met at the Airport by Eliett and David, who are the local employees of "The David/Jonathan Project". David speaks English perfectly and Eliett is obviously a very friendly caring person, although my command of Spanish and her comm
and of English were equally challenged. After exchanging greetings just outside the secured area we headed outside to get into our transportation.

I was wondering why we were walking the direction we were headed as the only thing I could see was a Russian built Sport Utility called a "NIVA" (sister of the "LADA"). Not just any NIVA - this one came with the optional smashed front windshield, broken passenger seat and comfortable seating for three (there were five of us).  Vince shoehorned into the back seat with David and Eliett while I carefully got into the passenger seat, as this seat looked like it was about to have its last trip.

Bustling City Streets
Pulling out of the Airport and onto city streets I got my first sense of Nicaragua.
On the side of the road there were piles of garbage that people were sifting through just to find something that may have some recycling value, carts being pulled by horses, small cars typically of non-current vintage being driven aggressively through city streets, people selling all kinds of goods at every cross street, litter in the gutters at the edge of the road, and that SMELL. The smell of too many people, too many cars, too much garbage and sewage all mixing with high humidity and extreme heat. 

Our driver dropped us off at our hotel, so we could check in and settle in to our accommodations as our journey for the day was far from complete. Our hotel was initially built in 1896 and had been modernized and upgraded many times I am sure. Rooms were clean with indoor plumbing, air conditioning and comfortable beds. They even had wireless internet. Perfect.

In the late afternoon we were picked up by our "NIVA" driver once again and off we went through city streets with the occasional blast from the mini siren which was the NIVA's horn.  We turned off the paved road and into the Shanty Town, where Eliett lives with her husband and children. We were having a late lunch.

Getting to know my new friends 
By Shanty Town standards Eliett's family is doing OK - they have a concrete floor in their house, which is brightly painted inside and is clean. The house might be 500 square feet and houses the offices of the charity in one room, a tiny bedroom, a "living" room where all the "living" is done and a back room for storage. The roof was corrugated tin - which is the number one building material in Nicaragua.  Did I mention that we had to step over the open sewer which runs about 18" from the entry to the house and every other house on this densely packed street of almost identical residences? The house is not capable of being buttoned up to keep out the weather as doors are steel grates which are entirely designed for security purposes - not personal comfort Eliett's husband was very proud of their most recent acquisition - a fridge. First one they have ever
had. Bad news is that the power often goes off for hours at a time so while you can cool things there is no guarantee they are going to stay that way for long.

Outside there were several chickens, including "Game Cocks". Meat, eggs and entertainment - all from one species. Also outside is where the cooking was done, using the most rudimentary of utensils. In the middle of the yard, which is surrounded by block wall on all sides, is the "banyos". Three walls made of board, a tin roof and a worn sheet as a door. Inside - a chicken perched on the board which covered the concrete slab (looked like a patio stone with a hole in it) which was the seat.  The chicken was not going to give up his position easily.

The Local Church... another new experience  
After our very late lunch, which was predominantly rice and beans, we went to a church where Vince was preaching the sermon. It was approaching early evening as we extricated ourselves from the NIVA. Located at a corner in the Shanty Town, the church was a very plain building which could seat about 40 people, in green plastic lawn chairs (the pew of Nicaragua as I found out).

The service was already in session. Music was blaring as the Pastor's adult daughter was on the keyboard and her brother on the guitar. They should be called the "Tone Deaf Duo". While you could detect some remote commonality with the hymns that you know, the weakness in the performance was being overcome by volume.  The Pastor's Wife was praying loudly and her son, the wanna be Ted Nugent, was doing a good job of drowning her out. After prayer and loud music in Spanish, it was Vince's turn.

As he reached the pulpit, with David (the interpreter) by his side, the 30 something people in attendance were engaged. What these people lack in material goods, they make up for in faith and they want to absorb every part of the message to further deepen their understanding.

Upon looking around the room, it struck me how different this church was from everything in my experience. Although the congregation was by and large listening carefully there always seemed to be people moving around.  The lady in the front row was breast feeding an infant and the Pastor's Wife (who clearly wore the pants) was talking with her son and daughter about 8 feet from where Vince was standing. There was no quiet or sense of decorum, but that did not interrupt the absorption of Vince' every word by those intently listening.

After the Sermon and benediction we were shaking hands, about to leave when the Pastor's Daughter presented Vince with a plan to feed the children of the church on Sunday morning. Along with the plan came a request for cash.

The true value The David/Jonathan Project 
It was at this point that I discovered the true value The David/Jonathan Project. Vince suggested that rather than give them cash, the charity could lend money which could help establish a business or businesses for church members, which could generate ongoing income which could be used to sustain this breakfast program for the long term.

We parted ways with our new found friends and went back to our hotel.

$150 changes a life, and a community 
The next day we were meeting with various ladies who were recipients of Micro Finance Loans from the charity - testimonials. By the time Vince and I arrived, the Pastor's Wife was just about to launch (only word that really describes this lady) into prayer (no musicians this time) while her husband, the Pastor (about half her physical size) patiently waited for her to give him the floor. While they had only been invited the night before they prayed and preached for about 30 minutes and then departed, after having lunch. Again, the ladies present were fully engaged in the message being shared.

We were left with the ladies who were the recipients of the Micro Finance Loans, who were telling their stories. The stories were fascinating to me, as these ladies were sustaining or meaningfully contributing to the sustenance of their families by getting $150.00 Loans, with which they bought a few items at the market, which they resold in their communities. The more "entrepreneurial" of the group were selling AVON, and Leather Sandals. As they told their stories, almost without exception, a tear began to form in the corner of their eye. Without a doubt, this is how you measure how much you are affecting lives.  

One lady after another told their story each taking a few minutes as each time they spoke David had to interpret for us. Almost without exception they said that ALMA had referred them to get a loan. Alma was there and we heard her story and her business. I was looking forward to the next stage of our visit as we were going to visit some of these "businesses".

We initially visited ladies who had bought a few things at the market for resale. Rice, beans, aspirin, cooking powders, candies for children, etc. They get up a 4:00 A.M. and ride the bus to the wholesale market, buying a few items with which to stock their "stores". The "stores" were either an area just inside their homes, which were securely caged to prevent theft of money or goods, or small outdoor areas adjacent to shanties where goods were hung or stacked on tables made from repurposed skids. Almost without exception floors were dirt, and running water was absent.

These stores were 3 or 4 feet across, and 3 or 4 feet deep. Money was exchanged through bars or fencing and goods were supplied. One lady had the local "big box" store. Her store was about 12 feet wide and 8 feet deep.

Alma, who introduced many ladies to these loans, was one of our visits. She was among the most proud, but her business was a table in her little dirt yard.  

For them, it's just life 
As we talked to more and more these ladies shared their tales of theft of goods, theft of money when they were coming to repay their loans, theft of bicycles that they use to transport their goods etc., etc., etc. but to them this was the norm and part of the experience of having a business. As very few of these people have television or radio they have no concept of what they don't have and no concept of how we live in Canada and the USA. If they knew I am certain these would be a much more angry people, but they are not.

After lunch on day 2 we went to another Shanty town area of Managua, and we encountered all of the same experiences, although the homes were a bit less densely constructed.

It was on day 2 that I began to notice some very disturbing things. I am 57 years old and I did not see anyone who was older than I am. There is no universal health care or ability to pay for care. If you get sick, even with things that are entirely curable in our world, you may die.

The young women, themselves little more than children in their early to mid teens, had babies. If not caring for their own babies they were not in school, as they were looking after younger siblings while both parents toiled in menial jobs just to survive.

The morning of day 3 we went to San Benito, which is about an hour from Managua. Substantially the same experience, but we did meet a lady who was extremely entrepreneurial - she was not going to exist as she is going to thrive. This lady, riding a bike, sells pharmaceutical products (many of which are prescription drugs in Canada). She had a motorcycle that she has to paint and register, so she could expand her market. While she was off selling goods she had an employee who was simultaneously looking after her children, and bagging a family secret cooking spice. On top of that, from a dirt floor shanty, she is bottling Strawberry and  
Vanilla Syrups which can be used in cooking and on ice cream - and she has a brand label.

All They Have Is Faith 
Whether these people take Micro Finance Loans to survive or thrive, these $150.00 and $300.00 change lives. These people have nothing but faith. We fill our lives with material goods and we feel good, but we have no faith. We are hollow inside. But when your world is toiling for a bit of money, a shanty hut, with no running water, open sewers, a diet of rice and beans, a bit of clothing (most certainly from a used clothing bundle) and little or nothing else material, faith is what fills your life and what keeps you going day by day. It's all you have.
Many have lost jobs and been faced with the reality of adjusting to a less affluent life. The WORST case scenario in our world is having a warm place to live, enough food to survive and probably a TV. This is not a description of poverty. Poverty is having to live where your house does not keep out the weather, you share a dirt floor with whatever decides to walk, crawl or slither in, you have a diet of rice and beans, because it takes away the hunger pain - not because its nutritious, there are no sanitary sewers, and no running water. Young children are everywhere - the next generation of impoverished because schools in Nicaragua do not tell the students about birth control or the benefits of abstaining. The birth rate is DOUBLE the death rate. The mothers, nothing more than little girls themselves, are often left behind by abusive husbands, with kids to raise.

There is nothing that I can say in this brief article about how shocking the reality is in Nicaragua. My descriptions, while as vivid as I can make them, fall far short of providing a picture of the reality.

Dreams of concrete floors and running water 
The need is great and the growth in the population is going to further strain the social fabric and already inadequate infrastructure. These people are not looking for handouts, but a hand up to make life just a little easier. They only dream about a concrete floor, running water, indoor plumbing, a meal with a few slices of meat or dairy products, not luxury goods which we absolutely take for granted.

In closing, I want to share with you my personal project that was hatched while I was in Nicaragua. While visiting the Shanty Town of Manawa on the afternoon of day 2, we were having a hard time locating one of the businesses we were to visit. There are no street signs to reference - just potholes, rocks, trees and houses. Eliett saw a young woman she knew and after an exchange is Spanish the young woman climbed in the back seat with Vince, Eliett and David (not the NIVA but a compact car none the less) and gave directions to the driver. After a few more instructions and some finger pointing we were as close as we were going to get to the business, the taxi driver unable to navigate the potholes covering the final 50 yards.

We visited the business, which was operated by the mother of the girl which had provided directions. She sells second-hand clothes, and anything else she can get her hands on. She likes to get used denim as she sews handbags. Another one wanting to excel, not just succeed, but there were many young children in the house.

The young girl's name is Fatima. She is somewhere between 14 and 16 but is not in school. The reason was not made clear although there was some suggestion that paperwork was lost when she was changing schools or who knows. She has no children.

What struck me about Fatima was the hopelessness of her existence, without an education, and how vulnerable she was. She was a sheep in the wolves den and while a very friendly and pleasant girl, she has a look of fear in her eyes that was disturbing to me. The very fact that White Slavery is still very common in the Shanty Towns did not escape me and Fatima is just about the right age. She is a pretty girl, which in most societies is a blessing but in this environment may be a curse.

While I doubt anyone who knows me well would use "warm" as the first word in describing my character, this little girl really struck a nerve.

Making education reachable  
Before returning home I spoke to Vince and David about how we could get this girl back into school. Vince, David and Eliett have helped me tremendously. There were many barriers to overcome as I was quite determined to try and get this young woman, who could not read or write her native tongue, back to school.

After 5 weeks, we seem to be at the cusp of seeing this young woman have the opportunity to get an education. I am making an ongoing financial commitment, for as long as Fatima stays the course, to pay for tuition, uniforms, transportation and incidentals. For the small amount this is going to cost, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I tried to help just one shed the shackles of poverty and thrive in a world she does not even know exists.

So yes, I will go back, and I hope to be going to a High School Graduation someday to be followed by a conversation, in fluent English, about college or university.