Nicaragua Through Fresh Eyes

by Lisa Fernandez, Beth Porter, Marjory Givens, Jacque Pokorney, Sandra Draus, and Jessica Draus

Bearing witness to poverty and struggle in the developing world is a powerful experience, and one that many of us have embraced in our work with Sharing Resources Worldwide. The experience changes you, and opens windows in your eyes and your heart that can never be closed again. It is painful and wonderful to realize our connectedness with people whose lives are so different from our own. And the pain and wonder take us down the path to doing what we can to right the injustices wrought by poverty, and to share our resources with those in need.
Marjory visits with kids in their homes in the barrios as part of the outreach efforts of Familias Especiales.
In September I made my annual visit to Nicaragua to assess the needs of one of SRW’s partner organizations, Familias Especiales, which serves close to 1,000 handicapped children and their families with a wide range of services. I was lucky enough to bring fi ve others along: an RN from Stoughton and her 13-year-old daughter, two physical therapists and a public health worker. Following are some of their impressions and experiences. As you read their words, carry in your mind the images of the contributions from SRW that are present throughout, even if not specifi cally mentioned: The wheelchair that cradles a child with a birth injury; the walker that allows a young adult to hold a job; the young man barreling through the dirt roads of his barrio in his electric wheelchair; the toys given out to the children in the barrios; the mattress on the dirt fl oor of a hut; the child receiving physical therapy on a padded therapy table; the bags of clothes and personal care items being distributed to families in the barrios: the school supplies in the school for handicapped children; the sewing machine and fabric at the sewing center. The list goes on and on. These items arrive in the 40-foot containers that SRW sends to Nicaragua several times a year — items that many of you reading this helped collect, sort and send. They make a difference. And that is what SRW is all about.

From Beth Porter, physical therapist and her sister Marjory Givens, public health worker:

I work as a “float” physical therapist at UW Hospital and am occasionally assigned the orthopedics unit where Lisa Fernandez works as a nurse. One day she mentioned the possibility of accompanying her on one of her trips to Nicaragua. As much as I’m drawn to travel and adventure, my initial reaction was “that sounds awesome, but…” followed by a cascade of excuses why I couldn’t make such a trip (work, money, family obligations, not to mention that I can’t speak Spanish). I mentioned the trip to my sister, Marjory, who had traveled many times to Nicaragua. Like me, she was attracted to the opportunity, yet also clouded by “responsibilities.” But Lisa was persistent. We learned more about her involvement with Sharing Resources Worldwide and admired her initiatives and intention to “be the change you want to see in the world,” in the words of Ghandi. Shouldn’t we all live with that intention?

In time and with encouragement from our families, we signed up for the ride. We embarked on the week-long journey on Sept. 18, 2009. The transition from a cool autumn day in Madison to the thick heat of Managua, Nicaragua is like turning the dial from fast to sluggish. We arrived in Managua after dark and still had a two-hour trek to Matagalpa, where we were transported in style by a driver for Familias Especiales in a canvas-covered pick-up truck. Volunteering to ride in back, we were two sisters bumping along the windy rural roads atop the luggage in the back of a pick-up truck. It was a beautiful, albeit exhaust-fume-filled ride, with a star-studded view of the landscape, including a distant thunderstorm rolling in from the coast. Strangely, it was just the right way to connect with a country filled with such juxtapositions.

In Matagalpa, we were received by Sister Rebecca, who was kind enough to provide us with a place to stay. The accommodations were perfect and we enjoyed the feeling of being at the epicenter of activity.
Beth puts her physical therapy skills to work at horseback therapy.
A peaceful night’s sleep is not part of the bargain unless you have the foresight to pack earplugs or are a heavy sleeper. The din of dogs barking, roosters crowing and early morning vendors shouting is part of the deal and probably just background noise to the residents of Matagalpa.

Each morning we’d meet the rest of our party at the nearby Café Girasol where we took our meals and planned out our days. Luckily, rice and beans is a meal we enjoy since we would eat it often in many different iterations (rice with beans, beans with rice, rice with cheese and beans, etc.). The women who run Café Girasol are primarily mothers with disabled children who benefi t from the services of Familias Especiales. Much of the week was spent touring the city, “fact-fi nding” and visiting the many outreach programs, such as the recycling center, yogurt factory and of course the park for disabled children that had been initiated by Sister Rebecca through Familias Especiales. As we walked the streets, again and again we were approached by people who recognized Lisa and welcomed her with hugs and kisses. Nicaraguans are a warm and welcoming people, but clearly her involvement with Sharing Resources Worldwide has touched many, many people in the community.

We came away from this journey hopeful that the stories and pictures we brought home will serve as reminders to ourselves of our responsibilities to a bigger community, and that maybe our experiences will touch and inspire others to become involved in even the smallest ways. We saw this trip as an opportunity to step outside of our American life of comfort and security to better understand, and see fi rst-hand, how others live and deal with daily challenges. Despite the myriad barriers that Nicaraguans face in a country with such vast disparities, Familias Especiales is a beacon of hope and optimism, intensified by the perseverance of Sister Rebecca.

Grapefruit-sized lemons are abundant in Nicaragua. We picked one on a tour of Selva Negra, a nearby coffee plantation, and brought that elephant-lemon back to Sister Rebecca. We are quite confi dent that she found a way to make it into a giant-sized glass of sweet lemonade.

From Sandy Draus, RN, and her daughter Jessie, experiencing Nicaragua for the first time:

This was the first trip to Nicaragua for my 13-year-old daughter, Jessica, and me, and I did not expect the emotional impact it held. To see fi rst-hand the conditions that the people of Matagalpa endure gnawed at my gut daily — like the never-ending plates of gallo pinto (rice and beans).
Sister Rebecca, Sandy, Jessie, Marjory and Lisa enjoy a breakfast of gallo pinto at the cafe run by Familias Especiales.
From the noisy streets of town, starting with roosters in the wee hours to the blare of loudspeakers perched on cars promoting local products or events, to the hopelessness of the barrios, we were in a very different world. Within this circle, the wave of humanity scrapes low — the elderly beg, the forgotten lay by the road, the women of the barrios give their children water from a stream used to wash laundry and bathe, skeletal dogs roam stony roads. We saw so many in need of so much. For mothers of disabled children it is especially isolating and dark.

But through the despair there is a candle — Familias Especiales — brought to life through the dedication and tireless effort of a small cadre of people, some local, some drawn to causes of social injustice. They set up and run cottage industries employing the disabled or their mothers making yogurt, granola, paper bags or artwork, repairing wheelchairs, running a small restaurant. They provide physical therapy, schooling and meals for the children, and outreach and desperately needed support for the mothers. But the biggest thing they do is offer hope for the future and give back pride to struggling mothers and their children. This is no small task. These people are nothing short of heroic.

Some comments from Jessica about her experience: unrelenting sticky heat; colorful town; morale low but they try hard to bring it up with warm, huggy greetings and celebrations; animals in sad shape; people living in plastic sheet houses and cooking on rocks.

From Jacque Pokorney, physical therapist:

My second trip to Nicaragua with Sharing Resources Worldwide started on a bumpy note (I had lost my passport). It took extra money and a few extra days but I was still able to spend 10 valuable days in Matagalpa with Lisa Fernandez and the wonderful people of Familias Especiales.

After my first trip two years ago, I knew I wanted to return and hopefully recruit other health care professionals to come as well. I was able to have that discussion with a fellow physical therapist, Beth Porter, and encourage her and her sister to make the trip. As a physical therapist, one of the things that I enjoy most about a trip like this is the opportunity to do what I love most, and that is treat patients. And unlike here in the US, it doesn’t involve a large bureaucracy with emphasis on discussions of productivity, insurance coverage and copious amounts of paper documentation. You just get to put your hands on a patient and make a difference for even a small amount of time.
Jacque provides physical therapy at Familias Especiales for a handicapped child (on a therapy table donated by SRW!).
But you have to be flexible in your thinking and be willing to be challenged by a lack of equipment and maybe a lack of fluency in Spanish. I had the benefit of knowing what to expect from my previous trip. But on my first day in Matagalpa, I walked into some of the barrios (the outlying neighborhoods surrounding the city center) with one of the employees to treat some patients in their homes (the ultimate form of home health therapy), and I did not know that’s what I would be doing that day until we arrived at the fi rst home. Once we were there, I needed to jump in and fi gure out what to do. We visited three patients that Thursday and made plans to see them again on Monday.

Along with one or two full-time PTs, Familias Especiales often has a rotation of PTs who come from Spain to work with them. But currently the program is short-staffed with local therapists and volunteers so any help I could provide during my stay was useful. I spent one afternoon with a Spanish PT in the clinic. On certain days, mothers bring their children to the main park to do therapy in a more traditional setting with traditional PT equipment. The mothers show up at 2 pm, take a number to determine order, and then we go to work. I worked mostly with the younger kids (1–5 years of age) because my lack of Spanish was less of an issue with them. The patients we saw that day had varying diagnoses including spina bifida, hemiparesis, orthopedic injuries, spinal cord injuries, and other neurological conditions likely related to disabilities from birth or acquired later from untreated fevers or infections.

We visited a hogar de ancianos (nursing home) in a community 20 minutes from Matagalpa. This hogar is run by Catholic nuns and is a very beautiful place. We primarily went there to learn more about the hogar and their residents. We also had a wonderful fi esta involving some of the older students of Familias Especiales and their teachers who made a lovely pinata for the party. We had music and helped the residents of the hogar hit the pinata until the candy dropped to the fl oor. It was a great afternoon to bring together the students of the program with the older adults. And it also gave me an opportunity to see the potential to build a therapy program there that currently does not exist.

And that gives me something to work on for the next trip.

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