Members of an Arizona church, whose name means “God creates community,” traveled to a rain forest in Nicaragua in late February with dozens of books and suitcases of school supplies as part of a partnership that has been changing lives of the villagers and the mission travelers for several years.
This mission, part of the global component of the United Church of Christ initiative, Reading Changes Lives, was an experience in which long-time teacher Barbara Johnson really wanted to participate.
“The benefits of reading start with the first book a baby hears and continue into childhood and throughout the child’s life,” said Johnson, a first-time traveler on this trip who has been teaching for 40 years. She and five other souls, ages 40-75, joined co-pastors the Rev. Nancy Nelson Elsenheimer and the Rev. Ted Elsenheimer of Ktizo UCC in Glendale, Ariz., on a journey to LaFlor, Nicaragua, to help build homes and a lending library in a small village of 60 families, primarily subsistence farmers and coffee workers. Ktizo UCC, birthed by the Phoenix Church of the Beatitudes UCC, assumed a partnership with the villagers in 2009, and every year since then, church members have traveled across the continent to help them bring civilization to their rain forest community.
“We fell in love with the people of a village in the rainforest that had nothing,” said Nancy. “They told us they wanted to build a church, though they didn’t have water. When we asked about that they said, ‘We put God first, and everything else will come.'”
Since that first discussion about hopes and dreams, members of Ktizo UCC, working in covenant with the organization JustHope, have helped the villagers in this isolated mountaintop community above Santa Emilia create their reality. “They wanted clean water, education, medical care, a better life for their children,” Nancy continued. “They were in a remote place, had nothing, were hard to get to (have to hike across a suspension bridge into the village), were not ‘organized,’ but had willing hearts to meet and begin to trust Gringos.”
“JustHope provides translators and we struggle through with our Spanish,” she continued. “We meet with the Leadership Team and survey the work to be done. The work is always about ‘building relationships.'”
Through relationship-building, the people of LaFlor now have a church, clean water, electricity, medical care, and schooling, and this year, a lending library.
“Our partnership began with building a community center/church,” said Nancy, “and continued bringing chlorination to their water, latrines, a store created with the donations we brought, developing a leadership committee, education support, medical assistance (a nurse who provides them care), and help getting the kids to a high school in the next community that requires scholarships and bus transportation.”
The younger children (pre-school through 6th grade) are schooled in the village by the government, which provides the education and a rice and beans lunch program. Teachers get paid $25/month in a community where the average wage, Nancy says, is $1/day. Since sending a child to school costs the family $50/year, extra books and supplies are hard to come by.
“We took 50-60 books and three or four suitcases of school and art supplies to the three teachers, preschool-6th grade who are building a library,” Nancy said. “Many of the books were English-Spanish. They also need dictionaries, and basic supplies, markers, papers, backpacks. We celebrated graduations in the community: preschool-1st grade, 6th to high school, high school to university and one [from] university, giving small gifts to reinforce how important education is.”
“I came late to reading,” said the Rev. Ted Elsenheimer. “If it had not been for a patient teacher who took me under her wing and encouraged me, I might have given up. She loved reading and she inspired me. I saw the children in LaFlor come alive with books in THEIR language and the opportunity to open a whole new world. Wow!”
“Reading exercises the brain, teaches children about the world around them, improves their concentration and vocabulary, develops their imagination. It also relaxes the body and calms the mind,” said Johnson, who was excited to share the group’s gifts with the Nicaraguan students. “Working with children is my passion. I would love to do this again next year. I would like to take not only books and art materials, but also some math activities, games, and puzzles.”
The Ktizo group and their hosts also found lots of moments for learning during their time in the classrooms and at work on their other project, building a concrete house for one of the local families.
“One day I took my iPad to the work site,” said Ted. “As I was taking a picture with it, one of the family’s children asked in sign if my iPad was just that. I opened the Pages program and showed her the keypad and how to type. At first she had terrible trouble figuring out how to use it. Then she erased everything and typed her name — Katerine Patricia Mejia Figueroa — and then everyone’s name in her immediate family. The whole family gathered for the event. Then I eventually opened Candy Crush and corrupted a child and generations to come in LaFlor.”
“Every life touched by our group expanded the minds of our young LaFlorians,” said Laura Taliaferro, a former teacher who has made this trip several times. “Curiosity fueled by iPads, binoculars, cell phones, piñata’s, books, smiles, laughter, and hugs create a spark. That flare ignites a sense of wanting to know more — reading fans these ever-growing minds. It was a pleasure to witness this time and again.”
“We are watching the kids grow up and graduate, new babies being born, and the community trusting us as partners,” said Nancy. “We listen to their hopes and dreams, and try to help what they do become sustainable. Their community is growing because LaFlor is getting discovered by others seeking a better life.”