Rob & El Porvenir
Though I didn't know it then, my journey to Nicaragua started eleven years ago in a summer camp service program ran by the church my parents grew up in. The program embraced an ideal of putting others before one’s self. Those in the service program scrubbed the floors, served and cleaned up the meals, cleaned the bathrooms and staged the events behind the scenes so the attendees of the church’s summer camp could enjoy a smooth week of camp.
Through that same church’s youth program, I would later take three trips to Mexico to help build houses for those living in poverty. What I wouldn't understand until later was that much more important than the physical work we were doing was the formation we were receiving as young adults, connecting ourselves with the larger world across political, cultural, economic and language borders. Eventually I would become a leader of the summer service program, and with the help of two other leaders, we would create a curriculum of that would focus on the power of the individual to affect positive change in the world on however small of a scale. It was there in a leadership position, where I was supposed to be encouraging teenagers to discover who they wanted to be, that I, without realizing, was cementing many of my own ideas.
I graduated from college in 2010 with an engineering degree. Through some luck and hard work I was hired into a leadership development program at a large manufacturing company in Cleveland. Almost immediately after moving I also connected with a local community development organization. Through interest in working with other cultures and with poverty, I ended up as an assistant and then a teacher in their English language program for immigrants and refugees. My students were from Tunisia, Guatemala, Syria, Albania, Liberia, Mexico, Iran, Burundi, Honduras, Iraq, Georgia, and El Salvador. Their stories were astonishing and inspiring. Sometimes the journey of how they arrived in Cleveland spanned decades of their lives, often displaced in refugee camps, and separated from families and familiarity.
At the same time I worked through four separate engineering job rotations was promoted to a floor supervisor in one department, and then again into another one. At the end of 2013 I was being “asked” to interview for jobs at the next pay grade – a euphemism for being hand-picked to make the next move.
Something else, however, had been brewing. Although I liked Cleveland, my group of friends, my job, my apartment, my coworkers and my 6-speed coup, there was an inescapable pull to go work with and live directly in poverty. Since my interest first perked in the developing community, I’ve always focused on water. Maybe because clean and plentiful water seems like such a basic human right, I’ve always been confounded by how the lives of individuals can be so different – that some can spend hours and hours hauling water for miles just to take care of their basic needs and not even be sure that it’s safe for consumption while others can simply turn a tap in their homes, in their offices, at a roadside rest stop, and it will flow freely, safely and cheaply. As an engineer it also potentially has solutions that fit within my technical skill set.
I was focused on Latin America: where the need existed and my language skills were the strongest. I needed an in, however, a way to find out who was doing what about this issue at the local level already and a way to connect with them. I also needed a way to make it sustainable. Although I saved some money, I couldn’t afford paying out of pocket month after month just to live. Through a couple of friends in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, I replied to and was hired into a job opening at a bilingual school. The pay was $300/month plus subsidized housing which was less than I had been making at my engineering job in a single day. I turned down the opportunity for promotion in Cleveland, quit my job, confusing many of my coworkers and supervisors, got rid of many of my things (shoving the rest into my dad’s barn, much to his dismay) and bought a one-way ticket to Nicaragua.
I figured, correctly it turned out, that from there I could further improve my language skills while getting to know the landscape of organizations that may be addressing clean water access issues in Nicaragua. Being the poorest country in all of Latin America, it also has the biggest needs related to this issue.
- 76% of the population lives on less than $2/day
- 15% of the population (900K) doesn’t have access to safe water.
- 50% of the population (2.9M) doesn’t have access to adequate sanitation.
- 300 children die every year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.
- Sources: World Bank Indicators, Wateraid.org, World Food Programme, UNICEF
A couple months later I found El Porvenir. They do exactly what I wanted to do. Their mission is to:
“Improve the standard of living of rural Nicaraguans through water, sanitation, health education, and watershed management projects.”(elporvenir.org)
They work alongside communities to solve their water access issues. El Porvenir has 5 offices in rural Nicaragua that then branch out and work with up to 50 small communities each. Communities solicit El Porvenir for support in one or more of their focus areas and then El Porvenir looks for ways to finance their request. If they are able to finance the request, El Porvenir staff members develop a technical plan and then work with the communities to form action groups that are responsible for education, implementation, oversight and ongoing maintenance of the infrastructure project within the community. The labor for the project comes almost entirely from the local community and is sometimes supplemented by work groups coming from the states.
I stopped in their central office one day with my first Spanish-language resume in hand and asked how I could get involved. They were very interested, I was somehow surprised to find, not only in my technical background but also in my work in educational and capacity building experience. It turns out some of the greatest challenges to their success are the educational components such as training people from the community to maintain the wells, helping communities organize themselves, or teaching people about sanitary water practices. On the flip side, other than providing me with some food and travel stipends they have no way of paying me. If I was to make this work, I would have to support myself. Thinking that maybe I could continue to teach English on the side, look for grant money (something I don’t know much about), or just dwindle down my savings, I accepted and decided I would find a way to make it work.
My situation is now this: I now live in Camoapa (Cam-wah-pah), Nicaragua in a little house on a farm owned by an NGO (thesunrisefoundation.org/) that supports and educates at-risk children. I will be supporting El Porvenir in their education initiative and hopefully learning from their technical program as well. I took a bit of a jump without knowing exactly where I would land but with time, experience and maybe a little help from friends I’m optimistic I’ll figure it out. Thanks for reading!