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Member Monday: Meet Kelly Vlaskamp, Director of Cultural Connections!

October 2nd, 2017

 

Apart from running our Cultural Connections program, Kelly loves harvesting avocados in her backyard!

Today we kick off a weekly series of posts getting to know each of the team members at Comunidad Connect. Our first Member Monday is Kelly Vlaskamp, our Director of Cultural Connections, with honorary member of the team, Memo! Read more to learn about Kelly and her experience living and working in Nicaragua.

When did you start working for CC?

April of 2016. 

Describe your role.

As Director of the Cultural Connections Program, I oversee all the volunteers that come down support our programs to work in Los Robles, San Estaban, and surrounding communities. My day to day is a lot of administrative work, such as preparation for the groups that come down to volunteer: making sure volunteers are prepared and coordinating logistics for community projects.

What is your favorite part about working with CC?

I really like when you see the spark in volunteers, of someone wanting to become an agent of change and ambassador of Nicaragua and work to promote sustainable community development. It’s inspiring to see that change happen in such a short amount of days.

Kelly coordinates Cultural Connections trips to support intercultural exchange and promote community development. Here, Kelly was working with LifeBridge Church from Savannah, GA.

Students march in a parade during the Fiestas Patrias in Jinotega, September 14-15th.

What is your favorite cultural event or celebration in Nicaragua?

Fiesta Patrias (independence of Central America) because I really enjoy seeing the parades in the streets and the kids in their nice clothes. Everyone is in the streets and you get to see people you haven’t seen in awhile. It’s a great time to reconnect with the country and culture.

What is your favorite place to visit in Nicaragua?

The Laguna de Apoyo because it’s a beautiful crater lake with warm water. It’s also the deepest point in Central America. 

Where can you find the best rosquillas in Nicaragua?

So they say the best come from Somoto, but my favorite in Jinotega are from El Arbolito because of their Somoto style. Something that’s really fun do to on the weekends is go to fairs, like farmers markets, that En Tour (part of the Nicaraguan department of tourism) puts on representing different regions in the country. It’s a great opportunity to try food from different departments without traveling. I’ve gotten coffee from Esteli, rosquillas from Somoto, and cheese from Boaco.

What’s your favorite typical dish?

Baho, which is a mixture of plantain, yucca, and beef. I’m a sucker for soups!

What is your spirit animal?

I have two: Koala Bear or Goat.

Kelly’s new puppy Memo loves to play and run around, especially at the farm when volunteer groups visit!

If you could invent a new fruit, what two fruits would you combine?

Papaya with grapefruit to combine the blandness and creamy papaya with the kick of a grapefruit. 

What hobbies or talents do you have that most people don’t know about?

A fun fact about me, I can dislocate my shoulders. Also, in middle school I was a part of a Houston Dynamo halftime show (MLS). Most of my moments of glory happened between the ages of 8-15.

Thanks Kelly! Check in next week for our next Member (& Memo) Monday! 

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Congratulations Justin Winter, September Donor of the Month!

September 27th, 2017

Thank you Justin Winter for your continued support of Comunidad Connect! Justin became a Comunidad Connect donor in January of 2014, and donates $10/month. His long-term contributions have greatly helped improve health and community development in Nicaragua.

Justin first got involved with CC by taking a trip with Emory’s Business School in January 2014. In his work at the time Justin was involved in a coffee project, so he was very eager to learn about the production and coffee farmer life. Through volunteering with Comunidad Connect, Justin was able to learn more about this trade. The work to fund a local medical clinic in Los Robles and personal conversations with farmers about their employees, crops, and communities opened his eyes to the opportunities to do business better by integrating economic and community development. Since then he has followed and supported Comunidad Connect as able and is happy to be able to do a small part.

Thank you for your great work and support, Justin! Stay tuned for our next Donor of the Month in October!

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Volunteer Spotlight: KSU Nursing Student Lindsey Harbison, pt. 2

September 12th, 2017

Interview with Lindsey Harbison, Nursing Student at Kennesaw State University

Tell us a little about your background in photography.

I have always loved taking photos, but more so specifically I wanted others to see details of moments that some may miss. I have never taken a formal class, but am more self-taught.

What role did photography play during your trip? Did it influence your perspective or the way you interacted with the community?

It actually wasn’t my intention to take so many photos on this trip, I had some mishaps with my camera, and hadn’t gotten my new one. So I embarked on the trip with the intention of taking mental photos and cherishing memories. However a nursing friend on the trip brought her daughter’s and didn’t know how to use it, so I happily documented our trip for her.

For me it allowed for the opportunity to bring back parts of Nicaragua that might be overlooked, or never seen. With photography, details are important. Noticing little moments like a kitten chasing a cicada which could have been it’s only food for the day, a woman not just making cheese, but a woman opening her doors and telling us about her life and what brings her joy while teaching us about cheese. It’s capturing moments when we are able to connect with people or parts of the community which allowed me to make a deeper connection with the people I spoke with.

What do you hope your photographs from Nicaragua portray to others?

An interest in Nicaragua, an interest in helping others, to enliven the senses and instill hope that there are great people making humble choices to help the communities in Nicaragua. To show how beautiful Nicaragua is and how beautiful the people are that live there.

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Volunteer Spotlight: KSU Nursing Student Lindsey Harbison, pt. 1

September 4th, 2017

 

Interview with Lindsey Harbison, Nursing Student at Kennesaw State University

Tell us a little about yourself. 

I am currently in my last semester of Nursing School at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. I moved here from Snowmass Village, Colorado, but am originally from Nashville, Tennessee! I have a background in Baking & Pastry and I ran a bake shop in a hotel in Colorado, before moving here to further pursue Pastry with the Ritz Carlton.. I have always loved Nursing and I come from a family full of medical professionals and health care givers. I decided to switch gears a few years ago and pursue Nursing and here I am about to graduate with my BSN and I feel that life has given me so much more than just another degree. I have been given opportunities, life changing experiences, and friendships that I will always cherish.

What brought you to Nicaragua?

Nicaragua was a study abroad trip through KSU for our Community Health Clinical rotation. The goal was to assess the health beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices of individuals, families, groups, communities, and populations and to provide spiritually and culturally appropriate health care. However what I learned was how the community of Nicaragua are not just individuals, they are families that make up a larger family called community, and each family is a vital source to the well being of their “community family”.  

This May, Lindsey traveled with a group of nursing students from KSU to Nicaragua to learn about the health care system and serve in rural communities around Jinotega.

What expectations did you have before coming on your trip?

I expected to see a resource poor country with households inside of rural communities that battle daily struggles with just living. I expected to see homes that were in poor condition, and families with chronic illnesses; Maybe even families that have no drive to help themselves and weren’t thankful for the help they did receive. What I had read, and researched did not present a country with community members that pride themselves on self-sufficiency, resilience, optimism, and hard work. What I was taught was not about how each family and every individual and even the animals are pieces to a bigger picture, and that every animal, individual, and family mattered so that the picture was complete.

What I learned while in Los Robles was that cleanliness, education, and hard work created the foundation for a prosperous life for many families. Being grateful wasn’t just saying the words “thank you,” it was explaining how you have affected their lives for the better, and how you will be kept in their prayers; and whatever the action or the item was that was given to them, how it will help each family member in some way. So I guess one could say I had unrealistic expectations, and thankfully what I expected was not reality.

 

What observations of the health care system, or health in Nicaragua in general, stood out to you?

Nicaragua sees health and wellness as a lifestyle and not an area in which your life revolves around. They aren’t focused on diets that result in an illness that requires medication management, like diabetes and obesity. They don’t see health problems as a common issues that one just lives with. The people I interacted with spoke of eating healthy, and using herbs and more holistic remedies for ailments. They seemed to be aware what unhealthy lifestyles resulted in and made it a priority to not succumb to that. They are focused on preventing health issues and generally seeking out a lifestyle that keeps them in good health.

What experience had the greatest impact on you?

I assisted with a family interview for the basis of composing a health assessment with recommendations on how to better the family’s overall health. I sat with an older woman who had 5 adult children and numerous grandchildren. She spoke of her son’s health and a tumor on his brain he was receiving treatment for. She told us of how she didn’t have minutes on her phone to even call to see if he had made it through surgery the previous day. She continued and explained that she had faith that God would provide for her and her family, but she also understood that didn’t mean not trying to help herself.
She knew that by working hard and supporting her grandchildren and those in her community, others might support her in her time of need. She was a Brigadista, and gave her community aid when needed and selflessly opened her home for little to no compensation. This to me was true community. Everyone was interconnected, everyone helped each other in their community, and there was such an environment of thankfulness and grateful hearts. They may have a life of less, less material things, but they had more in the way of appreciation and love. That is something that impacted me the most. Coming back to Georgia, I looked around at all the ‘stuff’ I have and how full my pantry was, but yet I wasn’t as grateful as those in Los Robles were for water filters and pilas. Learning to appreciate was something I learned from them, and something I will always cherish.

The students from KSU loved playing with kids in the community and sharing a cultural exchange with families in Los Robles.

What experience(s) brought you closer to the people of Nicaragua?

Being welcomed into the homes of some of the residents of Los Robles allowed for a great cultural immersion. Also while leading charlas for women, I was able to play with their children and got to experience what fun and games they play. Although there was a language barrier, making music out of rocks and bamboo, and playing makeshift volleyball, it was apparent that music and sports speak a universal language.

Check in next week to see how photography played a role in Lindsey’s trip!

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My First Few Months in un País Nuevo: Reflections from a PiLA Fellow

September 1st, 2017

 

Written by Susi Martinez, Princeton in Latin America Fellow

Grace Galloway, PiLA ’15-’17 (left) and I at the Museo de la Revolución in León.

It’s hard to believe that I have already been in Nicaragua for over a month, yet at the same time it feels like I have been here much longer. When I got my placement through Princeton in Latin America, I saw I would be working with Comunidad Connect in Nicaragua for a year on public health and community development initiatives. I’ve traveled to a few countries in South and Central America before, but I had never visited Nicaragua. I was immediately excited for the new experience, and as my studious habit resurfaced, I started reading anything I could get my hands on that was about Nicaragua before I left Ohio.

As I watched the clouds pass by from my plane window, large mountains and lakes came into view. I had arrived to my new home. I luckily spotted Grace and Theresa, the two PiLA Fellows I was replacing, at the airport eagerly awaiting my arrival, and we started our journey north to Jinotega. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to spend in Managua, but as we left the city – after first having lunch including a nice helping of gallo pinto (rice and beans, also a favorite of mine growing up in a Colombian household) – I felt the weight of the history that those buildings, roads, and countryside had seen. Names of Nicaraguans I had remembered came to mind – Ruben Dario, Gioconda Belli, Sandino – as Bob Marley quietly played on the radio in the background.

As soon as we started our descent into the valley that hid Jinotega in the mountains, I knew I was going to love living here. Lush, vibrant mountains carefully encircle the city, providing the most beautiful backdrop to a small, old town. Being in Jinotega immediately reminded me of Cotacahi, Ecuador, where I studied last year, because of being nestled in the mountains and the relaxed pace of life. But, as my travels have proven in the past, no two places are exactly alike. And so I became even more excited to get to know my new home and community. Listen to stories and immerse myself in Nicaragua. So I jumped right in. 

 

After my first two weeks of orientation, I had moved to Los Robles to live with my host family and shadowed one visiting group of doctors and their team in the community. Within the next week, Theresa and Grace bid me farewell and I was working with a new group from North Carolina, helping facilitate projects in Los Robles. I loved the energy that the volunteers brought, and it was really special to be able to facilitate their interactions with the families receiving our projects. After hearing so much about the cement floors, mosquito-repelling paint, improved stoves and ovens, and water filters, I was excited to see these projects in homes and meet the families that had earned them through community service hours. One of my favorite moments was translating for a volunteer as she spoke with the mother of the family. They both asked questions about each other’s families, cultural differences, and shared gratitude on both sides.

My host sister loved learning how to play the ukulele.

Although my time living in Los Robles was short, I’m grateful for the month I had getting to know my host family and community. I came to Nicaragua not knowing a single person. Yet I am continuously struck by the kindness of strangers and sense of community others have shown me. Whether it’s a neighbor offering to carry my 50 lb. suitcase across a muddy field, a child giving me directions to a house, my host mom being patient with my Spanish, or my new housemates motivating me to finish a hike up the mountain at 5:30 in the morning, I have been overwhelmed with the welcoming spirit of my new home. Two months here has already taught me a lot, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of my year in this beautiful country.

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Congratulations Pat Wilson, August Donor of the Month!

August 22nd, 2017

Pat Wilson (right) and friend Marty Coward in Atlanta, Georgia. Pat has been a loyal donor since 2014.

Thank you Pat Wilson for your continued support of Comunidad Connect! Pat became a Comunidad Connect donor in June of 2014, and donates $100/month. His long-term contributions have helped enhance health and community development in Nicaragua over the past few years.

Read more below on Pat’s story and how he got involved with Comunidad Connect!

During his first experience in Los Robles, working with residents to build latrines, stoves, and new roofs, Pat met and became good friends with Jon Thompson (Co-Founder/CEO of Comunidad Connect). The following year, Pat went back to Nicaragua with Jon and a friend from college, Henry Graham, and continued to build upon the good work Comunidad Connect was doing by assisting with the Nica Agua water purification project, as well as some work at the new health center. Pat is excited to return to Nicaragua later this month to work with Jon to conduct research and begin groundwork to begin a construction initiative with the people of Los Robles.

On this construction project, Pat notes, “We want to create meaningful work for the townspeople to fill in the time between coffee harvests. The work will be a continuation and expansion of Comunidad Connect’s efforts to improve homes and infrastructure, and ultimately the health and quality of life of the members of the community.”

Pat has many years of experience working in the construction industry in Atlanta, which he believes will be helpful in this new approach. Once plans are in place in Nicaragua, he will work on developing support and funding to launch the construction initiative, working with Comunidad Connect.

Additionally, Pat is interested in promoting Nicaraguan coffee in Atlanta, Georgia. He states, “The quality and taste of the coffee produced in and around Los Robles is spectacular and we are trying to spread the word and create new loyal customers for this unique coffee.”

Thank you for your great work and support, Pat! Stay tuned for our next Donor of the Month in September!

 

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Ohio State & University of Calgary Researchers Mark Preliminary Findings of Maternal & Child Health in Los Robles

August 11th, 2017

 

Over the last two months, students from the University of Calgary and Ohio State University have been carrying out research, providing a more holistic understanding of health in rural Nicaragua.

Natasha Hoehn, a graduate student from the University of Calgary, has been presenting preliminary results of her research to community members in Los Robles this June and July. After two years of researching the health of mothers and children in this area under the direction of Dr. Warren Wilson, Natasha and her team have generated data on child growth rates and digestive health. A brief summary of their primary findings are shown in the table below. Their research also looked at levels of food security, diabetes, and mental health of mothers. With the completion of additional sample analyses by Dr. Jason DeCaro at the University of Alabama, the results of this two-year study will soon present a more comprehensive picture of health in Los Robles.

Primary Report of Maternal & Child Health in Los Robles

Los Robles, Jinotega Nicaragua Regional
Child Stunting 14% (2015) 22% (2012) 22.9% (Global, 2016)
Child Overweight 13% (2015) 6.2% (2012) 19-37% (Latin America, 2007)
Mothers with diabetes 26% (2015)

22% (Mexico, 2014)
Mothers with food insecure households 93% (2015) 75% (León, 2015)
Mothers with poor mental health* 44% (2015) 20.7% (León, 2016)° 20% (Global, 2014)°
*Anxiety-related, depressive, and somatoform disorders
° Individuals who have experienced a common mental disorder in past 12 months

 

Ohio State researchers Alba Mayta and Helena Fox organize their research samples at the end of the day.

A team of anthropologists, public health students, and veterinarians from Ohio State University also began researching how households’ domestic animals affect diarrheal disease in children living in rural Nicaragua. Also based in Los Robles, these students, under the direction of Dr. Barbara Piperata, conducted household surveys and collected samples of gut microbiota, which will be analyzed back at Ohio State. Results from this study will give insight into how a child’s environment affects their microbiota and disease risk. This information will be useful to the Ministry of Health (MINSA) and rural communities in this region to enhance children’s health. Stay tuned for more updates and results from both studies in the next few months!

Thank You Donors!

August 9th, 2017

A committebeauty, travel, service, health d group of donors we call our NCHC Advocates make recurring financial contributions to ensure our good friends in Los Robles and surrounding communities have access to health care services and education.  Strategic partnerships and critical funds generated by Advocates help cover the cost of health related programming and staff. including:

  • In-home monthly case management of 26 special medical needs patients
  • Oral health outreach and education to over 1,000 students in 2017
  • Sexual and reproductive health training for 20+ high school students
  • Nursing services at the health post in Los Robles for up to 30 patients daily
  • Support and coordination of ongoing research and data collection

A special thank you for recent support from Connie Bryans and the Julia Hunt Good Samaritan Fund, Decatur Presbyterian Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, and HOI.  Academic partners like Emory, GA State, Kennesaw State, University of Calgary, and Ohio State (among others) have also provided incredible in-kind and financial support.  Without these partners, the communities we serve would continue to struggle to meet their basic health needs.  Thank you to all donors, supporters, and advocates!!

Kids Are All Smiles During Dental Hygiene Talks

August 9th, 2017

 

Dr. Reeder LanDentistry zas has been spreading smiles across primary schools this past month. Dr. Reeder had great success with his dental hygiene talks, working with 56 students in San Esteban and 680 in Datanli. In his health talks, students learn how to take care of their teeth and prevent illnesses. Dr. Reeder notes that working with kids and adolescents is one of the greatest challenges in dentistry, because the majority of kids are afraid of dentists. However, “this is what makes our work more interesting,” Dr. Reeder states, “especially for me, being able to teach these kids and adolescents aDentistry nd seeing how they put this new knowledge into practice is very gratifying.” During the first weeks of August, he will expand these dental hygiene talks to Los Robles, where he will work with over 630 new students. We are excited to see this program growing and watch these kids ready to tackle dental hygiene in their communities.

 

Farewell to NCHC Fellow, Theresa Bailey

August 8th, 2017

After two years of supporting our Health Connections programs, Princeton in Latin America Fellow Theresa Bailey has concluded her time with Comunidad Connect and will begin her graduate studies at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.. Theresa’s contributions across a wide range of projects – including research, preventive and primary health care, health fairs, presentations, mentoring, translating, impact measurement, and communications – were a tremendous source of support for all stakeholders and have had a profound impact in Los Robles and the surrounding communities. Theresa worked closely with Dr Mayra Rivas, Dr. Lia, Dr. Alaniz, Dr. Reeder Lanzas, the Ministry of Health, and the network of brigadistas of Los Robles tirelessly to coordinate our collective efforts and improve health outcomes in rural Nicaragua.  

Spending her first year in Los Robles, Theresa formed strong relationships with community members and her co-workers. As fellow NCHC colleague Reeder Lanzas describes, “Working with Theresa was like working with the entire community. No one from our team knew the community better than her. She was also one of the best interpreters I have ever known.”

Theresa’s compassion for others, sense of responsibility, hard-work ethic, and friendship were greatly valued. Marketing intern Adam Rosendale remembers Theresa as a wonderful mentor and co-worker, wishing her the best with her studies back in Georgia.  

This fall, Theresa will continue pursuing her passion of global health as she begins a Master’s program at Emory University’s School of Public Health. We wish Theresa the best of luck and are excited to see the amazing work she will do in the future.

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