Cultural Connections

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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Mindset of Unity – Guest Blog

April 5th, 2017

Written by: Guest Blogger, Anna Nam, Comunidad Connect Volunteer, February 2017

It was very rewarding to see both children and adults smiling and welcoming strangers like ourselves with open arms.

During the week I was in Los Robles to do projects and to make a difference in the lives of every person that I had come across while I was there, I had a very eye-opening experience. Academically, I realized that education is important no matter where anyone goes or where anyone is. That holds true for boys and girls, and likewise men and women. It also made me realize that education is not something to take for granted. Seeing the children in school uniforms made me smile and it made me think that these children are the future generation who are going to make the world a better place. Without education, I do not think that anything could be achieved. So it made me excited to see these children in school uniforms and even more excited because of the things that they will achieve with the knowledge that they will gain each and every day-not only in school but also from life experiences.

Professionally, this trip was eye opening because I saw that both communication and making social networks are very important. Personally, I am more of an introvert than an extrovert but being in the community of Los Robles, I began to open myself up more to the people in the community despite even the language barrier. This was a great experience in itself because it also made me realize that something like a language barrier will not keep us from offering a helping hand. Though I do not know Spanish to where I can carry on a detailed conversation with another individual, if another person and I are on the same level in terms of what we want to get done and if we are willing to carry out the duty or task together, then nothing else matters. It’s the mindset of unity that is stronger than any barrier that anyone could come across. That is the most important thing that I got out of this trip.

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Community, Authenticity, and Joy

February 13th, 2017

Léelo en español

Written by Laura Bonin, GSU Physical Therapy Student

Months of planning, endless crowdfunding emails, and feelings of anticipation and excitement all preceded a weeklong trip for fourteen physical therapy students, one professor, and two physical therapists from the Atlanta community. But what better way to start the New Year than leaving the privileges we value, including the luxuries of our own homes in the United States, and traveling to Nicaragua. There we were able to share our physical therapy knowledge and skills while immersing ourselves in some of the intangibles the Nicaraguans hold so dear: community, authenticity, and joy.

During the week we saw community in finding contentment outside our comfort zone. Nicaraguans made us feel a part of their community from day one, even as we relied on nonverbal communication and embraced the flexibility of our daily schedule. We entered homes to treat some of the sickest and most vulnerable members of Los Robles and found ourselves making instantaneous connections built off of trust and empathy. By focusing on the components of patient centered care during each home visit, we built relationships and memories with smiles and laughter, something more difficult to do with patients back home.

However, true community is built on the foundation of authenticity, losing the façade of who we want others to think we are and focusing solely on who we really are. The Los Robles community is the epitome of an authentic community. When we didn’t have our physical therapy hat on we participated in home improvement projects, witnessing firsthand the pride men and women took in lending a helping hand to their neighbors and welcoming our group like family. The brigadistas also embraced authenticity, helping bring basic medical knowledge to those in need, regardless of their age or complexity of the information.

The final theme that illuminated every activity and encounter in Los Robles was joy. For the opportunity to spend time with family. For the bonds made with new friends. For the ability to work on projects while also imparting sustainable healthcare from which the community will continue to benefit. We are so thankful for the life and culture that was poured into us throughout our week in Nicaragua and are eager to take the togetherness of community, the rawness of authenticity, and the contagious nature of joy into our last clinical rotation to leave a mark on every patient just as the Nicaraguans did for us!

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A year in the life – Cultural Connections Coordinator

February 4th, 2017

Léelo en Español

The Cultural Connections team started 2017 with a bang. In January alone, we’ve received over 30 volunteers (shout out to Emory @ Goizueta, NYU Alternative Breaks, and Georgia State University Physical Therapy)! And we’re just getting started.

As we move full force into our busy season, we’re preparing to host more volunteers, enhance our model of sustainable tourism, all while still visiting some of our favorite spots: Los Robles, San Esteban, Granada, and Leon, among other gems throughout Nicaragua.

In this coming week the Cultural Connections team will host a group of 12 volunteers who will work alongside beneficiary families to whitewash walls with mosquito repellant paint, construct smoke reducing ovens and grey water collection basins, visit chronic neurological patients with a team of specialists, and offer pediatric consultations to over 50 children… all in a span of just 4 days.

Our volunteers don’t end the trip by counting the service hours they gained for school credit or how many cement bags they lifted. They leave remembering the new friendships they made despite the language barrier, the humbleness and generosity of the beneficiary families they worked with and the dedication of the community leaders to sustainably develop their community.

Since beginning my role with Comunidad Connect almost a year ago I have met countless numbers of North American and Nicaraguan volunteers working together towards a mutual goal. Now more than ever, my favorite quote by Margaret Mead’s rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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Los Patos Fly South: Service Learning in Los Robles

June 7th, 2016

Written by Sarah Heppler, University of Oregon student, Pictures by Diana Avila. 

On March 19th, 2016, 16 University of Oregon students boarded an 11:55pm flight to begin the journey to Los Robles, Nicaragua, for a Holden Center Alternative Break project with Comunidad Connect’s Cultural Connections program. We left our home of the Pacific Northwest to expand our global knowledge and dive into a week of service learning.

The communities of Los Robles and San Esteban opened their homes to us so that, with the leadership of brigadistas and Comunidad Connect, we could participate in surveying families about their access to water and assist with home health projects. Connecting directly with community members motivated us to learn more about their culture and more deeply understand the community. The brigadistas (a good number of whom were younger than us!) taught us a lot as they showed us the steps they are taking in their own communities to improve their system of public health.

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Peace in Sontule

April 7th, 2016

Written by: Grace Galloway, Comunidad Connect, Princeton in Latin America Fellow

Sontule is a 600-resident town nestled in the Miraflor Nature Reserve of Northern Nicaragua. Peace and tranquility characterize the community today, but in the 1970s and 80s it was a site of revolution and war: brothers and sisters killing brothers and sisters, mothers hiding in caves with their children as their husbands and sons defended their homes.

Volunteers watch the sunset from Sontule, blog author Grace Galloway sits on the far right.

Volunteers watch the sunset from Sontule, blog author Grace Galloway sits on the far right.

Three cooperatives, two co-ed and focused primarily on coffee and one exclusively female and focused on both eco-tourism and coffee, held the town together during the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s and the Contra war of the 1980s. I spent a week there leading a Comunidad Connect volunteer group. My host dad, Marvin, explained to me that he lost both his brother and sister in the war, each fighting on different sides. Mefalia, his wife and my host mother, quietly shared with me the impact the women’s cooperative made on her life. “The machismo used to be horrific. There has been a lot of education for both men and women, they are teaching the children about it in the schools. We still have a long way to go, but the men are learning to share the household chores and we are becoming more independent.”

Coffee - the main form of income in Sontule

Coffee – the main form of income in Sontule

On my last night in Sontule, I sat around the dinner table with our bus driver Ronald (31) and two of Mefalia’s sons, Wilder (22) and Jason (16). As the conversation waned I decided to ask a what I thought would be a fun get-to-know-each-other question. I asked my new friends, “Si tuvieron que ser de otro país, de donde serían?” “If you had to be from a different country, where would be from?” I was met with looks of hurt, as they struggled to answer my question. They brainstormed about the beautiful women they would meet in Brazil, the delicious food they could eat in France, the American dream. After a few minutes Wilder spoke up, “Yo no cambiaría mi Nicaragua para nada.” “I wouldn’t trade my Nicaragua for anything.”

Mefalia and Marvin's host family farm.

Mefalia and Marvin’s host family farm.

Leaving Sontule the next morning brought tears to my eyes. Seeing families who less than 30 years ago were in the midst of a nightmarish war now pursuing peace and sustainability inspires me to do the same. I have been working in community development in Central America for three years and have learned so much about internal and external peace through the simplicity of rural life. I encourage all of us to find a way to learn about and through service whether it’s through Comunidad Connect and Sontule, or a different sustainable development opportunity.

 

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