Written by Brandon Spratt, Doctor of Nursing Practice Candidate at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing
Brandon came to Nicaragua in December 2016 with a group of nursing students from Emory University.
As my first true experience outside of the US, Comunidad Connect’s opportunity to volunteer in southern Nicaragua was an escapade I’ll never forget. Then a second-degree student in nursing at Emory University, Comunidad Connect reached out to the School of Nursing to offer students a one-week trip to Nicaragua to invest in opportunities of service within the healthcare systems that aim to increase civic engagement in certain areas. Following my several years of in-country cross-cultural service during my first undergraduate degree, I was ready for such an experience on different soil.
My arrival to Rivas, a southern city of ~40,000 not far from the border to Costa Rica, started with a tour of a local hospital that let me see first-hand the striking difference between the healthcare system here and the one I was used to back in the States. Obviously a lower-resource facility, I was struck at the resilience and versatility that was demanded of the healthcare staff as the nurses were often tasked to 25 patients per nurse. In asking one of the nurses how one could possibly keep up with this demand, she simply smiled and said, “you have to be an octopus to do our job!”.
Our next stop took us to Tola, a smaller community near Rivas that housed a health post for local members to receive basic curative services. It was here that we learned about Nicaragua’s MOSAF healthcare model that capitalizes on community health workers to have an intimate knowledge of the health history of each household in their community to gain insight of the current trends of disease and predict related risk factors. I was impressed at the level of detail that each worker was required to memorize for each household and found this model to be quite intriguing.
While these experiences were quite fascinating and interesting, the most impactful memory I had came from a small, rural community called El Tambo, not far from Tola. It was in this place that I really understood what poverty really is. It is not some tangible idea that can be gleaned from watching videos or reading books, but rather a felt sensation that one only understands when one is in its midst. Dirt floors, tin roofs, and a barren yard were all that many of these villagers owned and while paralyzing at first, I began to see the internal beauty and richness that these people had to offer.
At their request, we gave several presentations about how to understand and address some of the chronic health problems many of their members face. Following this, the villagers did something I will never forget: a great feast. Although our baseline luxuries in America would easily surmount this offering as mediocre in the States, it was obvious that this was no ordinary gala. Out oftheir poverty and of what little they had, their presentation was immaculate. Toiling for days, their cooked chicken, gallo pinto, and juice was displayed before us in banquet-like fashion. Yes, indeed, the food was delicious, but that was not the overarching message that was clear that day. Instead, what was seared into my mind is a life-long lesson that that I will never forget: when poverty-stricken communities come together collectively and harmoniously, it breeds a spirit of generosity.
El Tambo’s generosity is a lesson I will take with me wherever I go and for that I am grateful to have learned such a valuable nugget of truth in the larger arc of life. I hope that others may be able to encounter similar experiences in their lives. I’d like to thank Comunidad Connect for making this possible and hope that they continue the great work they are doing in those communities.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
Join fellow donors, supporters, and volunteers on a week-long Volunteer Adventure December 2-10, 2017.
Volunteers will stay at an organic coffee farm in the hills of Jinotega, complete public health projects with local families, and participate in cultural exchange activities such as baking local treats! Come to Nicaragua to give back, exchange experiences, learn about our work first-hand, and get a taste of the unbelievable beauty this Central American country has to offer.
NCHC Academic Partners and Comunidad Connect Staff at the 3rd Annual Health Summit in Nicaragua
The 3rd Annual Nicaragua Community Health Summit was a tremendous success, and could not have been possible without the participation of our partners from the USA, Canada, and Nicaragua. We joined the staff of Comunidad Connect and local community partners to hear presentations, discuss, and see firsthand the health priorities facing rural Nicaragua. Presentations included:
Maternal and Child Health in Los Robles – University of Calgary
Adolescent Pregnancy in Nicaragua – Ohio State University
Women, Children & Adolescent National Health Strategy – Ministry of Health
Oral Health in Rural Nicaragua – Comunidad Connect
Health Education Needs Assessment in Los Robles – Kennesaw State
Community Organizing & Health – Autonomous University of Nicaragua
Civic Engagement & Clean Water – Comunidad Connect
Health & Tourism Based Community Development – Comunidad Connect
Vanessa Jones from the University of North Georgia, with Francis Aguilar Rizo – the nurse we sponsor at the new public clinic health clinic in Los Robles.
The cross-pollination of ideas and openness to collaborate across universities were apparent throughout the summit. We look forward to our future work together.
Doug Gardenhire is the chair of Respiratory Therapy at Georgia State University and attending the 2017 Health Summit was his first experience in Nicaragua. Smoke was pouring out of the kitchen of our first home visit, and he turned to me to say “we can definitely do something here”. After visiting the health outpost of La Fundadora and seeing the only nebulizer being used improperly, he turned to me again to say “we have got to do something here”. And after visiting the Hospital of Jinotega, I spoke first “So Doug, what are we going to do?”
The fact is that respiratory illness is the leading cause of clinic visits in Nicaragua, yet can be easily mitigated with education and appropriate technology in the home. We will soon engage the expertise of Doug’s team at GSU to address respiratory health in not only our partner communities, but also in all of Jinotega with the Ministry of Health. This work will expand on our 2016 GHIP project, and is open for collaboration. For more information, contact me (Jon Thompson) at email@example.com / 404-444- 9147
Calling All Advocates!
Yarisleidy with recent recipient of improved stove in San Esteban
You may already know that a little goes a very long way in Nicaragua. However, you might not know that as little as $20 a month provides a special medical needs patient with monthly home visits by a qualified doctor, medicine, and special exams. NCHC relies on the support of Advocates like you to ensure our good friends in Los Robles and San Esteban have access to critical health services like primary care at the local clinic, oral health education and care in area schools, ongoing research, and appropriate technology projects like improved stoves that improve respiratory health. Everyone who believes health is an essential human right can be an Advocate. All you have to do is something. Spread the word, introduce someone to our work in Nicaragua, make a donation. Remember, our capacity to make a difference increases as our network of support expands. Click here to become an Advocate today.
Thank you Rhonda – your donations support health and community development in rural Nicaragua.
Rhonda became a Comunidad Connect donor in February 2015, and has donated $10/month ever since. The gifts have added up to make a big difference in an effort to ensure the human right to.
Rhonda expresses the reason behind her generosity:
“As a firm believer in giving my time, talent and treasures, being a donor allows me to continue to touch Nicaragua though I am not there physically. I love Comunidad Connect’s mission and will continue to support as long as I am able.”
Written by: Adam Rosendale, Marketing Intern, Comunidad Connect, 2017
A bird’s eye view of the beautiful city of Jinotega, Nicaragua
A month ago, I moved to Nicaragua. I am completing an internship with Comunidad Connect, bolstering their marketing efforts and learning Spanish, among other things. Circumstance and good timing brought me here, and for those who have traveled, my wanderlust for new experiences should be relatable.
I have lived an extremely fortunate life and I am deeply grateful for it. Yet, on a call with a CC co-founder the other day, he said something that has stayed with me and is a good reminder for all us that want to get involved with community development or volunteer abroad.
“The simple fact that we have the capacity to travel and serve others means, by definition, that we are beginning from a place a privilege. And everything that comes next needs to stem from that point of view.” Therefore, we must become educated first and every action taken to assist these communities must be conducted with an understanding of the many complex factors involved (culture, history, government, infrastructure, health, education, etc.), in ways that are not patronizing and do not create dependence.
For those able to go, I highly encourage educational service travel. However, we must always remember to tread lightly and walk with humility as we strive to emphasize with the situation of others. This understanding must come first; for there is much to learn about ourselves, how to be happy, and how to live in this mysterious world.