In November, with volunteers looking after La Choza Chula in Guatemala and surf board over her shoulder, Director Julia went on a month-long research trip to Nicaragua to connect with like-minded non-profit organisations, get inspired and seek out best practice especially around volunteering.
First stop was the highly organized Project Wave of Optimism (woo), at Playa Gigantes, led by the truly inspirational Bo and Lisa. Getting there involves travelling in the once-daily school bus which was bought through donations raised by the project to take students to school in another town.
Woo focus on grass roots community development, working closely in conjunction with local people to find solutions to real need. I was impressed at the level of local participation – a special committee steers all major decisions and there is a real sense of pride from locals at being part of the organisation. The most major current development is a health clinic, built using sustainable materials. It is a real talking point of the village, and will save many lives with its programme of health education and consultations.
Health clinic built by project woo in Playa Gigante on a tour by Bo, Executive Director
Tourism is more developed at Playa Gigantes than El Paredon but there are lots of synergies, being a fishing village with a burgeoning international surf scene. It was great to shadow Lisa, Volunteer Programme Coordinator, for a few days – seeing how she works with the school, homestay families and with volunteer groups. Like La Choza Chula, woo are finding ways to provide meaningful cultural exchanges between tourists and locals, with financial benefits for local families and a positive impact on the wider community. I attended an induction session with a group of young volunteers on a service learning trip with Carpe Diem and their programme of activities included a soft ball game with local young people, painting a classroom in the local school, bread making with a local family and a mackerel fishing trip with local fishermen – providing ways to meet as many locals as possible.
– It’s OK to charge volunteers, at least for accommodation – you are providing a service which takes time to manage
– Create a volunteer contract with clear expectations from the beginning
– A well-managed homestay programme (including a clear list of requirements for host families eg. able to provide purified water, mosquito net, a private room etc.) can be a critical component of a volunteer’s experience – great for the volunteer to get total immersion in a local community and a great way for the local economy to benefit
– Community planning committees are essential to getting locals involved and engaged and address real need
– Remaining focused and professional (even when living in a hot surf town) is important
– Surfing small waves requires a bigger, fatter surf board!
FUTURE: Thanks to Bo, for his passion, and Lisa for her friendship and generosity (and inspirational surfing) for making my time there so special. I hope we can collaborate with them further, as they combine with Surf For Life in the near future and perhaps expand to Guatemala….
Next stop was The Pulsera Project in Granada, Nicaragua. I was interested in visiting this project because, like La Choza Chula, they make friendship bracelets (pulseras). Young people and adults from poor communities (initially street kids and homeless people) make the pulseras and the project sells them to schools in the US. Half the money goes to the maker and half to projects that help the communities where the makers live. Unfortunately when I visited all the staff, except the administrator Lissette, were at a conference in the US, but I am in touch with Chris, a founder, about potential collaboration.
– To think about selling our products to schools in the UK
– To improve our packaging to include photos of our makers (for over 14s) so the customer can see who made it
– To be aware of United Nations laws about selling the work of children under 14
– To create a display for our workshop of our makers and the story of the project
FUTURE: I am hoping we will be able to collaborate further with this project – either as a partner or by one of their participants coming to visit our project and showing the kids new techniques
After Granada, I ventured on to the outskirts of the capital, Managua. Carrying my surf board round these non-coastal parts, I very much stood out! But finally, by tuk tuk, I made it to Ticuantepe, where the fantastic Atelier Favela is based. Originally a project in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, founders Sabine (Dutch) and Jean (Venezuelan) came to Nicaragua four years ago and have established a creative breeding ground where volunteers, artists, teachers and young people of the poor rural community of Ticuantepe inspire each other and come together to learn new skills. There is a regular programme of capoeira, arts, acrobatics, English teaching and other activities led by volunteers. When I was there, volunteers were planning a launch event for a medicinal herb garden, a recycling programme in the local school and trampolining amongst other things. I got on great with Sabine and Jean and talked a lot about the challenges of living with volunteers and doing the kind of work we do.
– Being around other creative people sparks ideas and is really important to have in my life
– Others face the same challenges I do and it is important to find like-minded people to share this
– I can charge volunteers for accommodation – at Atelier Favela they charge $9/night (cheaper for long-term volunteers) for a dorm bed. Volunteers all chip in for communal food and eat lunch together during the week (taking turns to cook)
– Having a group of volunteers is good as there is a community spirit and people can help each other, work together on projects and have peer learning sessions
– It’s a good idea to live apart from volunteers – for personal and professional sanity
– Have a weekly meeting every Monday where everyone talks about what they have done the previous week and what they plan for the forthcoming week (and the near future) and draw up an activity schedule that everyone can see
– Have a cleaning rota that rotates weekly so that all volunteers are responsible for something
FUTURE: I talked with Sabine and Jean about doing a project/house swap where they could come and work at La Choza Chula and vice versa in early summer next year…watch this space!
I also visited the tiny village of Jiquillilo in the North of Nicaragua, where Rancho Esperanza is a eco-friendly hostel and focal point for community development. The owner Nate has developed a solid volunteers programme, with discounted food and lodgings, a kids club for local kids in a special building on site equipped with great resources.
One place I couldn’t stay away from was San Juan Del Sur. A fine blend of great surf beaches, fun parties, friendly people and a killer breakfast at the market. Between surfs, I stumbled across this little library. Established by an American, the library now tours a book collection round local schools, runs an art and a homework club and lends books to kids and adults alike. The library we are building in El Paredon is nearly built so it was great to see an example of a well run local library. The librarian in San Juan gave me some copies of their registration cards which will be very useful.
There were of course more projects I wished I had visited, but Nicaragua I will see you soon…. Thank you for reinvigorating me and giving me lots more ideas and a fresh perspective for La Choza Chula! Thanks also to all the incredible friends I made on this trip, the free spirits and my guides and mentors along the way. And thank you to the gentle ocean that gave me my first really good wave!
Thanks especially to Lisa, Bo, Sabine, Jean, Diego, Oscar, Pedro, Nacho, Sophie and Jose.
As a result of this trip, La Choza Chula is expanding, developing, changing….If you would like to play a part in helping La Choza Chula in its next phase as a volunteer or someone to bounce ideas off, please get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org