Communities Uniting for Education: The Comejen School Project

July 9th, 2015

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It was a year ago when the leaders of the community of Comejen brought Jimmy Gonzalez, the project coordinator for Bridges to Community in Masaya, to the elementary in their community. “It was raining that day,” Jimmy recalled, “and we ran into the old school building to get out of the rain, but realized there really wasn’t much of a difference inside the building.”  The rain continued to fall on them, slipping through the gaps in the roof.  “There was only a small space in the classroom where the children could huddle when it rained to not get wet.”  

And like that, the Comejen School Project began.  The idea was to repair the roof of the oldest classroom building–built over 45 years ago, but the project turned into to so much more than that.  Bonnie Gordon, one of the founders of Bridges to Community and the current site coordinator in Masaya, explains what happened:

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The Comejen classroom building before the project began

“We were all ready to begin the roof project in December of 2014.  The Dartmouth Group had arrived and were excited to help.  So we start tearing off the roof, and all of a sudden, the whole top beam of the wall begins to crumble to the floor.  And we realized, it wasn’t a beam at all–it was just old concrete.  So we start examining the wall further, and we realized–there is no rebar in this entire building.  The structure could collapse at any minute.”  Then, Elizabeth Spivak, the International Volunteer Coordinator in Masaya says, “I was with the group and I get a call from Bonnie saying, ‘Houston, we have a problem.'”

And it was a big problem. The whole classroom building would have to be torn down and rebuilt to ensure an earthquake-proof structure–putting the project way over the original budget.  Fortunately, a few incredible helpers showed up.

“We went to speak to the leadership committee for the inter-community fund, and they already knew as much as we did how important and necessary this project was,” Yanette Gonzalez, one of the leaders of the community in Comejen, explained,  “and they agreed to help pay for the project.”  Yanette is referring to the body of representatives from all of the communities in Masaya that Bridges to Community has worked with over the years. They manage a fund made up of the payments that housing beneficiary families have paid into over the years through their monthly quotas.  “They knew that since Bridges to Community had just started working with us, we hadn’t contributed to the community fund yet,” Yanette recounted the experience, “But they gave the money to us all the same because we told them that as soon as we had our own fund, we would give back to other communities in the same way.”

20150702_193959_resizedThis wasn’t the only act of unity and solidarity for this project.  Leslie Barry, a Bridges to Community board member, also generously donated the money raised in her annual Raise the Roof fundraiser last year, to help the project, and then in January came down to Nicaragua with friends, coworkers, and other dedicated volunteers, to work on the project. You can see a list of all of the sponsors of her event last year on our website.

Mural Cocina ComejenAnd with that, the project was underway!  The Dartmouth Group ended up building a kitchen building for the school where meals can be prepared for students in a sanitary environment.  Then, volunteers from Leslie’s group of IT Professionals came down from DC, followed by Temple Shaaray Tefila and Bedford Presbyterian Church, Hanover High School, St. Paul High School, and Fox Lane High School.  Volunteers worked on the classroom rebuild, continued to build houses for families in the community, and assisted artist Ismael Tercero and the local children with their beautiful mural, painted over the outside walls of the new kitchen.

Dance_Kids_Comejen_School_InaugurationWith so much assistance and teamwork, the project was completed early and students started learning in their new classroom building in April, but the much awaited Inaugration Ceremony took place last week, on July 2nd.  By all accounts, it was definitely worth the wait.

Some of the volunteers who had worked on the project from the beginning, including Leslie Barry, Mike Mader, and Jim Houston, came down to celebrate along with other volunteers as part of the Mclean Baptist Group; every representative of the committee for the inter-community fund was there; the central office staff for Bridges to Community was there en masse; and, according to those that were there, practically every member of the community of Comejen came out! There were great speeches, beautiful performances by the children of the community, and a carnival of games and activities.

20150408_122533_resized“I saw the smiles on the faces of the children of the community–they were happy to have this new school building–and it reminded me of just how important of a project this was, “Jimmy said, thinking back on the whole of the project, “And their smiles made me think that now, the students have a safe place to learn–that our principal objective had been met: to provide better conditions for the students and the teachers of the school.”

Elizabeth Spivak agreed: “It was so great to see the whole community come together for this project, and that the whole community was benefiting from this project. You could really feel the excitement and emotion in the community during the inauguration.”

20150702_173228_resizedThe whole emotion of the project and the event can perhaps be summed up by the song some of the children sang during the inauguration, Bonnie tells us. “The children used hand motions and movements as they sang the lyrics to a song by Dominican artist Bonny Cepeda,

‘No more war, no more drugs, no more hunger, no more deaths.  More schools, more work, more love, and more unity.'”

We think they nailed it!

 

 

School Repairs Benefit Students and Volunteers Alike

July 9th, 2015

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The El Portillo classroom building Bridges built in 2011

When the new school director at the El Portillo school decided that it was difficult for the very young children at the school to move from their regular classroom to a different one when Bridges to Community volunteers came to stay, we didn’t fret–we saw opportunity!

One of the older classroom buildings had been in dire need of repair for some time–the windows didn’t close, there was no electricity, and the roof leaked in some areas. Fortunately, Nindiri’s full time masons, Payo Jimenez and Wilfredo Suarez, and site coordinator Kelly Vlaskamp were experienced with getting projects done well and fast, and already had some plans in mind.

IMG_0053In no time, the classroom had a brand new roof with bright green beams, a beautifully crafted new door and matching windows, and was electricity-ready.  But there was more: the Nindiri team also built a new kitchen made out of concrete blocks where cooks could prepare meals for volunteers and the community, and they elongated the outdoor roof that covers the school’s stage, so that children can play in a covered area and volunteers can eat and hold reflections outside without getting rained on.

All in all, a great way to benefit a lot of people with just a few changes!

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What Goes Well with Bricks? Birds, of course!

March 26th, 2015

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Photo by El Jaguar Reserve www.jaguarreserve.org

New Bridges to Community Trip Combines Community Service with Conservation

Bridges to Community is introducing a few new types of service trips this year, and one of those had its inauguration at the beginning of this month.  This particular trip pairs two really great ideas–conservation and community service projects–into one impressive delegation: Bricks and Birds.

The Bricks and Birds concept was born through a collaboration of ideas between  Board Member Jill Martin, Executive Director John Hannan, and Jinotega Site Coordinator, Francisco Ceron.

Jill Martin recalls, “The original idea was to have a trip for people who might be challenged by the physical requirements of a regular Bridges trip, but who still want to have the experience of community engagement.  We wanted a trip where people who may be held back from joining a trip because of physical limitations could say, “Oh wow, now this is something I can go.”

IMG_0173It was Francisco who suggested that the group could work on these wonderful smoke-reducing stoves that his team had been designing specifically for the communities where Bridges has projects.

Then, John brought in the idea to include projects related to conservation and biodiversity. As he explains,  “The beauty of the Bricks and Birds trip is it ties to the most vital component of community development–helping improve economic benefit and human health while instilling a conservation ethic in the community.”

With that, Bricks and Birds came to life: volunteers would spend time in one of the communities we work with in Jinotega constructing stoves for families, then head to the private reserve, El Jaguar Reserve for conservation and reforestation work.

IMG_0248At the reserve, a 215 acre cloud forest that sustainably produces coffee while working on a variety of eduation and conservation projects with surrounding communities, volunteers helped owners Lili and Georges Duriaux – Chavarría with habitat reforestation by planting Red Guava trees in a cloud forest.

They also assisted in the banding of endangered migratory birds that pass through Jinotega on their path to the United States and Canada.  This project is part of international conservation priorities to protect the habitats of migratory birds.  With the banding, researchers in the US that track those birds can learn more about their patterns and preferred habitats.  “That part of the trip had a tremendous appeal for me–to learn about the great biodiversity and incredible natural beauty of the country.”

IMG_0194In the community in Jinotega, the group constructed smoke-reducing stoves for four families that had already received homes through Bridges’ Housing Project, but were still utilizing stoves that produced a lot of smoke and used a lot of fire wood.  The volunteers on the trip really enjoyed the time spent with the families in their homes, building the stoves.

IMG_0206“It was great because we were actually in people’s homes, and had the opportunity to interact with the family on a different level–that was really fun,” Jill recalls.  “We were literally in the hearth of the family–the center of the home, the kitchen.”  Some volunteers took breaks from the stove work to help the family shuck corn, to play with the children, or to just spend time getting to know the family.

Overall, the trip was a great success: “I hope we can do this every year,” says Jill, “People are already coming up to me and saying that they want to go next time.  Everybody on the trip just felt so thrilled to have had the experience, and I hope that we can have even more people participate next year.”

20150302_151900~2The Bricks and Birds Trip is one example of new trips and projects that Bridges to Community is leading this year that include a reforestation project in Nindiri, a Summer Edition Program for high schoolers traveling independently to participate in service learning and cultural exchange, and more.

If you would like to participate in an upcoming Bricks and Birds trip, please let us know.  We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions about our new program, and answer any questions you may have on this exciting endeavor.

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Volunteers participate in bird banding

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Reforesting with guava trees at El Jaguar

 

 

Recycled Bottle Youth Center in Dominican Republic Brings Community Together

March 26th, 2015

Photo1647It’s a bright and sunny Monday morning in the community of Derrumbadero in the Dominican Republic.  A group of fifteen high school volunteers groggily get into work clothes and head out for a full day of volunteering.  When they arrive to their site, they find the normal tools and materials you would see at any Bridges to Community project site: shovels, gravel, sand, wheelbarrows.  But one thing stands out: hundreds of empty plastic bottles piled high next to the site.  They realized, this was no ordinary Bridges project–this was something new.  They would be contributing to the construction of the first Bridges to Community Youth Center built entirely from recycled plastic bottles, and they would learn how important this project has become.

At the end of 2013, in one of the weekly meetings held in one of the two communities in the Dominican Republic where Bridges to Community has projects, community members expressed a need for a safe, productive space for the youth of their community to go after school.  They had visions of a space where children and teenagers could take classes, read books, play sports and games, and just spend time together after school.   At the same time, the community was also receiving workshops about the importance of recycling and proper disposal of trash, and they thought it might be interesting to include aspects of recycling and reuse into the youth center project.  After consulting with engineers and designers, the community and Bridges to Community decided to construct almost the entire building out of recycled bottles!

Photo1885Here’s how it works:  the bottles are collected by community members, then filled with sand, then stacked and covered with cement.  It’s a simple process that has had far-reaching results.

“What’s been really beautiful,” explains Bridges to Community Co-Country Director, Christina Balint, “is that one lady, Deira Montero, inspired by the youth center, formed a group of more than 30 people that are originally from the community but now living in the capital…Twice now in the past 2 months, this group has come up in a bus from the capital to work for a whole weekend, filling bottles for the construction.  They even have people collecting bottles for the cause back in the capital.  To see the community really take ownership of the project, and be excited, is an amazing sign and amazing feeling.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe volunteers that have come to work on the project have also noticed how it has taken hold in the community.  Layne from Episcopal High School discussed his experience:

“The first day of work, I had spent about two hours packing bottles with sand…[when] suddenly a group of around fifteen 7-year-old girls shows up at the work site, grinning and chatting and filled with excitement as they offered up their free time to help out…Work which had been tedious was suddenly loud and laughing and a way to bond with these incredibly kindhearted children who I couldn’t speak a word to beyond asking their names…It was my first encounter with the spirit of Derrumbadero–vitality and enthusiasm, openness and determination–and the moment I realized how important our work really was.”

Christina explained that the youth of the community have really come together around this project and made it their own.  Bridges to Community has been holding workshops with them every month that focus on self-esteem and leadership skills.  The young people that participate then replicate these workshops in their own schools and sectors of the large community.  The hope is that they will become leaders in their community in the future.

Photo1908Even the children of the community have pitched in to lend a hand with the project: “The kids, whether 3 or 19” commented Christina, “know how to fill the bottles to perfection and have become the quality control for the project.  Whereas at first that was the most difficult part, now, they are all mini experts in this alternative kind of construction.”

Furthermore, the project has brought volunteers and the community together: “Essentially each group we’ve hosted this year has worked exceptionally hard and with big hearts, and community participation has been strong the whole time.”

Photo1926“In Derrumbadero, I felt a sense of togetherness,” reflected Alexander from Episcopal, “I would like to bring this feeling of support back to [my school] and hopefully make a closer-knit community there.”

The project’s proposed finish is August of this year, and the Bridges to Community team in the Dominican Republic are working hard to meet that deadline.

You can check out more photos from the project as it continues to progress on our Flickr page.

You can also read more reflections and insights from volunteers on the Episcopal High School on their trip blog.

Reforestation Project Makes Great Strides with Volunteers!

March 11th, 2015

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Children from El Portillo excitedly help out.

The community of El Portillo and Bridges to Community are embarking on an ambitious and exciting reforestation project this year that aims to help community members and the community at large in a variety of ways.  With the assistance of two volunteer groups from the United States–Winchendon and Groton High Schools–the project now has over 750 seedlings in its nursery, and has planted over 350 trees, including Mahogany, fruit trees, Central American native timber trees.  The project has also involved the community, and particular the children on the community, since the beginning, in workshops and participation in planting.

The reforestation project is utilizing two acre plot of land in the semi-rural community of El Portillo in Nindiri, Nicaragua.  Currently, the land is overgrown with shrubs and weeds, but with the help of a technical team, BTC staff, and community participation, this terrain will shortly be transformed into a vegetable and fruit producing farm surrounded by large shady trees.

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Community members work on design of the project after meeting with the agricultural specialist

The plan proposes a contour farming method, which is a method that alternates rows of over 4,000 large legume and forest trees with smaller vegetable plants, such as tomato, onion, pepper, and beans.  This method allows for the trees to give the shade and irrigation that is needed to fertilize the land for the vegetable plants to grow.

In addition to providing much needed reductions in CO2 through reforestation, the project will also bolster the community fund set up by BTC in El Portillo.

Groton_Reforestation_2015_7The community fund is a community run fund that allows community members to access small loans to create small businesses or do house repairs.  The loan is then paid back to the fund at a very low or zero interest rates, thus creating a sustainable revolving fund that communities can use for generations to come.  Community leaders receive training through BTC to be able to manage these funds.   In this reforestation project, the fruits and vegetables that are grown through the reforestation project will be sold at accessible prices to local vendors, and the money from those sales will go into the community fund.

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Groton High School volunteers and community members work on the project together.

One of the project’s most important contributions will be the training of over 150 families in the art of diversified agriculture, small scale irrigation, conservation, and small subsistence farming method and design, using the two acre plot as a teaching model.  With this training, individual families will be able to replicate the reforestation project on their own land on a smaller scale.  This will provide much needed healthy food for families, with the potential of extra income through the sale of fruits and vegetables.

More than just beneficial for community members, the project also offers great potential for collaboration with North American volunteers.  Throughout the year, BTC volunteers can aid El Portillo community members by working together on planting, designing, assisting in workshops, and providing technical and financial assistance through trainings or donations.

Some of the trails are already in place.

Some of the trails are already in place.

In the future, the reforestation project will forge trails through the community land that can be used for educational purposes, providing a tour of the diverse flora and fauna of the Nindiri area that can be enjoyed by both Nicaraguans and North Americans alike.

We invite you to follow the progress of this project and participate in its development.  Please contact Bridges to Community for more information on how you can help.

 

 

Please watch our short video!

 

Reports from the Field: Day 1

March 3rd, 2015

By Christine Goffredo

IMG_1673From the moment I learned I would be heading down to Nicaragua for an exploratory, interviewing mission, I was ecstatic.  Nicaragua had been my home for four and a half years, two of which were spent as Site Coordinator of Nindiri with Bridges to Community.  When Bridges to Community offered me the chance to become the Communications and Volunteer Program Manager in their NY office at the end of 2014, I jumped at the opportunity.  What better way, I thought, to share the knowledge and love I have for Nicaragua and the people we work there with others?

With the idea of sharing in mind, only one month after having arrived in NY, I packed my bags again and headed down to Nicaragua with a new mission:  share the stories of the families we work.  As site coordinator, I had the privilege of working with and getting to know so many of our beneficiary families and community leaders, but now I was able to share their knowledge and experiences with others.

Armed with a few cameras, my photographer friend from Nicaragua, Danilo, and accompanied by Jimy and Sebastian, our Masaya and Nindiri project coordinators, respectively, I headed out for three days of story collecting. It was everything and more than I hoped it to be.

Here are some photo highlights from the week.  The footage taken will be shared in various formats throughout the year here on our website, as well as through our social media outlets.  Be on the lookout!  

Day 1: Familiar Faces in Nindiri

 

IMG_1596In the first community we traveled to in Nindiri, I was able to reunite with many familiar community members.  Bridges to Community volunteers and community members constructed 31 homes in this community and many of the beneficiary families have now added additions to their homes for extra rooms for new family members, or to have a place to run a new business.

IMG_1570Several informed us that now that they no longer had the pressing burden of constructing a home, they have been able to purchase land for their children to start their own families, or send their older children to university.

 

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The beneficiary families also talked fondly of the volunteers that came from “the north” to help construct their homes.  They showed us how the plant that the group had given them has grown, or where the handprints still are on their porch steps, such as was the case with the family of Azucena whose house was built in 2010 with the French American School.

IMG_1639All in all, I was able to speak with over 10 families.  Some we even caught up with while walking through the community.  Families proudly showed us their homes, discussed how they felt about the projects that Bridges has done in their community, and about the changes and improvements they hope to continue to see through the use of the community fund.  It was an excellent first day!

Coming soon: Day 2, 10 years later in a Masaya community

 

 

Tell Us Your Bridges Story!

February 23rd, 2015

Tshirt_Vicente_Collage_2015We want to hear your story! Share your story with us here and be automatically entered for a chance to win one of our new Bridges to Community Tshirts! New winners selected every month!

 

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Why share your story? Former and future volunteers alike can gain so much from hearing about how your experience impacted you.  If you would like to add video or photos, email them to us! If you need some ideas to get started, check out this example from a former volunteer.  Go ahead...get sharing!

 



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Tell Us Your Story!

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Spreading the love this Valentine’s Day with over 130 volunteers!

February 9th, 2015

IMG_1329This Valentine’s Day, over 130 volunteers will travel with Bridges to Community to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic to make change happen.

Our Vday volunteers are as varied as the projects they’ll be working on and places they’ll be visiting.  Some come from Wellington College in the United Kingdom; others from Temple Shaaray Tefila, Bedford Presbyterian Church, and Katonah Presbyterian Church in New York;  a medical brigade from Tufts University; and students from John Jay High School!

Medical_Siuna_Doctor_Patient_SmallThey will be working in Masaya, Nindiri, and Jinotega in Nicaragua, as well as two communities in the Dominican Republic.  In total, these committed volunteers will help to build 10 houses, 5 latrines, hold a medical clinic, paint a mural and 2 BTC constructed houses.  That’s what we call a busy week!Mixing Cement_Construction_Working together_group_El Portillo_NIndiri

In addition, all volunteers will working alongside, getting to know, and sharing experiences with community members from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.  As all of the projects that Bridges to Community works on are community led and driven, volunteers can know that they are really contributing to a better future for these communities, and making real change happen.

IMG_4621 (1)We are so excited for our 2015 Vday Volunteers, and can’t wait to see photos and hear stories of their impactful week!  We’ll keep you posted!

 

 

 

Did you know that you can easily support our volunteers’ efforts?  Every contribution, no matter the amount, goes a long way!  Donate today! 

There are other ways to give, as well!  Find out how you can join a trip and make change happen yourself!

 

Furnishings to be Donated to Maternity Center!

July 8th, 2014

The maternity center in Hormiguero, Nicaragua, nears completion.

The maternity center in Hormiguero, Nicaragua, nears completion.

Masaya – Bridges Nicaragua Country Director Kenia Ramirez has announced a wonderful donation from the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health that will help us stock and furnish our Maternity House in Siuna! “Bridges will complete construction of the Maternity Clinic by July 10th and is excited to see its great impact on the people of Siuna. Thanks to the Ministry of Health, the clinic’s effect will be amplified and accelerated,” stated Director Kenia Ramirez

In partnership with the community, City Hall (alcaldía), and the Nicaragua Ministry of Health, Bridges chose to build the Maternity House in El Hormiguero, a rural community with limited access to health treatment. The concept of the Maternity House is a key strategy in global health planning to ensure pregnant women in isolated rural areas can receive proper treatment throughout their pregnancy.

This lack of treatment and medical attention for pregnant women is a big problem in this region of Nicaragua, where more than 18,780 people live in a very remote and diffuse set of 28 communities. Most pregnant women either give birth at home or must travel very far to reach a hospital, both of which can be extremely dangerous. We are building the Maternity House to offset this issue by providing mothers a facility with sufficient resources. Its purpose is to have a place for women to go in their last months of pregnancy where they can have access to a doctor and nurse prior to giving birth. The Maternity House will allow more consultations, faster emergency care, and greater access to medicine. Additionally, workshops will be held at the clinic to inform people of safe practices during pregnancy and birth. The before and after treatment offered is to reduce the chances of death due to things like complicated births and infections in both mother and infant.

As we neared completion of the facility, the Ministry of Health was eager to contribute to the project. They will donate 15 beds, mosquito netting, bedding, towels, chairs, a large stove, kitchenware, and a water tank. Executive Director John Hannan thanks the Ministry of Health “for providing these necessary items that will help to increase maternal and infant health.”