Pastor Joe DiPaolo, Bruce Grove, Julie Grove, Linda Ross, Lisa Shank, John Spear, Charles McWilliams
Blessings to everyone at First United Methodist Church from Pastor Mario, his wife, Gloria, and his entire family, and the students and teachers at Betesda School in Loma Fresca, a thriving community in Bluefields.
The first day on site, Linda, Julie, and I discussed the state of the school and needs of the students with Claudia, a long-term pre-school teacher. Claudia’s daughter attended Betesda School and is now in medical school in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government supports a program to encourage cooperative parent/teacher/student relationships in the community. One of the aspects of this program is that the parents provide a meal for students. There is no longer any cooking for the students at the pastor’s house. The Nicaraguan government provides beans, rice, oil, and flour, which are stored at the school. On a rotating basis for each of the 12 classes, parents prepare enough food for one class. On average, each parent is responsible for about one meal per month. The parents may supplement the prepared meal with meat, cheese, or vegetables. Each class eats in their classroom. Younger children from pre-school to grade 3 attend school in the morning. Because they arrive so early, they receive both a morning snack and lunch. Students in grades 4-6 attend school in the afternoon. The number of students at Betesda School has remained around 250 for several years. In addition, Betesda School is used in the evening for adult literacy classes. These teachers receive a stipend from the government for their time.
There are 12 college-degree teachers employed by the Nicaraguan government at the Betesda School, and teachers work either 7-12 or 12-5. The government provides textbooks and minimal supplies (paper, pencils, pens), but not enough for each student. The donations from First Church for school supplies are vital to the education of all of the students. The cost of a conservative list of supplies for approximately 250 students is $800-1000 annually. The donations provided materials that will benefit classroom learning, artwork, and group projects, in addition to providing enough supplies to meet the basic needs of each student. School supplies purchased in Bluefields during our trip were distributed to all teachers. In addition to their standard education, Pastor Mario provides a Bible class to students every Monday morning and afternoon. He also spends one hour per week in each classroom for bible study. Over the last year, the chalkboards were removed from the classrooms at the request of the Nicaraguan government. Respiratory infections are a chronic problem in the country, so adding chalk dust to the environment was helping no one. Each classroom now has at least one dry erase board.
The interior wall surfaces of the classrooms require frequent painting, and this is an ongoing need due to the number of students in the room and the Caribbean salt air. However, Claudia said that the biggest issue at the school is the noise level in classrooms due to six connected classrooms in an open air building with a tin roof. The classrooms have walls, but there is 4-5 feet of open space between the top of the wall the roof. This space amplifies any loud activity like singing or clapping. Our mission team originally planned to modify the kitchen in the pavilion at the site to provide an open air place for parents to prepare the meals for students. However, according to Claudia, the parents prefer to cook in their own homes. As it is usually the mother doing the food preparation for the class, she is able to tend to her children and household more effectively at home. Pastor Mario agreed that remodeling the pavilion kitchen would not be at the top of his priority list for us, as the space would seldom be used. This new information created a swift change of plans upon arrival. Sometimes, it’s just difficult to get the necessary information from all interested parties by email or phone prior to a trip. Being on site is the most effective way to assure that the needs of the community are met, and that we are not just pushing our own agenda, though well intentioned. Pastor Mario then outlined three projects for us to concentrate on for this trip. 1. Address the occasional water pump performance; 2. Create a sound barrier between school classrooms; and 3. Assist in construction of the annex to the pastoral home that Pastor Mario and his family had initiated in late 2015.
The annex to the pastor’s home will be used as small store selling basic daily needs and a small salon. Pastor Mario’s daughter Grace completed her beauty school degree in 2015 and is currently employed part time at a salon in Bluefields. She will be able to provide the same services in the Loma Fresca community of Bluefields at this small salon. Income generated will go to support the Betesda School. The outside wall of the annex had been started prior to our arrival, but additional funds were needed to continue. Specifically, a welder needed to be hired to provide the ironwork to the annex windows and door that is standard construction in Bluefields. Security is the most important issue for homes and businesses in Bluefields. A community welder was hired along with another man to assist him for three days of work on the annex.
Creating a sound barrier in the open space above the classroom walls required a lot of measuring and planning. John and Chuck headed up the planning of this project. We raised our concerns over the decrease in air flow in the classrooms. Though three of the classrooms have windows on two outside walls, framing out the space above the existing walls and attaching cement boards to the studs would decrease the air flow considerably in the building. The teachers and school director confirmed that the benefits of sound reduction between classrooms would far outweigh the reduction in air flow. They are accustomed to the heat (unlike us), and they were exited for this project to begin. Mario Jr., Pastor Mario’s son, and Maximo, Pastor Mario’s son-in-law, led a team of 3-4 men who climbed the ladders and sat on top of the existing walls to frame the open space and secure the cement boards. First Church members on the trip thought it best to allow the twenty-something men to sit on top of a wall working on this project for the next three days. An important part of this project was the education provided to Mario, Maximo, and the others. John and Chuck bought a circular saw and taught the men how to use it safely. Likewise, there was learning involved with the framing part of this project, in addition to cutting and securing the cement boards to the studs. Once the first wall was framed and cement boards were attached, the men worked on their own after we left the site for the day and early in the morning before our arrival. While the school walls were being altered, Bruce, Julie, and Pastor Joe spent a good deal of time repairing about 20 wooden desks that were not being used due to various broken pieces. New wood was added or old pieces reattached and the new wood was then sanded and painted. Linda and Julie spent considerable time cleaning up the classroom floors, cleaning desk surfaces where possible, and restoring some order to the school before classes would begin. The day before our departure, the teachers were working in the classrooms to prepare for the first full day of class.
The water pump issue involved a recurring problem with the pump getting clogged from debris in the water. The pump is located in a ground water well at the lowest point of the property. All water to the pastor’s house, the clinic, and the school comes from this single well. John and Chuck designed some modifications to the pump housing inside the well to decrease the chance of debris getting in close proximity to the actual pump. Creating the design, pulling the pump, and executing the redesigned pump housing was relatively straight-forward. However, the lack of water in the house after the new pump housing was in place turned into a longer problem. Prior to our departure, we were confident that the pump itself was still functional and the problem appeared to be electrical in nature in the house. Discussions with Pastor Mario and Maximo revealed that there had been electrical issues related to water flow in previous years. Several days after we had returned home, Pastor Mario sent word that water had been restored to the house and the pump was working as intended. They figured out what the problem was after we departed.
Several team members visited the medical clinic at the school site and were fortunate to spend time with the doctors and nurses at the clinic. They were happy to answer our questions and said that Pastor Mario checks with them regularly regarding their needs or any issues. This free clinic serves the community and includes three doctors and three nurses. The government has a mandate that there must be three doctors in each government health clinic, with those three doctors serving approximately 5000 people in each community. The government’s current health and wellness initiative revolves around creating an atmosphere of respect for the various cultures in the community it serves and provides education to the doctors and nurses regarding those cultures. Community volunteers distribute Clorox for water treatment in the community and also oral medication for diarrhea. Mid-wives are trained and observed by doctors at hospitals. We asked what were the most common problems or needs addressed at the clinic. 1. Diarrhea – caused by bad water and perpetuated by outdoor bathrooms that contaminate the ground water; 2. Respiratory infections – colds, tonsillitis, pneumonia – caused by low nutrition and lack of handwashing and basic hygiene and other infections including intestinal parasites; 3. Pre-natal counseling – teaching young mothers what to expect during pregnancy and following childbirth; 4. Diabetes; 5. Hypertension; 6. High cholesterol – due to a diet high in fat. The government has initiated studies as part of public health policy to find out the five most prevalent diseases in various regions. The doctors must then prepare an action plan to address these issues. The nurses and doctors set periodic goals for the clinic in which they work. Teenage pregnancy is a common occurrence as is infant mortality; however, there has been drop in infant mortality in recent years. A new pilot program was started in Bluefields by UNICEF to address teen pregnancy prevention.
The best news on the medical front in the Bluefields community is the new large medical clinic being built next to the bus station, which is close to Betesda School. It is expected to open in March 2016. In fact, the medical clinic that has existed for years on the Betesda School property is moving to this new facility. With the clinic moving to the new location, Pastor Mario has plans to utilize the current clinic space for classroom expansion. He wants to move the 4-6 grade classes to the clinic building.
Bluefields was chosen by the government as the first location for construction of a new medical clinic model due to its population growth. There are also plans for a new hospital in the area. A doctor from the Betesda clinic gave us a tour of the facility under construction. Though unfinished in terms of furniture and equipment, the new clinic has beautiful white tile flooring with white and blue walls, waiting areas including a large room inside the building and benches outside the building, ceiling fans, a scrub room for the staff, two nurse consultation rooms, and an area designed to perform blood tests in the future. The site offers expansion capabilities and a parking area. The government hopes to encourage local students to attend medical school and return to their native communities as doctors. Over the past decade, most doctors at the clinic were Cuban doctors, staying for about 3 months at a time. The overall goal is to make the doctors less transient and place more doctors with specialties in the clinics. An enormous country infrastructure project in the planning stage is to build a canal that stretches from the west coast of Nicaragua to the east coast, placing new medical clinics along the canal for easier access to care.
Each team to Nicaragua brings a different mix of skills and passions. On this trip, we were blessed with creative minds on several fronts from the pump issue to construction planning. We planned and executed a complete change in project direction in a very short amount of time. It’s always interesting to see how flexible we can be when forced into a new direction where adaptability and efficient planning must happen quickly for success. We all struggle with the desire to apply quick American fixes to most problems, and we are constantly impressed with what can be accomplished with Nicaraguan creativity, resourcefulness, and the desire to learn. We were truly blessed by Linda Ross, our translator for this trip. Because of her patience and fluency, this trip was successful and extremely educational as we were able to speak with many more people than we had planned.
On behalf of the entire 2016 Nicaragua Team of Pastor Joe DiPaolo, John Spear, Julie and Bruce Grove, Linda Ross, Chuck McWilliams, and myself, I want to thank the congregation of First United Methodist Church for continuing to support this ministry. Because of this congregation, many children receive valuable education from pre-school to 6th grade; the school serves as a literacy learning center for adults in the evenings; the medical clinic provides relatively easy access to medical care in a remote community; and the entire site is recognized a safe place for anyone who needs help. Pastor Mario and his family are true community leaders, well-respected, generous, faithful, and advocating for those in the community who may not have a voice. Pastor Mario sends his gratitude to the entire congregation for believing in him and his family and for our continued support of the ministry in Bluefields, Nicaragua.