DDU helps Improve Health Care in Quilali

We did it! The hospital in Quilali just got their new microscope thanks to Divine Daughters Unite.

After assessing the needs of the hospital while in Nicaragua in December, it was clear that DDU could make the most difference by purchasing this needed piece of equipment.

Earlier that day I had assessed that the secondary school needed a microscope for their science lab. So when the laboratory director of the hospital shows me the sorry state of their old microscope, DDU had a wonderful opportunity to help improve both education and health care.

I met with the mayor of Quilali who personally assured me that DDU’s donation of funds would go to purchase the microscope for the hospital and the old microscope would go to the school.

The mayor and the director of the hospital laboratory traveled seven hours one way to purchase the Olympus microscope with funds donated by DDU.

How exciting for Quilali’s hospital, high school, patients and students who will benefit from improved health care and educational opportunities!

Thank you, DDU, for this opportunity to serve.

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Last Day – Time to Go Home

December 22nd – the Solstice. There is no sleep on the eve of the longest night.

Up at 1:30 am to drive to the airport under the full moon. I am accompanied by Elizabeth and her sister Erika. On the two hour drive, I suggest that Elizabeth purchase the sheets for Casa Materna while they are here but she explains that the wholesale market is not open. Erika describes the poor working conditions for Nicaraguan laborers at the Chinese owned textile mills. I wonder why China has come to Nicaragua.

It’s because of the canal. Construction will begin this coming year. European and Chinese interests are funding it. Nicaraguans will build it. The plan is to widen the existing river – San Rio. The Panama Canal will become obsolete. Importation to and from Asia and Europe will through this wider deeper Canal will change the face of Nicaragua. When I speak my concern of communities and wildlife existing by the river and the loss of the fresh water, my hosts agree that the canal will destroy much virgin land. Progress comes at a great price to the new heart of the earth.

I learn that Erika has taken in an impoverished girl from the mountains. She clothes her, feeds her, pays for her education. Her mother says there’s no need to go to school when all she’s destined to live hand to mouth having baby after baby. The fifteen year old does not want to spend Christmas with her family. If she stays in town with Erika and finishes her education, she just might have a chance to break the cycle of poverty.

Mangua international airport is small but modern. I am on the first flight out of the country. Elizabeth and her sister stay with me until I pass through security. I promise to text them when I arrive. Although I cannot get the special Nicaraguan aged rum with my connection in San Salvador, I have enough mountain grown coffee, honey and rosquillas to share when I get home to Ojai.

This has been the adventure of a lifetime. So much accomplished in less than a week. I hope we have changed lives. I know my life is changed.

Quilali, I’ll be back.

 

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Day 6 – Saying goodbye to Quilali

The roosters sing to the moon too. I am up at 3:33 – the witching hour for me, the time Mom died this past July. I thank her for coming with me to Nicaragua. I was so busy serving the poor I had no time to sprinkle her ashes at Elizabeth’s house. I feel Mom reassure me that in serving the Divine Daughters of Quilali, I planted her energy here.

At breakfast, Elizabeth’s Mom packages eight pounds of her father’s freshly roasted coffee beans for me to take home. This is so special as Señor Cornejo is the only coffee grower in all of Nicaragua whose coffee is purchased by a fair trade buyer in America. Elizabeth was the bridge. After the husband and wife owners of Beacon coffee tasted her father’s coffee at her seamstress shop in Ventura, she brought them to her home. They toured the small coffee farm, were devastated by the blight that killed so many coffee plants in the region, and invested in Señor Cornejo.

This last morning we go back to Case de Materna. We decide to donate the needed sheets and pillows for the expectant and newly delivered mothers. Erika will purchase them with her resale license at the market in the city. The mothers are just finishing breakfast at the long dining table. All are poor and incredibly grateful for the baby clothes and children’s shoes we bring.

One very young girl is so petite, a pair of child’s sandals fit her. She asks for the frog puppet that we included with the infant clothes. Of course we give it to her, but the nurses kindly insist she take a few newborn outfits. They are so young. Babies having babies.

I must come back and help educate these women. The machismo attitude has made sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer and mental health issues rampant. Domestic violence instigated in part by the stress of taking care of so many children with so little opportunity plagues these poor women.

The director hugs me tight, thanking me for coming and praying for my return.

So hard to say goodbye. I’ve come to love these people. Hugging Elizabeth’s Mom felt like I was hugging Nana. They look so much alike, act so similar, the same fears, the same money sense, the same fussiness about cleaning. Stoney-faced love, barely a smile, but when she finally opens to your embrace, the heart connection is powerful. She follows me, making me promise to come back. Goodbye, Nana…I mean, Mamma.

We travel to Estelle in the back of a truck. The luggage is wrapped in plastic in case of rain. Erika’s husband Larry has taken time off from his coffee farm high up in the mountains.

We pass through small towns of coffee farmers. The verdant forest shares space with lush coffee planets. Elizabeth explains that just a few years ago a fungus destroyed the coffee severely affecting this fragile communities so dependent on coffee production. Today the scenery is beautiful, the roads winding. I have an iron stomach, unfortunately Elizabeth does not.

This is the same winding route Elizabeth traveled by bus to go to university. She got motion sick then too. We stop for bonine and Elizabeth trades places with her sister and niece. We doze in the warm sun.

Halfway we stop at the coffee co-op that Erika’s husband belongs to. The workers just returning from lunch ride up on bikes and a few motorcycles. Acres of green coffee beans dry in the sun. The modern administrative building is well equipped. There we purchase honey and coffee for souvenirs.

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Elizabeth’s sister Erika- the one who makes sure everything goes as planned with her husband Larry and daughter Alejandra

 

 

For the last leg of the journey, I sit up front with Elizabeth and Larry. He tries to tell me about his coffee farm so Elizabeth translates. His grandfather’s huge plot of prime land was confiscated by Sandista and he was forced to serve the resistance for seven years. When the government abandoned the land, his father was able to get back 500 acres and Larry purchased 100 acres to reestablish the Zelaya family name in coffee.
Three Zelaya brothers came from Spain and one went to Costa Rica, one to Honduras, and one to here. It was a Zelaya woman who planted the first coffee in Nicaragua. President Zelaya promoted coffee, but native Nicaraguans did not want to farm coffee, so German and Dutch people came to the mountains of Nicaragua and became the first coffee growers. Hence the occasional fair skin, blond hair and light eyes.

Larry is passionate about coffee. He sold a beloved Paso Fino horse to become a coffee farmer. He’s the driver for a rich man in town who gave him some cows which has become his second passion. We share stories about our horses and livestock. He tells me of a deformed filly that he saved and rehabbed into a good brood mare and sick cow he rescued and his daughter named Represita – little present. Elizabeth teases that they might find him sleeping with his cows.

I understand his passion. Agriculture and animal husbandry is a love of mine too.

Cows dot the open meadows, Brahma, Holstein, a few cross-breeds I’m not familiar with, yet no Angus. Some families own cows for milk and cheese, but this country is not known for its diary products. I have not been impressed with the little bit of beef I’ve had here and wonder out loud why no one’s raising Angus, the area seems perfect for grass fed beef year round. Larry is excited but the idea. He’s seen Angus at the fair in Managua. Perhaps there is another way to help.

Elizabeth points out tobacco. Cubans grow tobacco here and produce the best cigars. Last year Nicaraguan cigars won first place internationally.

We stop for lunch. I order the grilled pork, too well done for me. I share my husband’s expertise at open fire barbecue so when we return, he can show Larry how to grill a grass fed Angus steak.

Next stop Hogar de Ancionos Club St Lucia – a senior nursing home. Nuns greet us and we tour the facility. They serve 38 seniors mostly women from the time their families drop them off until the end of their lives. The nursing home is clean, the residents well cared for. This is a private facility run by the Catholic Church. Some of their residents were left on the doorstep. They do not turn anyone away. We fit a few seniors with new shoes, leaving the rest of the shoes for the nuns to distribute since the elders just finished dinner and are preparing for bed. We also leave a donation of money for the nuns to buy other necessities for the seniors. We leave with blessings from the nuns.

Finally, I get to meet Elizabeth’s cousin. Edwin is a cardiologist in a private clinic in Estelle. They grew up together, went to the same school, played together as children. Being the only doctor in the family, Edwin is the first one they call for help. Dr Galeano sits down with us after finishing seeing the last of his patients at 5:30.

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I explain that I would like to serve Quilali by holding a health clinic focusing on women with the primary goal to provide needed physical examinations, Pap smears, treatment, and education. He agrees a gynecological clinic is much needed yet it would best serve the people for me to educate the doctors and especially the nurses who are the most available to the patients. Train the doctors in colposcopy, the nurses in primary examinations and then hold an open clinic. Work with the politicians to hold a health fair (thank goodness we are already in with Mayor Rodriguez). All I need to do is write a letter of intent and provide my certifications and he will support my efforts.

This is exciting! Kyra, my daughter and Vice President of DDU, wants to come. Perhaps my sister who is a family nurse practitioner as well and my niece who is fluent in Spanish after serving a mission in Guatemala would come too!

I thank Dr Galeano and we head to yet another of Elizabeth’s cousins.

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My host Senor Cornejo

 

 

We spend the evening with her cousin’s family including gregarious four-year-old twin boys and their three-month-old chow puppy. We bathe the dust from our long journey here and by 10:30pm, the house is quiet but sleep evades me. Too excited by the possibilities of creating significant change and also anxious to be back in my husband’s arms, I lie on one of the twin’s bed grateful for the chance to serve.

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Day 5 – Our muddy adventure, more shoes for kids and fireworks

I’m getting used to the rooster. Perhaps I’m just exhausted. I don’t wake up before dawn this morning. We jumped in and out of truck yesterday finding shoes for dozens of kids. Even bringing Elizabeth’s nieces to help, I think it would be easier to get rid of the boxes and tie the shoes together and organize them by size. We have lots more little kid than big kid shoes so we bring some of the extra backpacks. The shoes are great but the backpacks are like a thousand Christmases to these kids!

Negotiating the mountain all day to find the poorest people and we still have 65 baskets to deliver. We bring as many as we can, plus the shoe bags and the cooler for the chicken. Each gift basket consists of a large round plastic basin that can be used to mix masa, wash a baby, or soak tired feet. The basin is filled with food and supplies – rice, beans, coffee, sugar, salt, spices, oil, toilet paper, toothpaste, bar soap, laundry soap and dry snacks. Plus we have bags of frozen chicken for a holiday meal.

The man whose truck we borrowed brought us a huge papaya. Everyone who can wants to help us. We breakfast on fresh papaya and coffee before repacking the truck. Nothing can be left out as it rains all night. It looks like we might have more rain today so we pick up a plastic tarp from Señor Cornejo where he’s getting his truck fixed on our way out of town.

We stop to buy green guavas to snack on. The fruit has the texture of an apple, tart yet sweet, so big we split them.

Our next stop is a rest stop. While Marlen finds out from the proprietor where to find the most needy families, I feed a parrot pieces of guava. The girls tease me that parrots will bite, but this one gently takes my offering. So far everyone I’ve met including the animals have been kind and friendly.

We drive up and up on narrow mountain roads deeper into the jungle. As we get further from the village, the houses are poorer. There’s a few nicer homes in the midst of wide expanses of land, mostly used for cattle and coffee, bananas and plantains. We pass quite a few cabarellos, riding solo or herding cows. Compared to the cities in the southern part of the country, the horses here are better fed.

We turn up a long mud road, nothing is paved this far out of town, but this road is even less well maintained. Here we might find the sick homebound elderly women we were told about at the rest stop.

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When we can’t take the truck any farther, Elizabeth and I jump out and carry baskets to the nearest house. We interrupt a man building a clay oven to ask directions and he stops his work to send a young barefoot boy to leads us up a narrow trail about a third of a mile through the the jungle. There we find an elderly woman in a wheelchair and two little girls. We leave the basket of food for her and ask to take the children back to the truck to fit them with shoes. She gives us her blessing, so we make our way back down the hill.

Once we start fitting the children with shoes, more show up. Women from another household across the way bring their children. We fit them all with new shoes, clothe the little girls who live up the hill and give baskets of food to the families. We ask the boy to bring the little girls back to their grandmother and bring a basket of food to the man who helped us find all these needy people.

He refuses to take the basket without giving us something in exchange and runs across the road and up the hill to retrieve a huge bunch of bananas!

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Thank goodness for the 4WD truck and Marlen’s expert driving. The roads slick with mud are difficult to negotiate but the baskets, shoes and kids stay safely put in the back of the truck. Just after our picnic lunch, this time we brought beans and rice for the girls who needed more than fruit and veggies, the tarp comes in handy during a down pour.

Marlen attempts to take us to the poorest area but the truck begins slipping back down the steep muddy road. I quickly help get the kids out of the truck and off the road so she can maneuver the truck out of ditch. After our muddy adventure, we cross back over the river to find other barrios.

It’s hard to choose who to give the baskets to as all the homes look impoverished to me, but Marlen seems to know who needs help the most. We do not fit children with shoes in the middle of the street, but park out of the way not to be overwhelmed by crowds. A young mother is washing clothes in the river with four little children. One of the girl’s entire arm is scarred, evidence of a bad third degree burn. Elizabeth points out that burns are common with open fire cooking in crowded households. The young mother is delighted to receive a food basket and luckily has enough children to help her carry it and the laundry back home.
By dusk we’ve given away thirty more baskets and three times as many as shoes, yet still have four huge bags of shoes left. But we must head back. I have meeting with the mayor.

The mayor of Quilali meets us at the house. We sit and have coffee with Señor Martin Gonzalez. This year he won a national award for the best use of federal funds to improve the city. He is anxious to help us however he can. I tell him that my concern is improving health care and education. I want to be sure that whatever we donate stays in Quilali. He assures us that he will do everything in his power to keep our donations where we intend them to be used. His newly elected assistant is a retired pharmacist who knows the health care system well and will act as our advocate. I am pleased with our encounter and feel like DDU has a powerful advocate here in Quilali.

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the mayor agrees to help DDU help Quilali

 

After meeting the mayor, we take all of Elizabeth’s available nieces and nephews to help us give out the rest of the shoes. The children all wanted to help but we only had room for a few helpers with the truck filled with baskets. Now we take a dozen of them and her sister Erika and sister-in-law Magdalena too.

Marlen drives us to the poorest barrio at the edge of the city. We jump out of the truck and the kids help carry bags of shoes up the hill to the most impoverished houses. It’s dark now, we have nothing but a few cell phones for light, but we manage to fit another three dozen kids with shoes on a dirt road between two concrete houses. It’s a wonder we make it back to our truck with all our kids!

In celebration of a great days work, we stop to buy fireworks. The kids carefully pick out sparklers and we head home to unpack the truck. The children wait patiently, but when they see I’m finished, they cry, “Deborah! Deborah, andele!” Time to light the fireworks!

We celebrate in the backyard. These children have very little compared to children in America yet so much more than those we helped these past few days. The joy of giving is contagious and truly the greatest blessing of all.

Before I can even wash off the mud, I am asked to sit down for a pedicure. The young deaf woman DDU sponsored last year is here with her mother. We chat through sign while her mother starts the pedicure. She tells me she did well enough last year in her new business that she was able to get married. She shows me wedding pictures and I ask her about babies. Oh, no, not yet, she reassures me. She made enough to get long term contraception (much less expensive than in the US but still a significant investment for someone who makes $2.50 per pedicure).

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Magdalena offers to massage my neck, while she shows me some of her nail designs. What do I want her to paint on my nails? I choose a golden butterfly in honor of Mom. Since dealing with her illness and subsequent death, now I find myself here in Nicaragua serving the needy, this has been a most transformational year. Butterflies symbolize spiritual transformation.

I pray through DDU I’ve been able to help others experience such beautiful transformations.

When I pay my new friend what I would have paid back home for an awesome spa pedicure, she cries. It’s more than she makes in a week. Her hug makes it most worthwhile.

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Day 4- 100 Shoes, 25 Baskets, and some House Calls

Before the crack of dawn, Elizabeth’s mother gets up to shower and open the corner store. The rooster insists that we all rise, so by 5:30am I’m dressed and ready to go. Nicaraguan coffee is made too sweet for my taste, so Elizabeth’s mother prepares a thermos of unsweetened coffee. I can taste the mountain in each sip. It’s so green and wet and hot here that the coffee is rich and smooth. Mom would have loved it.

We breakfast on fresh papaya and pack fruit and vegetables for lunch. It takes time to prepare meals here. While there is running water, it’s not hot and the stove must be lit by hand. Electric appliances cannot be run all at once. It’s a lot like camping in our Lance trailer who has is one of mum favorite things to do. The nicest part is cooking with so many other women. Elizabeth’s aunts, sisters and sisters-in-law all help prepare food for the family.

We pack up a four-wheel drive truck with 25 food baskets, a cooler full of 50 pounds of frozen chicken, two huge sacks of clothing, six 40 pound sacks filled with shoes. I bring my medical bag just in case.

Elizabeth’s nieces jump in the back of the truck to help. Marlen, Elizabeth’s pregnant sister, drives. It’s a family affair.

We leave the cobblestone roads of the village and over a narrow bridge. The river is wide and unusually low. Women wash clothes on the rocks at the rivers edge while children play in the mud. A few cows wade in for a drink. Skinny dogs wander about looking for scraps.

The houses, mostly made of concrete with metal or thatched roofs, have a front and rear entrances for ventilation, sometimes windows, rarely doors. Kitchens are outdoors with clay stoves. Families sleep in the single room on mats or blocks of the dirt floor. Rough honed tables and a plastic chair or two are the only furniture.

We stop at the poorest houses to find women, small children, the elderly and disabled. Most of the men and older kids are up on the mountain picking coffee. I carry the heavily ladened basket up to the first house. At first the woman is not sure about our gift, but finally accepts it when we reassure her we are not with either political party. There are no ties in accepting our gift of food. We take pictures with her and the children, then invite them to follow us back down to the truck.

Time to fit the children with shoes. By the time we are done with the first seven kids another household finds us and we put shoes on five more children. Most of the kids are barefoot, so new shoes are welcome. Erika did a good job finding a variety of shoes and sizes, but it takes a lot of time to fit so many.

It’s such a simple gift yet what a profound effect a pair of new shoes has in the life of a child.

And the mothers are even more excited than the children! Their precious children have shoes to walk down the mountain. More so they can go to school. The best way to break the cycle of poverty is education. While education is free, families have to pay for school uniforms. Not having to buy shoes too helps these families so much.

At our next stop we bring a basket of food and fit a disabled young man with a new pair of shoes. One of Elizabeth’s favorites, he’s so happy with his new converse tennis shoes! His mother thanks us profusely.

In a barrio, we look for more families to help and run into a young deaf girl. She’s super excited to meet me. Divine Daughters Unite donated funds to purchase pedicure supplies for her last year. She’s been able to support herself ever since, going to her clients’ homes to give them manicures and pedicures. She’s quite the artist and shoes me some of her designs. So she’s not taken advantage of, her mother arranges her appointments and often accompanies her. Elizabeth arranges to have her come to the house to give us pedicures.

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Sponsored by DDU last year. Independent this year!

The poorest families live on the edge of the hillside. We have to take a narrow slippery trail carrying the heavy baskets to find them. In one home, we find a young pregnant mother with a year old baby, taking care of her aunt’s two children. I entertain one of the toddlers as he stands up in a homemade playpen. The young mother leaves them with her grandmother to follow us back to the truck for shoes and clothing for the children.

It’s past noon, so we drive down to the river for a picnic. There we find three small children playing in the mud. A little boy of three and two girls five and seven years old are left alone to fend for themselves while their mother works. She bought their two year old brother with her walking some four miles into town. We share our lunch with the children, filling their plates with fruit, veggies, and cheese. They devour the simple meal, enjoying the steamed carrots and beets like candy.

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We then outfit the three with new clothes and shoes. The children are shy, not sure what to make of these strange women with a truck full of presents. The food basket is too heavy for them so we carry it to their house about 100 feet from the river bank. The little boy dressed in his new clothes stops by a fallen log. A tiny parrot hops onto his outstretched finger.

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A hut made of poles houses the four children and four adults including their alcoholic father. The girls do not go to school as the family cannot afford to send them. After shooing the dog out of the hut to keep the food safe, we go back to the truck. The children follow us. Elizabeth tries to warn the girls to scream if anyone tries to hurt them. But who would hear them?

We cross the river and head back to down the mountain. Here we give out more baskets and shoes. A group of children ride up on bicycles. This is school break. From November to February, the children are off during harvest. Here it’s coffee picking season.

One of the girls has a huge abscess on her face. I examine her and determine she needs treatment. I’ve brought a course of antibiotics just in case I got sick from the food or water. Since I have an iron stomach, I’m fine but this child needs it. She tells us, no, she is not taking any medicine. I ask her to take us to her mother. We follow her a quarter of a mile down the road to a large concrete house. Her mother greets us and reassures us that they just came down from the mountain to take her daughter to the hospital and yes, she just started antibiotics. We give the family a basket of food and look for others to help.

The next house reveals why I brought medicine. We find an elderly woman sick with cellulitis – a raging infection on her leg. She was taken to the hospital and treated but they only had a steroid cream for the itch to give her. They did the have the needed antibiotics so they gave her a prescription but she didn’t have the money to fill it at the pharmacy. That was last week and now the infection is up to her knee.

I clean and dress her leg, explain how to use treat it, leave supplies and the antibiotics. She is so grateful, blessing me and my family. I’ve received a lot of blessings this trip.

Before we head home, Elizabeth’s sister takes us to the sandora. The local healer lives in a house as poor as the rest, but tidy, well swept and ventilated. She is a medicine woman who provides hands on therapy through massage as well as botanical therapies. We have a long discussion about her treatment. She focuses on cleansing parasites which is a huge issue among the poor. She also does energy healing. I ask if I can join her in treating Elizabeth’s sister.
Marlen agrees and lies down on the sandora’s bed. She is five and half months pregnant and the doctor is concerned that she has not put on much weight. Her uterine size is appropriate for her gestation. As soon as we lay hands on her, the baby moves.

The women of this community believe in the gifts of the sandora. She charges nothing but the community supports her efforts and offers what they can. Integrative medicine is a necessity here where people cannot access or afford conventional care.

Our last stop is the home of a diabetic woman. She lives alone, is an amputee and wheelchair-bound. She tells us, it’s a good week since she didn’t have to be taken to the hospital. She doesn’t always have enough insulin. Elizabeth’s family tries to help with food and medicine. We leave our last basket and receive hugs in return.

 

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Thank you for your kind donations!

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Day 3 – So much to do

At five the rooster wakes us. He crowed at three am as well. Elizabeth says the roosters in Quilali sing to the moon. We have a lovely cup of home grown coffee and get dressed. It’s time to milk the cows.

 

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Cornejo store in Quilali

 

We walk past her brothers’ houses and her aunt’s house. Her father owned all this land including the highest point, but sold the other side of the street to support the family. At the end of the street, we head up the second highest vista. Here Elizabeth is building a house to have a place for more people to stay who want to help. Her house is beautiful! Massive compared to the neighbor’s, up on the hill overlooking the town and the river like a Central American castle. Two stories with a deck and huge patio. It’s not quite finished but handmade carved doors and windows are in and they are magnificent.

 

The electricity’s not hooked up, nor the plumbing. Elizabeth plans to pump water from the well rather than depend on the city water which is runs intermittently. Some houses have toilets like the Cornejos but must collect water when it’s available to flush them when the plumbing is off which is about half the time. Showers are more like standing baths from water collected in barrels. While there is no plumbed hot water, Elizabeth was kind enough to heat some water in an electric kettle she brought for her mother last time she came. Electronics are very expensive in this country who produces none, so she brings what she can.

 

After touring the outside of the house, since it’s locked, we make our way down the backside of the hill past the well, to the stable just above the river. Her father owns twelve acres at the edge of town and the cows have plenty to eat.

 

Señor Cornejo has hired men to help and they’re nearly done milking the eight cows when we arrive. Two calves wait outside the corral until their mothers are ready to be milked. The men let one in and it hurries to its mother. As the calf starts to nurse, one man hobbles the back legs of the cow, the other puts a rope around the calf and ties it by her head. The cow licks the calf as I make a poor attempt to milk the cow. It’s been a long time since I milked a goat and this is my first time milking a cow. After Elizabeth tries too, the man quickly finishes the job, the other man takes us up to unlock Elizabeth’s house. She’s disturbed by the large dimensions of the great room. She’s used to door to a tiny kitchen but I assure her that this large gathering space is perfect for a big open kitchen that will accommodate multiple cooks, a large dining table and sitting area for all the guests she plans to host. There are three large bedrooms downstairs and a huge loft with a deck upstairs plus three full bathrooms. She could easily sleep ten to twelve people.

 

Her family have all helped in this endeavor to build a house for the one who went to America. Perhaps she’ll come home someday.

 

After making plans for storage, stair rails, and roughly laying out the kitchen, we head back to her mother’s house. Breakfast is rice, beans, fried plantains and fresh papaya juice. Very good and filling. Magdalena, Elizabeth’s sister in law has come to cook for us. She shows me how to make cheese from the cows’ milk.

 

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Making cheese with Magdalena

 

We then prepare the backpacks to be distributed at the primary school and separate clothes for Casa Materna and the hospital. We wash up and dress. By 9am we are ready to go.

 

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getting backpacks ready for school children

 

Elizabeth’s sister Erika joins us. She has been instrumental at organizing all the meetings, communicating back and forth to Elizabeth where the greatest need is and making sure the donated funds are used appropriately. She even rode the bus eight hours to the big market in Managua to buy nearly 300 pairs of shoes twice! She has a bad back and the bus ride was hard on her. Her daughter Alejandra and niece Chrisiam climb in the car with us. The driver packs the truck with three huge sacks of backpacks and clothes and off we go.

 

First stop the Primary School. This is where Elizabeth and all her siblings and cousins went to school and now her nieces and nephews learn here too. Her oldest nephew earned the highest grades in last graduating class and next year will be attending the secondary school. The primary schools are grades 1-5 teaching children 9-13 years old. Children start school at the Kindergarten which teaches children 5-8 years old. After Christmas, Elizabeth will deliver school supplies to the Kindergarten. Today, we deliver backpacks to the poorest children with the most potential in the primary school- two from each class.

 

Only five children show up, and two adults. Although this is school break, some of the children cannot be here as they are up in the mountains picking coffee with their families. The school year breaks for harvest which here in Nicaragua begins in November. The next school year begins in February. Few of these children will get a break but will be working to support their families.

 

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presenting backpacks to poorest children at the primary school

 

These children seem rather somber since they don’t get many presents. Most handouts come through the government and are tied to political beliefs so the families are suspicious of anything free and the children act according to what they’ve been taught. We take pictures of each presentation and ask that the children use their new supplies to write a thank you note to bring to the 4H girls. Our praise over their handwriting and artwork starts to wiggle smiles from their lips.

 

Each backpack is different filled by individual 4H girls, so it’s exciting to unpack them. The children begin to relax and have fun comparing their supplies and even a some gifts – small toys, bracelets, hair ties, flip flops – shoes are greatly needed with the constant rain and mud.

 

The word gets out that we are presenting backpacks and more parents show up. The teachers and Erika identify those families in the greatest need, but we haven’t brought enough backpacks, so I head back with the driver to get more. The house is open with the front convenience store and we’ve brought so many donations that we locked our door. Unfortunately, I can’t get it unlocked. Elizabeth’s mother tries to unlock it. The driver tries. One of the children run to get Elizabeth’s brother who cannot open it either, so he breaks the lock. Only one day here and already we’ve created drama. The family just brushes it off and by the time we get home, there’s a new lock on the door.

 

I return to the school with more backpacks and eight more children leave happy. All the original chosen students receive their backpacks, so it’s time to tour the school. Elizabeth reminisces with some of her old teachers through the classrooms. Last year, she presented them with white boards and they are taking good care of them.

 

The school is in poor shape, needing paint and repair, but we ask what the students most need and the teachers agree – a Computer Lab. We visit the space designated for the lab. It’s a separate building currently being used as storage. Elizabeth and Erika ask if the parents would be willing to build the computer desks and the teachers believe for the children, they will. So we put thirty computers on the wish list. The student teacher has already investigated the cost of each unit – $600 including all the cables and harder drives necessary to run a group of 5-6 monitors. At a grand total of $18,000, we will have to do some fundraising.

 

We say goodbye and head across town to the Secondary School. Here we present $50 scholarships to the top two students in each class. Ten students dressed in their uniforms greet us and a couple of parents whose children are working in the fields. Clearly the children with the most economic opportunity are doing the best in school.

 

These older students are very grateful for the scholarships which have come from Altruesa. The director of the secondary school is a member of Altreusa whose mission is to improve education and just this year have reached out to Nicaragua. He praises Elizabeth who humbly claims she is only a bridge. I tell the students, Elizabeth Cornejo is more than a bridge, she is an example of what they can do if they stove to do well in school, seek higher education, and follow their dreams. They will not only improve their lives but can help improve the lives of others.

 

After the students leave, we tour the school. It is in much worse shape than the primary school. Just to the right of the crowed administration office is the bathrooms. The septic tank is in between the two and overflows with heavy rains which occurs frequently. Funds will have to be raised for replumbing. The classrooms are in poor shape but functional. One classroom is being used as a library. Since it’s so hot and humid during the school year,  the classrooms have open caged windows. The books do not last in this environment. Glass windows and a ceiling fan for circulation are needed or better yet build a library and use this classroom as it was intended. There is space on the school grounds to build. Another fundraiser is added to the list.

 

I explain to the director that right now we would like to help with what monies we’ve brought. I ask if the science class has a microscope. The director lights up, No, and with a microscope they could better teach biology. As a health care provider, this is close to my heart. We will figure out a way to get them a microscope.

 

So with the growing needs list we break for lunch. It’s been a long day and we’re only half done, so we treat her sister, the girls, and our driver at the only restaurant in town. Grilled chicken, rice and plantains. I start to order iced tea until I find out it’s sweetened. All the beverages are sweetened, sugar is even added to fresh juice. Some of Elizabeth’s relatives have diabetes and I noticed dental caries in the youngest children and missing teeth in adults.

 

The Nicaraguan diet is primarily starch and sugar and very little variety. As Elizabeth’s father says: For breakfast, we eat rice and beans, for lunch, beans and rice and for dinner, rice and beans.  Besides tomatoes and onions to cook the rice, very few vegetables are eaten and almost no leafy greens. Elizabeth told me that one of the biggest needs is vitamins for the children and pregnant women. No wonder, the Nicaraguan diet is not colorful enough to provide the necessary nutrients. The white rice is stripped of protein and fiber. But in this land, everything grows, Señor Cornejo says just push a seed into the earth and it’ll produce fruit in no time. This is a cultural problem, not a lack. Rice and beans are perfectly fine when you’re doing hard labor to support your family, but with modern technology and yes, in spite of the lack of first world plumbing, technology has made it’s way here – televisions, tablets, cell phones. People are not as active and storing the starch as body fat or developing diabetes, heart disease and cavities.

 

After my enlightening lunch, we head to the hospital.

 

And here we find the greatest need.

 

We meet first with our connection through Erika – the director of the Laboratory, who shows us the lab. I ask what the lab needs the most and he takes us to an old Olympus microscope. It’s functional but not precise enough for the doctors to accurately diagnose.  I see an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and ask if I donate a new microscope can they donate their old one to the secondary school. He explains that the microscope belongs to the government and equipment that is not used in one hospital is sent to another. I ask for his assurance that whatever we donate stays here. He takes us to the director of the hospital.

 

The director of the hospital explains this is the primary hospital for entire area of 79 small mountain communities & 19 neighborhoods in Quilali.  Their mission is to serve families and the community but their needs are great. He agrees to meet with the rest of the staff and come up with a list of needs. Again I ask for assurance that whatever is donated stays in this hospital. As long as it is used, it will stay here, he assures us then instructs the laboratory director to give us a tour.

 

The hospital in Quilali would be considered a clinic in a first world country but here they deliver babies, treat emergencies, and even do surgery when there’s an anesthesiologist available. Part of the hospital is a primary care clinic treating all ages with separate rooms for general medicine, pediatrics and gynecology. Part of the hospital provides tertiary care with the most outdated equipment. The incubator doesn’t work. The blood cooler breaks down and they perform 8-10 transfusions a month. And the diagnostic machine for blood chemistry is old and very slow. Not to mention the rusted and broken beds, tables, and other equipment. But they make do.

 

We meet patients in the few rooms crowded with 5-6 beds. Patients recovering from surgery, hospitalized for medical issues, women in labor, patients being evaluated in the emergency room. We meet one of the doctors who takes us to see the where there is the most need. Gynecology. The ancient colposcope for the diagnosis of cervical cancer is barely functional. There’s not enough instruments for delivery and the town has a high birth rate.

 

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examining the ancient colposcope

 

Time to head to Casa Materna – these place where the pregnant women stay just before and after delivery. Rocking chairs line the stoop outside of the maternity house. Very pregnant women chat and enjoy the quiet of the late afternoon. A young nurse greets us.

The director of nursing is delighted that we’ve come.

 

She calls the women into the gathering area and we pass out the women and children clothing. The women trade each other for more appropriate garments for older children at home. We then get the grand tour. Casa Materna supports itself by renting chairs and table cloths for events. Their focus is education of the women. Contraception is free, but getting the men to use condoms is difficult. The women prefer to come here than the hospital. The environment is warm and caring. The women seem content. Their fears relieved being cared for and close to the hospital.

 

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Casa Materna

 

For the first time all day, I am really impressed. Casa Matera is fulfilling a great need; they’re self-sufficient, and the nurses are teaching the women how to take care of themselves. This is the place where DDU can affect the most women. I will be back.

 

Now it’s dark. We walk back to Elizabeth’s mother’s corner store and into the house. We’re served a simple meal of taro root and chaya with the fresh cheese I made this morning. Life is good.

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Day 2 – Journey up the mountain

Desayuna – breakfast at the home of our driver. His children greet us with clasped hands for blessings and kisses. They call Elizabeth Tia – Aunt. She seems to be related to half of the country.

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Nicaraguan breakfast hosted by our driver’s family!

 

We visit the oldest city in Nicaragua – Granada – filled with Spanish influence – before taking a boat out on a huge volcanic lake dotted with 365 islands. We stop and feed monkeys living on a tiny tree covered island.

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Bananas for the island monkeys

 

 

Life is simple and slower here. People take their time to enjoy each moment. We explore a five acre island that would make a lovely healing retreat. There is so much potential here. Tourists from Europe and Canada are starting to flock to this beautiful paradise.

 

We dine on lake fish prepared the traditional way with chismol – Nicaraguan version of pico de gallo. The lakeside restaurant is also turtle rescue. People here are becoming aware of the need to protect their natural resources. As I dispose of a water bottle, I wonder if recycling will ever become a way of living to help preserve this paradise.

 

Time to head north. We drive six hours on the two lane Pan American Highway past rice fields and cow pastures separated by thin strips of jungle into the mountains bordering Honduras. We stop along the way to buy fruit, vegetables and rosquillas – tiny cheese corn cookies.

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Abundanza!

 

 

On Cucamonga – the section of the Pan American Highway that winds through the Nicaraguan mountains – Elizabeth entertains us with Nicaraguan folklore. The night is deep, the only light reflecting from the occasional passing car. The road, no longer paved, rises through more remote villages until dipping down, down to Quilali – Elizabeth’s home.

 

We are greeted by a dozen family members who stayed up late to welcome us. Her parents, aunts, sisters, sisters-law-law, nieces and nephews kiss out cheeks. I am welcomed like family.

 

We enter through her mother’s shop – a corner convenience store that is open as long as needed to serve the community. Her mother is concerned that I might not be comfortable in their humble home. Compared to so many others, the Cornejo home is fine. The floors are tiled with a center courtyard garden and traditional kitchen. There is also a more modern kitchen large enough for a half a dozen women to cook. The store has taken over the front rooms, but there are three large bedrooms. Dining and gathering is al fresco – covered patios around the center courtyard.

 

100 foodbaskets to deliver

100 baskets of foods and supplies to deliver to the poor – Feliz Navidad!

 

In the far corner of the main gathering area is a small Christmas tree surrounded by 100 gift baskets filled with food and essentials that we will deliver to the poorest families in village and surrounding mountain areas. The room I will share with Elizabeth is filled with two enormous boxes of clothes and school backpacks she had shipped from Ventura. Two huge bags filled with 200 pairs of new children’s shoes purchased by her sister for us who had to take a bus eight hours to Managua.

 

I kiss everyone goodnight and give Elizabeth’s mother a box of Sees chocolates as a thank you for having me. Then retire to the room I will share with Elizabeth. We have much work ahead of us.

 

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