When people ask me what I’ve been doing since I retired in 2010 from Admissions Services at Carleton, I say that I helped to change life for a small community in Nicaragua.
In May 2010, the Parish of March Youth Group in Kanata and West Carleton learned about SchoolBOX, a registered Canadian charity that “supports the right of every child to a basic education.” Founded in Almonte in 2007, SchoolBOX builds schools and distributes school supplies in poor communities in Nicaragua. It’s an organization driven by a sense of responsibility and love for the children, teachers and schools that it serves, and operates on the premise that education is the best weapon against poverty.
SchoolBOX’s Nicaragua-based director of operations, Ronald Chavarria, is living proof of the power of education to change people’s lives. The sixth of eight children raised on a small subsistence farm, at age five he decided to get an education. After years of sacrifice, working odd jobs and walking six kilometers to and from school every day, Ronald received scholarships and completed university to become an accountant. He now directs SchoolBOX and supports his large family. His three older brothers and three sisters never completed primary school.
Nicaragua is often considered the poorest country in Central America. Its people have endured natural disasters such as earthquakes, mudslides and hurricanes as well as years of dictatorship and civil war. Over half the population is unemployed or underemployed. The average monthly salary is $30 – $60 U.S.
In August 2011, nine youth aged 13 – 17 and five adult chaperones (including me) from the Parish of March travelled to La Cenicera, Nicaragua, to help build a new school. The existing school was 10 years old, one large room with a leaky roof and dirt floor. The windows were spaces in the walls where the planks had decayed. When it rained, no one went to school.
We set to work enthusiastically, alongside the SchoolBOX construction crew. It was truly a labour of love. The children and teacher came to work on the school during recess, after school and on Sunday. Their parents and older siblings came to help as well. It was very moving to see how much the new school meant to everyone as the centre of the community.
The new school consists of a classroom on a concrete base built to Canadian earthquake standards, with windows and doors that can be locked. Construction is about to start on a second classroom and two washrooms. Because the new school is comfortable and secure, enrolment has mushroomed from 32 to 55 children in kindergarten through Grade 6.
The costs of the trip included purchasing building materials for the school and employing the SchoolBOX builders, as well as paying for our flights, accommodations, meals, bottled water, ground transportation and excursions. We each paid $1,000 for our flights, and together raised $28,000 to fund the remainder of the trip through dinners, silent auctions, bake sales, tea parties and yard work. The trip was worth every penny.
While in Nicaragua, we carried concrete blocks, gravel and sand, wired rebar, mixed concrete and built walls. We worked in 35º – 40º C heat with 95 per cent humidity. We saw scorpions, tarantulas, butterflies, tropical birds, active volcanoes and the Pacific. We played with the children in La Cenicera, taught them games and crafts, encouraged them in their studies and gave them hope of more possibilities for their future.
We were all impressed with our SchoolBOX experience. Both the Canadian and Nicaraguan SchoolBOX teams were outstanding, organizing our schedule, food hygiene and personal safety with the utmost care and good humor. It was a fabulous trip and we would all go back tomorrow.