Near Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua — a crater lake next to a tiny volcanic jungle village and within a nature reserve — howler monkeys wake up the volunteers every morning. It is time to head to the schoolhouse.
The tiny, four-room building has broken windows and a rusty play set, and volunteers have to climb under barbed wire to get into the school. There is no toilet paper, so the 55 children who attend the elementary school have to use sheets of notebook paper.
“There aren’t enough seats in my English class,” 2011 alumna and schoolteacher Caitlin Marshall said. “But they don’t know that they’re poor; they don’t complain about any of this. When they go in, they share seats.”
For many villagers, this school is a beacon of hope in a region riddled with conflict. And in August, Marshall and fellow alumnae Lara Mckaye and Sarah Dobson celebrated the first anniversary of “The Peace Project” — a community-based nonprofit organization that provides English and peace education to a community impacted by violence and poverty.
Marshall can still remember that day in March 2011 when Mckaye — with whom she had worked as a Help Center hotline counselor — invited her to teach children out of a house in Nicaragua that Mckaye’s family converted into a hostel.
“I thought about it for two and a half days, and I said, ‘Yep,’ and called my mom,” Marshall said.
The three friends landed in Nicaragua in July of that year, and while Marshall described the region as “breathtakingly beautiful,” she quickly realized many of the locals lacked basic resources. Although there are many extravagant vacation houses, most residents live in small, tin-roofed “servant homes” with blankets or sheets for room dividers. Moreover, these communities are plagued by domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse.
“It seems like a small thing, but they eat rice and beans every meal,” Marshall said. “It’s not because they love it, but it’s because they’re very, very poor. Looking at crime in Nicaragua … It’s not like these people are on the streets out to get you; it’s that they’re really poor and hungry and desperate.”
Drawing inspiration from a university honors seminar called HONR 359 B: Honors Workshop: Alternatives to Violence, the three alumnae determined they would make peace education the central goal of their program.
Every weekday morning, international volunteers teach the children English and computer lessons, and most afternoons they hold an after-school camp. Instead of punishment and negative reinforcement, they teach the children about peaceful communication and resolution.
“There was a little girl who was bullied horrifically,” Marshall said. “No one would include her. They made fun of her very directly, meanly. She had very low self-esteem. … We asked her to paste something, and it took her an hour and a half to paste an orange circle.”
In response, the volunteers led activities encouraging the kids to see what it was like being in the girl’s shoes, Marshall said. Now, the child’s former bullies are her best friends, and they “go arm-in-arm everywhere,” Marshall said.
The project also involves cross-cultural interaction with students from the U.S.
Marshall’s mother, Cappi Marshall, leads a pen-pal program with her sixth grade students at Farmington 5-6 Campus in Garden City, Mich.
“I’m hoping it gave [my students] a greater appreciation for the opportunities they have that don’t exist for them in Nicaragua,” Cappi Marshall said.
The volunteers’ main obstacle is a lack of resources. Marshall said the project ran the past year on just $800. This year, however, volunteers expect to have more tools at their disposal. Sophomore linguistics major Sara McVeigh, who will volunteer for three weeks this winter, recently secured 10 laptops to bring to the school for computer lessons. McVeigh said she received six laptops from friends and four from PROTEUS Technologies, an engineering company she works for.
Moreover, Marshall said volunteers are applying for a Rotary Foundation grant this year, hoping to eventually become a 501(c) nonprofit — which would benefit the organization tax-wise — with more regular donors. If they succeed, potential plans include replacing windows, building a wall around the school and getting a bus so the students who live far away can attend camp, she said.
Mckaye said she plans to stay in Nicaragua for several more years running the hostel before possibly going to graduate school, but Dobson and Marshall said they will return to the U.S. in January. Dobson plans to work in a Washington-based international development organization, and Marshall plans to attend nursing school at DePaul University in Chicago. Both will stay on the board of directors for the project.
Looking back on the first year, Dobson said she has been overwhelmed by the appreciation and gratitude of the Nicaraguan villagers.
“[Here], they’re constantly thanking us, writing us notes. … Any time we bring back a pack of markers, it’s like Christmas,” Dobson said. “Caitlin brought back Stamp All Niter glow-in-the-dark bracelets for the kids, and they went crazy! They loved it. They kept running around bringing them into dark corners and going, ‘It’s great; it’s great!’”