Friday, July 22, 2011

Food for Thought

So many that visit Nicaragua go home with a new-found gratitude for all the blessings in their lives. This video is an ironic reminder of just how good we have it in the U.S.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Empty Education

This morning, at the weekly Casa Ben Linder talk, I heard Vanessa Castro of the Center for Educational and Social Research and Action (CIASES) speak on the state of education in Nicaragua. The statistics she shared with us are alarming, but her organization’s work is inspiring. While they believe it is the government’s responsibility to provide quality education, CIASES is actively working with both public and private institutions to make sure this right is respected.

Vanessa explained that in the 1980’s, the Sandinista government emphasized the importance of education and expanded the net coverage of schools. In 1979, only 500,000 children (50% of those that should have been) were in school, but by 1985, 1,200,000 children were in school. The problem, however, was that the government implemented this increase in coverage without a vision for how to ensure quality education. Today, this problem continues, with the government focusing on getting children into desks but not on developing support for them to actually learn while they are there.

Teachers are paid dismal salaries ($200/month), classroom materials (including textbooks) are unavailable, school conditions are poor at best, and appropriate and effective teacher training is not widely available. In fact, 42% of secondary school teachers are currently uncertified, along with 27% of elementary school teachers and 70% of preschool teachers. Vanessa shared a personal testimony, too, noting that she taught her children to read at home because, although they were in school, the teachers were not trained to use the Cuban literacy method that had been implemented. Lately, her research (and subsequent action plan) has focused on literacy: current rates, how best to teach it, and the perception of its importance for progress in Nicaragua. Today, only 40% of Nicaraguan children reach the word-per-minute reading goal for their grade level. These numbers drop dramatically when you look at areas on the Atlantic Coast.

Vanessa cites low levels of investment in education as the root cause of these troublesome statistics. Currently, the government doesn’t even spend 4% of the GNP on education, while other developing countries spend 7%. Without money and without a vision, education in Nicaragua will continue to depend on non-profit organizations like the CCBN to strengthen and supplement the government’s meager offerings.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I Cierre Cultural 2011 in Images

Recent Visitors to the CCBN

In the last two months we’ve welcomed several visitors to the CCBN. Here are summaries of their visits:

In May, Alison, a short-term volunteer, accompanied the English class and worked on strengthening the Center’s evaluation skills. Alison hosted one-on-one tutoring sessions with our English students and encouraged them day-to-day, greatly building their confidence. She also led the monthly class reflection, which was on the theme of human rights, and hosted a staff relaxation hour. In addition to her work with the English class, Alison facilitated a workshop on community evaluation tools with a small group of scholarship students in which they learned about, designed, implemented and assessed their own community survey focused on the needs of youth in Batahola Norte. She also facilitated a workshop with staff about community evaluation tools, presenting the theory behind and practical application of surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Alison was a wonderful addition to our team, even if only for a short while, always sharing a smile and open to lending a hand wherever needed. The Center hopes to continue building on her workshops in the future, increasing our capacity to assess how we’re meeting the community’s needs and identify new needs as they arise.

In June, the CCBN welcomed a group of young women studying with the Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) program at the College of New Jersey. These young women spent a day at the Center receiving a mural tour, hearing from scholarship students about their experience, participating in a dance class, and sharing experiences with the Center’s gender violence prevention project. During this exchange, Center speakers explained both the historical work done around women’s issues and violence prevention, as well as how the Center is currently addressing these needs. Then, the WILL group described the activities they organize on their campus to raise awareness of these same issues. It was a very meaningful exchange as both groups were excited to find they had so much in common in terms of their activism and work with women.

And also in June the CCBN received their annual visit from Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Cincinnati, OH. Their three days at the Center were jam packed with activities, including a reflection of the word and dinner with staff, a cultural presentation, a play dough activity with children, class visits, house visits, and a service project at a local elementary school with the older scholarship students. It was wonderful to see so much relationship-building taking place.The IHM group asked insightful questions about life in Nicaragua and shared how much they have heard about the Center in their parish and how excited they were about visiting. The Center staff and participants welcomed them with open arms and shared much about life and work in Batahola.

A Bakery Story

Walking through the glass doors of Honey’s Bakery, one finds an open and friendly atmosphere, with the sweet smells of freshly baked cake and cookies wafting through the kitchen doorway.This recently opened sweet treat shop and eatery is owned and operated by three CCBN graduates, Silvia Ballesteros, Edwin Urbina Solorzano, and Aura Maria Gutierrez Calderón.Silvia, who has taken an array of courses at the CCBN, including General Cooking, International Cooking, Cake Decorating, and Pastry Class, hatched the idea for the business. Her daughter, who died of cancer at the age of 26, registered her mother for a course at the CCBN right before she passed away as a parting gift. Now, Silvia’s own business is a tribute to her daughter, Honey.

Silvia loved her experience at the CCBN, and she tells anyone who will listen where she learned her trade. When she started out in Johanna Ocampo’s General Cooking class, she didn’t think her cooking would turn out right. But Johanna kept pushing her and telling her she could do it, and she didn’t give up. After graduating from so many courses, Silvia was set on using her skills to better her life. Now, when the bakers have a question, they call up their professors from the CCBN, and both Johanna and Marcia Santamaria are always willing to help them out. In Marcia’s courses they learned a variety of unique recipes that sell, as well as strategies that help them put their own twists on otherwise commonplace recipes. Also, Marcia’s Pastry Class is much more accessible than other such courses, some as expensive as $50, and teaches the same professional techniques.

Without any start-up capital, Silvia, Edwin, and Aura Maria brought everything they needed from home, from pots and pans to two ovens, and set-up shop in a small space they found to rent for $100 a month. While all the other places they looked at were more expensive, this amount is still quite hefty for a group starting from scratch. According to Silvia, “You’ve got to like cooking to do this, because it takes a lot of sacrifice and love. It’s a big risk, but we have faith that we will get ahead. We’re very proud of ourselves.” Often, they don’t have all the supplies they need to make certain cake molds or decorations, but their policy is to always say yes to the client and figure out how to borrow or creatively make-up the materials they lack.Sometimes they end up investing all the money from the price of the cake into the actual cake, but as Silvia says, it’s worth it because the client is happy, so they’ll come back and spread the word.

And on a personal level, Silvia says, “I used to cry everyday. But now I leave my personal problems at home and focus on the bakery’s problems. One’s emotional state affects both cake and frosting, and you can’t work under stress. I’ve been able to get off of sleeping pills, and I feel much less depressed now.” Silvia has peace because she knows Honey is watching over her beautiful work from above.