By Sue Botos
With students now trolling the aisles of well-stocked stores for school supplies, it’s hard to imagine families being so desperate they send their children to pick through trash dumps for food. That’s what happens in Chinandega, a city in Nicaragua where residents live in poverty and school is often an afterthought. But thanks to members of the Rotary Club of Lakewood and Rocky River, these children are being encouraged to get their education with supply-filled shoe boxes.
Jack Young, past governor of Rotary District 6630, which includes the Lakewood/Rocky River chapter, began the shoe box program in 2007, in conjunction with districts in Michigan, Texas and Iowa, after traveling to Nicaragua and observing the destitution first hand.
“In 2006, when I was district governor, I was asked to go to Nicaragua by Larry Wright (past district governor in Michigan),” Young recalled during a recent interview. Although he knew of the country’s poverty, he was unprepared for what he saw.
“There were kids picking through an 88-acre garbage dump,” he recalled. “We’re trying to get them an education so they won’t have to live in a garbage dump for the rest of their lives.”
Filled with toiletries, an outfit of clothes, school supplies, and age-appropriate games and toys, the boxes are distributed to children based on their teachers’ recommendation. “The teachers set the standards,” said Young, adding, in addition to instructor approval, students must have good attendance and good grades. Also, students are taught proper hygiene with the goal of breaking the cycle of poverty by encouraging education and good health.
Young said the program is making a difference as the number of boxes needed continues to grow. He said 2,000 to 3,500 boxes are usually collected from the participating Rotary districts and last year Lakewood/Rocky River provided 487. “The most we ever sent was 550, but this year we sent 765,” he recalled.
Overcoming cultural barriers is one of the toughest hurdles according to Young. “It’s difficult to convince the parents that this is the right thing to do,” Young said, noting parents often feel the children are helping the family more by scavenging than going to school.
Young added about 20 students from the town are attending college. One of the biggest success stories, according to Young, is Maria Jose, who earned an MBA. “She was one of the kids actually found on the dump,” he recalled. Another girl, who had been confined to her home because she was blind, received her psychology degree.
In addition to the shoe box project, members of the Lakewood/Rocky River Rotary Club recently prepared 50 Rotary-branded layette bags for a women’s maternity care shelter in Chinandega, which can house almost 40 women about to give birth. The local hospital will not admit a woman unless she is expected to deliver within eight hours, then she must leave the hospital the following day.
According to Young, many poor women from other villages travel to Chinandega to stay at the shelter until they go into labor. If necessary, they can return there after they deliver.
“The shelter has served 15,000 women over 12 years,” said Young, noting the women, some in their early teens, are also educated about how to care for their babies.
“We haven’t lost a baby yet,” he reported.
The layette bags include cloth diapers, newborn T-shirts, bath towels, hand and wash cloths, baby shampoo and soap, diaper rash ointment, cotton balls, receiving blankets and baby nail clippers plus a small manicure set, and a comb/brush set for the mother.
Donations are taken to Troy, Mich., where they are packed with items from other Rotary clubs and shipped at no charge by Walmart to Waterloo, Iowa, then Houston, Texas. The items are then loaded into a shipping container by Rotary friends, and sent to Honduras. Rotarians and others get the donations across the boarder to Nicaragua, then transport them to Chinandega. The entire process takes three to four months.
Aside from the shoe boxes and layettes, Young has also been responsible for equipping the area with a fire truck, three ambulances, over $100,000 in firefighting equipment and $300,000 in medical supplies.
“My dad was a firefighter, so I wanted to send the equipment,” Young said. He added the 6-year-old fire truck was donated by the city of Solon after the mayor was moved by Young’s presentation to city officials. The Sandusky fire department donated 25 “bunker suits,” which firefighters wear on calls, after plastic clips did not meet OSHA standards, but are completely safe for use.
Each year Young and other Rotarians travel to Chinendega to witness and participate in the work being done there. Young said he does not speak Spanish, but their interpreter is a native of the area, now living in the U.S.
“Slowly, but surely we are making progress,” he said.