I am writing in support of a remarkable organization that deserves our attention and support. Planting Hope (PH) was started in 2001 by by Beth Merrill of Montpelier and is based in Montpelier and Matagalpa, Nicaragua. It has expanded to a small town nearby, San Ramon. With 10 full-time Nicaraguan employees, PH coordinates with the Nicaraguan public schools to bring a variety of educational and recreational programs as well as reading and science resources to underserved urban and rural elementary schools. They also support community based micro-businesses such as a women’s weaving collective, another collective of women that produce beautiful paper products from recycled paper and leaves, and a mountaintop coffee finca (farm) that uses only earth-friendly methods.
Additionally, PH generates desperately needed income for a group of 20 casas huespedes (guest houses/host families) for “brigadistas” to live in with the families in San Ramon while participating in service learning trips. A highlight of the brigades is the requirement that each visitor stays in one of the designated homes and has the opportunity to experience cultural and linguistic immersion with a Nicaraguan family, most of which speak little or no English. The cost for this has been $400/month for a clean, safe room and three comidas tipicas (Nicaraguan food) per day.
For Vermonters, the focal point of PH is visiting Nicaragua as part of a “brigade”, consisting of Vermont high school students or a multi-generational group. This is often a profound experience for typical Vermonters who have had little exposure to the lives of others in the Global South. I’ve both laughed with and marveled at the attention that PH staff gives to the safety and well-being of the visitors, many of whom are away from their parents for the first time. The laughter came when I realized that I, as an older brigadista, was being watched in case I needed extra support. I have admiration for the manner of both protecting us while encouraging our immersion in the relatively safe and friendly streets and homes of San Ramon.
Last February, when returning from a weekend PH trip, I began suffering from a cold and fever. On the bus back to San Ramon, I was struck by a feeling that I hadn’t felt in many years; when I get home, “Mom will take care of me.” Sure enough, when I returned to my San Ramon home, Ivania, my house mother, ask me how I was doing and, after I told her, made me some hot chicken soup (without matzo balls) and I felt better in more ways than one. I hope to resume offering my unequivocal support for worried parents to send their teens off for this truly wonderful experience in a foreign country.
I first visited Nicaragua in 1986 as a member of the Burlington-Puerto Cabezas Sister City program. We organized a shipload of mostly medical equipment to be donated to PC in the midst of the Contra War waged by mercenaries, funded by the Reagan led US government to overthrow the Sandinista government that had thrown out the previous US supported tyrant.
In this program I witnessed both the post revolutionary fervor and intense suffering of the Nicaraguan people from the effects of a vicious war. Upon returning to Vermont, I promised myself that I would to return to Nicaragua and try to offer some support to counterbalance the devastation wrought by “my” government. Three years ago, I was contemplating my gradual retirement and heard about this Vermont-based group that had an ongoing presence in Nicaragua and I was hooked. In the last three years, I have been back in San Ramon four times and hope to return again next winter but current circumstances may not allow this and, much more seriously, threaten the continued existence of PH.
My last trip was in April when Ivania told me over breakfast that her husband’s small pension was about to be cut per the new Sandinista edict. He is suffering from PTSD related to his experience fighting against the Contras and his pension, in addition to Ivania’s limited income from guests such as me would undoubtedly lead to hardship for their family. Her words and expressions were familiar to me in that I had seen a widespread feeling that the former heroes of the revolution were no longer acting in the best interests of the majority of Nicaraguans. There seemed nothing to do but accept and go on with struggle. A few days later, the demonstrations against the government started and quickly escalated.
There is some reason for hope that this process will lead to a change in leadership and better times for the Nicaraguan people but, meanwhile, over 200 people have been reported killed in different cities and various aid organizations have stopped being able to safely do good work in Nicaragua. For several days, we contemplated the best way to keep the current group of 19 Randolph High School students and staff safe for another trip to Laguna de Apoyo followed by the scheduled departure from Managua where the majority of demonstration deaths were occurring. By traveling to both places at the crack of dawn, we were able to avoid the dangers and left Nicaragua with sighs of relief and hopes that needed changes would take place and we would be able to return in the not too distant future.
Planting Hope is struggling to continue some of their usual activities but cannot currently try to attract new brigades to travel to Nicaragua given the current level of danger there. PH income from organizing the brigades has stopped and it is unclear if or how they can survive until the political issues are resolved. If survival is not possible, this will result in huge losses especially for the affected people in Nicaragua, including the loss of livable wages for the remarkable PH employees, but also for the Vermonters who will no longer be able to participate. The Peace and Justice Center has a long history of supporting people and groups in need and I am hopeful that Planting Hope can be the next in line for support.
I do not profess to be an expert on Nicaraguan history, politics, or life in general, but I would be happy to entertain questions and comments about my experiences in Nicaragua and encourage people to look at the Planting Hope website, contribute as best they can, and look forward to being part of the brigades when the unrest has settled down.
– By Jed Lowy