Full of Life and Bread

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

In December we started to explore the story of Danilo and his brothers, and their bakery, Pan de Vida. Today we continue the journey.

Some time later, Danilo found out that the Nicaraguan government was offering a very favorable loan program for small bakeries like his. This program would lend the bakery the funds they needed to significantly improve and expand their baking equipment. While they had reached the point of making ends meet, an investment of this sort was necessary if the business was truly going to be successful. The problem was the program required bakery owners to have a reserve of about ten percent of the $15,000 they needed to borrow. The bakery had taken great steps forward, but it did not have anywhere near the $1,500 necessary to move forward. This is a common problem for small businesses started by under-resources people in developing countries like Nicaragua. The resources they need to move beyond poverty are just outside their grasp.

Danilo and his brothers do not have the typical background of successful business owners. In fact, quite the opposite. Raised in a small, remote village near Albellanas in the north-central region of Nicaragua, most people spent life just trying to survive. Similar to Roger, Danilo was given the opportunity to finish his secondary education at the Veracruz orphanage. People from remote villages that grow up in orphanages do not start successful businesses in Nicaragua. This is typically left to people from well-resourced, well-connected families. This “ceiling” is the perfect breeder of hopelessness.

For most people this is the end of the story. The business either struggles to make it, barely providing enough funds to live for the business owners, or fails, not because of poor management or strategy but because of a lack of resources for those without resources to begin with. Danilo’s story would be different.

Due to his time living and working at the Veracruz orphanage Danilo had many contacts in the United States. Two of these people happened to be Cal Covert and Tim Adams. Cal and Tim, both on the NicaWorks! Board of Directors, had followed Danilo’s journey and desired to see him succeed. Taking another risk, Danilo approached Tim and Cal about his problem. Wanting to have a better understanding of what Danilo needed, Tim and Cal asked me to meet with Danilo as I was living in Nicaragua at the time.

Arriving at Danilo’s bakery, a small house converted into a business, I could smell the distinct scent of fresh bread. Given that I was hungry, this probably increased the odds of NicaWorks! developing a partnership with Danilo (only half kidding!). After receiving a quick tour of the small operation, and a Pico, a sweet pastry-like bread, I sat down with Danilo.

Danilo explained that business was really good, but that they needed to expand in order to take the next step forward. This had led him and his brothers to apply for the government program, but they had been unable to come up with the $1,500 of reserves required to receive the funds. After exploring other personal options, Danilo decided to reach out to his NicaWorks! friends to find out if they would be willing to help. Danilo explained that he developed a small proposal that showed why taking this step would benefit the business long term. When it came down to it, Danilo was asking if NicaWorks! believed in him- if they believed there was truly hope for the future.

NicaWorks!’s answer was yes. Reviewing Danilo’s plans, Tim, Cal, and the NicaWorks! team decided to lend Danilo the $1,500 he needed to receive the funds from the government program, and to lend it at zero percent interest. In doing so, NicaWorks! offered tangible hope to Danilo, his brothers, and his family.

Today the “Bread of Life” bakery is full of life. After receiving the loan, the bakery was approved to receive the new bakery equipment. This allowed them to significantly increase their production as well as add to their product offering. Of course, they still have the Picos and they are as delicious as ever.

Hope in a tangible form took what could have been a dead-end and made it a road of endless possibilities. Danilo and his brothers have now paid off the $1,500 loan from NicaWorks! and are planning on further expansion, including the purchase of their own location. Danilo has come a long way since life in the village and hope has played an integral role in propelling him there.

– James Belt


From Tragedy to Unity

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Toward the end of my college years, I became a fan of Kobe Bryant. While Kobe has had his ups and downs, like most of us, I have always appreciated his passion for winning and living. I admired his drive to be the best, not just because of his natural gifts but also through his incredible dedication to improving. As an outside observer, it always appeared that Kobe believed he was created for more.

As I heard the news of the helicopter accident that took his life, the life of his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others, a sense of sadness and shock came over me. My reaction seemed a bit surprising to me given the fact that I do not and have never known Kobe, or any of the other victims, personally. This feeling of sadness has popped into my consciousness at various moments over the course of the past week.

The reality is that this has been true for an incredible number of people in the United States and around the world. This loss of life has created a collective sense of sadness for the lives that were cut short, for what could have been. In a country and world seemingly more divided than ever, this tragedy has brought many people together. In a real way, it has reminded us that what brings us together and makes us more intrinsically similar than different is greater than what divides us. Love, hope, life, family, and the like far outweigh our differences.

As the world continues to process this tragedy, I hope we can hold onto that lesson and in doing so honor those who lost their lives. Our differences can be an asset when we remember that it is ultimately what unifies us that matters. Instead of dividing us, we can learn from each other and be better for it. When we unify around what makes us the same we can better understand and appreciate the parts of us that are different.

If we can come together to grieve, we should be able to come together to live. Life is short and too valuable to live divided. We have the opportunity to create a different future, but it will require us to not forget the moments that have brought us together and provided us a glimpse of what that future might look like.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy to remind us of this, but let’s not waste this opportunity created by the unity we have found in the tragic passing of someone who believed we were created for more.

– James Belt

2020 Clarity

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

As I have heard quite a few people say over the last week, this year is our one-time only chance to use the phrase “2020 Vision” when referring to our vision for the next 365 days. Given it is a one-time opportunity I am going to “jump on board” as well so here we go.

We all know that 20/20 vision refers to what most call “perfect vision” or “ideal vision”. In the end, it all comes down to clarity. Can I see clearly or not. The same can be said for 2020 Vision. Having a “vision” for the next year is all about getting clear on my “why” for 2020, or on what I hope to be true of true of me when I look back on this year.

My personal 2020 Vision is to be even more clear on my “why”, not just for this year but for my life in general. I believe God made me for a unique purpose (I believe the same is true of you, by the way) and I desire to have 20/20 clarity on that purpose and what it looks like to live it out. This is most certainly a life journey, but I do not believe I have to wait until the end of my life to begin living it. The more I understand and embrace my truest self, the more I will be a blessing to the world around me.

With that in mind, in the name of vulnerability, here is my “work in progress” Vision or why- To help people discover and achieve their truest identity. I do not believe I can give someone an identity or even identify it for them. However, I can be a part of creating environments and opportunities that move people closer to understanding that they were created on purpose and for a purpose, and discovering what that purpose might be.

This is what Hope Realized is all about. Hopelessness is a product of forgetting or not ever realizing that you were created for more than just existing. Real hope, both spiritual and practical, brings into clarity this reality. God created you on purpose and for a purpose. Sometimes people just need an opportunity realize this for themselves.

I hope you think about your 2020 Vision. What are you going to gain 20/20 clarity on this year?

– James Belt

Bread of Hope

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Before Thanksgiving, we last left off with the story of the Community Gardening Entrepreneurs from El Canon, who had found tangible hope in the form of beans and tomatoes. In today’s post I will focus on a friend of mine, Danilo, who found and spreads tangible hope in the form of baked goods.

Pan de Vida, “The Bread of Life” in English is the name of Danilo’s bakery. The business, shared between Danilo and two of his brothers has become a place of life and growth, but it has not always been that way.

Danilo, a Nicaraguan with a heart for people and a desire to make a difference, observed his brothers’ small bakery from the outside and wondered what it could become. At the time, Danilo was working with an orphanage in Veracruz, a town on the outskirts of Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Danilo loved serving God and investing in people, but he wondered if working in the orphanage was the way he was supposed to do it. With a wife and kids, the job provided a place to live and a salary to sustain his family. At one time Danilo thought that he might be a pastor, but there was something about that small bakery just a couple of hundred yards from the orphanage gate.

Danilo’s brothers had learned how to make bread, but not necessarily how to make baking bread into a business. The truth was their little bakery was barely surviving and needed some leadership. Was this how Danilo was supposed to serve?

Leaving the orphanage would mean losing a steady income and a sense of security for Danilo and his young family. In a country where a good job was hard to come by, this was a serious choice with real consequences for Danilo.

Despite the risks, Danilo knew this was the choice he was supposed to make. Who better to serve than his own family?

Danilo’s decision to leave his job to work at a struggling bakery surprised many. Yes, he was a good leader, but the bakery needed physical resources to grow and none of the brothers were blessed with access to these types of resources. However, Danilo had a plan. He would take the government mandated severance from the orphanage and invest it into the business. Another large risk, but Danilo had a different kind of hope.

With this small investment, Pan de Vida was able to improve their baking operation and means of transportation, a critical step for a business focused on distribution to commercial customers such as schools. Against all odds, the bakery began to grow. This was just the beginning for Danilo and his brothers.

Check back in next time to find out how this story of hope grows.

– James Belt

The Thankfulness Equation

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Why does it seem that thankfulness is becoming less and less prevalent in our world today? Could the formula be the problem?

Pre-Algebra. I actually took the class twice in middle school. Let’s just say I was well prepared for Algebra 1 when I entered high school. My issue was not so much in the area of understanding, but rather in realm of paying attention. Algebra requires you to know which formula to use when and how to execute the formula once you choose it. If you lose sight of the formula and its proper execution Algebra becomes almost impossible to grasp. Trust me, I know.

What if thankfulness is much like Algebra? What if mixing up the formula and its execution makes thankfulness almost impossible to grasp? This is a thought that has been running through my head as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States on Thursday.

We often think of thankfulness as an outcome produced by circumstances or material possessions. However, I have not found that to be true, at least in the long term. I have seen many people in enviable circumstances and with an abundance of material possessions, but yet a complete lack of thankfulness or the joy it produces. One of those people is me at times. Despite the incredible blessings in my life, I can easily find myself drifting into a state of apathy and indifference.

On the contrary, I have spent time with people both in Nicaragua and the United States who are going through incredibly difficult circumstances and, in some cases, with little or no material possessions to ease their pain, and yet their heart overflows with thankfulness. It is not to say that they are thankful for the circumstances or the lack of possessions, but rather that they have discovered thankfulness that rises above their current reality. They are operating with a different formula.

What if the formula for thankfulness starts with a choice. A choice to be thankful, not borne out of out material possessions or circumstances, but rather out of a knowledge that the it is a better way of living. Maybe it starts with finding something small such the air you are breathing or the cup of coffee you are drinking and choosing to be thankful in that moment, even if it feels unnatural. Maybe it starts with waking up in the morning and making a conscious decision to live life through the lens of thankfulness instead of cynicism. Maybe it starts with a choice.

I am going to give it a shot this Thanksgiving. Instead of waiting to feel thankful I am going to choose to be thankful and believe that the equation might just equal thankfulness in the end. I hope you will consider doing to same, wherever you find yourself today. Maybe the equation for thankfulness starts with a choice.

Happy Thanksgiving!

– James Belt

Harvesting Hope

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Last time we left off with the community gardening participants from El Canon, a small, impoverished community on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city, beginning the process of making the project their own. This process was full of many challenges, but ends up with a picture of tangible hope.

Over the next three years the community garden project had many ups and downs. While the idea of growing produce to sell and consume seemed fantastic to the women, the day-to-day operation of it was quite difficult. However, this should not have been completely surprising for a group of people who were new to working as a team. This concept of teamwork was seemingly foreign to many in the community of El Canon. This was an issue because the community garden was meant to be developed in community. This meant cooperating and coordinating with each other, which is challenging when it has never been a part of your lifestyle. It took a little time, but the El Canon community members began to understand the value of working as a team.

In the first harvest, the results were mixed. The garden at Aura’s house did not produce much in the way of fruit due to a lack of care. The family at Plata Nerra, where the team had their “machete lessons” did better, but there was some confusion as to how the profits of the sales were to be distributed. The other few gardens that were started after the team’s departure were mixed from a results standpoint. The end result was that the majority of the group wanted to disband and give up. When hopelessness is the norm, minor setbacks appears to be complete failures.

It was here that NicaWorks! had to step in to remind them that this was a long-term project and that setbacks were opportunities to learn. Gathering in the church, some of the community gardening participants, Pastor Josue and his wife, Jamileth, and the NicaWorks! team, discussed how we could take a step forward with the next crop. It was really at this moment that tangible hope began to creep into the community gardening project.

The next two years of the community gardening project were full of successes and failures. Despite the challenges, including the voluntary replacement of a couple of the members, the project continued to move forward slowly. The NicaWorks! team would have to continue to remind the group to believe that there was hope, even when the crops did not turn out exactly as they had planned. As the group continued to buy into the project something began to happen- the community garden became their and not just that of NicaWorks!.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2016 and what had once been an idea was becoming a tangible expression of hope. Instead of hesitantly waiting for the NicaWorks! staff to “take care of” the project the women from the community, and their families, had become active partners in the project. After successfully planting and caring for a crop of beans towards the end of 2015, the community gardening participants worked together as a team to harvest the crop and even guard the “fruit of their labors” overnight.

Following the beans, the group decided to rent a field and attempt their largest tomato crop to date. This would mean the handful of women and their families would have to assist with cleaning out the overgrown field, preparing the soil, and planting well over 1,000 tomato plants, all by hand. It also meant watering each tomato plant by hand on a daily basis. While this might not sound intimidating on the surface, it requires filling a five-gallon bucket with water, walking the equivalent of a football field or more, and returning to the water source every time the bucket is empty. This required a few hours a day of their time and the resiliency to do all of that in the tropical heat and sun. The necessity of watering cannot be overstated as they were growing the tomatoes during Nicaragua’s “dry season”, which tends to be the best time of the year for delicate produce. No water meant dead plants and no harvest.

With little investment other than their time and energy up to that point, it would have been easy to give up and feed the narrative of hopelessness in El Canon. As they explained what it took to make the tomato project happen on one of my visits to Nicaragua in early 2016, I realized that this was not the same group of people who had joined the community gardening initiative a few years earlier. Yes, most of the faces were the same, but their mindset had changed. Hopeless, at least to some degree, was no longer their default setting. Instead their had begun to grasp a sense of tangible hope that the future could be different for them and their families.

Unfortunately, the harvest from the tomato crop was less than expected due to damage from disease. Again, a perfect opportunity to call it a day. The group chose quite the opposite. During a training meeting with Karina, a NicaWorks! staff member, the community gardening collective took their first step towards becoming  cooperative by electing officers. They also started the planning process for their next project, including determining was they, the women, would invest from the tomato and bean sales.

It was a long road to get to the point where they were that day, and many challenge are still ahead, but receiving hope through tangible means has had a great impact on a group of women in a forgotten corner of an impoverished country. It is true that sometimes people just need to know someone believes in them enough to give them an opportunity to write a different future for themselves.

What started as beans ended with hearts full of hope.

– James Belt

The Emergence of Tangible Hope

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

How can a bean make a difference in a person’s life? Today we will continue on this journey of hope through the community of El Cañon. We left off with the North American team from Crossroads Community Church and the community gardening participants from El Cañon heading to the first community garden sites. We pick up there today.

Over the next two and a half days, our mixed group of North Americans and El Cañon residents worked side-by-side to literally plant tangible hope. This process started by preparing the fields. This was an education for the team members from the United States. As they walked to the proposed locations, the team noticed that the spots looked a lot like the surrounding area- tropical, almost jungle-like ground cover that just about reached the top of their heads. Looking back this should not have been surprising as Nicaragua is a sub-tropical country that is blessed with great soil. However, at the time it was a wake-up call as to the challenges of the project.

Job, the NicaWorks! Agriculture Expert, did not seem phased at all by the overgrown growing spaces. Instead, he showed the team how he would address the issue- machetes. As you can imagine, this was an exciting moment for the young guys in the group. However, this excitement waned once they realized that there was more to using a machete than meets the eye. Job, more of a get-it-done guy than a teacher, showed the eager team members how to swing the machete to cut the brush. Job would wing his machete through the thick, overgrown brush and it would look as if he had used a weedwhacker. We would swing our machetes through the same vegetation brush and it would look like a bad haircut. We would come to realize that Job could swing a machete like a professional golfer swings a golf club, and could seemingly do it all day. On the other had, our machete swings were much like my golf swing, broken and with little knowledge as to what the result would actually be. It also appeared that we were using twice as much energy as Job. It was a great lesson in humility.

After Job, the community garden participants, and the team finished clearing the land, they grabbed shovels and began to till the soil. Again, this was a great lesson on the effort necessary to strive for a better life when you have access to very little resources. In a world without hope, why would you expend so much energy and time if you did not believe it was really going to make a difference? It is very easy to say that people living in poverty should just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and work their way to a better life. While the principle of this is true, the application of it is very difficult when you believe it is an exercise in futility. The truth is that the idea of hope can be crushing for the hopeless. Many times, trying to live as if there is hope for a better future feels like it is just an opportunity for more regrets and deeper despair. Realizing hope when living in this place must come from an outside source for most people, and I would argue all people in the end.

This was the goal of the team. By working with the community, the team was saying we believe there is hope for you, even if their ability to put words to it was limited by the language barrier.

Once all of the soil was prepared in the two locations, the collective group of mission team members, community gardening participants, and NicaWorks! staff planted seeds and plants of all varieties of fruits and vegetables. From tomatoes, to squash, to watermelon, to a vine-like fruit plant unfamiliar to the North American group called Granadia, the overgrown patches of land had become a garden from which tangible hope could emerge. The two inaugural community gardening participants, Silvia and her family, and Aura, were cautiously optimistic that in ninety days they would have produce to sell and to feed their families.

Aura had also requested a chicken from which she could produce eggs. This excited a couple of the team members, who decided to build a makeshift chicken coup out of pallets and fencing. This also led to the “great chicken debate” after the chicken had not laid eggs for a few months. In retrospect, this should not have surprised us since we purchased chickens from a not so helpful, or honest, chicken vendor in one of Managua’s main markets. After a year of trying various “techniques” to get the chicken to lay eggs, we decided that we had been sold old chickens that had past egg laying age long ago. Chicken lesson number one- do not buy a random chicken tied to a post with a piece of twine by a market vendor who is less than forthright. I am not completely sure what happened to the chickens, but my guess is that they ended up as dinner. All was not lost!

In some ways, the chicken debate was a small picture of how challenging the road ahead would be for the El Cañon Community Gardening Project. After the team left the project would be in the hands of the community members and the NicaWorks! field staff. This would mean daily battling to stay motivated and hopeful that things could be different. While there were many tasks related to keeping the gardens going such as watering, weeding, and fertilizing, it was overcoming this temptation to give up that proved most challenging. If the community gardening participants did not believe the gardens could be successful, why would they do the tasks necessary to keep it moving forward? Complacency is many times borne out of a fear of the future. This would prove to be one of the biggest challenges the NicaWorks! team would have to overcome.

Check back next time to find out how the beans of hope finally became a reality.

– James Belt