Beginning to Grow Hope

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

In the last post I began to tell you about how a request from an orphanage director for a few seeds led to the opportunity to impact the community of El Cañon through smalls scale agriculture. I left off with the question, “what does all of this have to do with beans?” Let’s take a look.

Many of the realities facing impoverished farmers, as I described in the last post, are what community members of El Cañon experienced in 2012 and still experience today. It is in the midst of this storyline that NicaWorks! saw an opportunity. What if NicaWorks! could provide tangible hope to El Cañon by providing the resources and expertise needed to jump some of these hurdles?

The community gardening project, as we called it, started with North American Mission Team Members and Nicaraguans working alongside each other. In hopes of giving a little boost to the program, the NicaWorks! team decided to have one of its summer mission teams help with the program launch. The plan was to have the mission team members meet the newly selected community gardening participants from El Cañon at the Puente de Amistad orphanage, located in the community of El Cañon, for some introductions and training. Jay, who also happens to be my dad, was the primary trainer along with Job, our agriculture expert at the time.

Something I learned quickly in Nicaragua was that a “plan” was really more of a guideline than a rule. This was challenging for me at first coming from the Northeast Region of the United States. Growing up, my experience was that a plan was made to be followed. Living in Nicaragua, I began to think that a plan was made to be broken. To say that was an adjustment for my somewhat rigid mind is an understatement. The truth is I am better for it.

The start of the community gardening program was no different. The training began at nine in the morning. The only problem was that most of the community gardening participants, and Job, had not yet arrived. Sometime later, after much standing around and staring at each other by the Mission Team Members, the community gardening program officially commenced. Jay and Job spoke very different verbal languages, but when it cam to working the land, they were on the same page. It was time for everyone to grab a shovel and to start sweating!

The majority of community gardening participants that day, and still today, were women with children. This was in part by design, but primarily by default. One of the striking realities I, and many other “outsiders”, notice when they spend time in a community like El Cañon is the lack of men. It is not to say that there are not men in the community, but rather that they are missing from the family structure. There are many reasons for this, including the great number of men who died fighting in the Revolution and the subsequent Contra War referred to as the “Lost Generation”. This timeframe of tragic loss spanned from the late 1970s to the early 1980s and had a great impact on Nicaraguan society. However, the most common reasons are the need for men to work away from hope to support their family, and the abandonment and absenteeism of fathers.

The reality for many families in poor communities in Nicaragua is that there are not a sufficient number of local jobs to support the population. This combined with a lack of transportation forces many men to seek employment in other areas of Nicaragua, and in some cases other countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, and even the United States. This leaves the mother to care for the kids and maintain the household on her own.

The other more tragic reality is an epidemic of irresponsibility in places like Nicaragua. Due in part to the lack of hope, there are many men who leave women the moment they find out that she is pregnant, leaving the mother to have to figure out how to support a family on her own. The problem is complicated even more by the fact that the mother has to watch the children and, therefore, is unable to seek real employment. Sadly, this just continues the cycle.

With men absent from the family structure, it often makes sense to aim community development projects at women. That is not to say that there are not men in communities like El Cañon who need tangible hope. With drug and alcohol abuse rampant among men in these places, there is most definitely a need to be addressed. More on that in a later post.

Our group of women from the community along with the team members grabbed their tools and began to practice soil preparation. Wearing long skirts and pastel colored shirts, the women were hardly dressed in what many would call “gardening clothes”. This didn’t seem to bother the women as they showed the group that they were not afraid of hard work. After “practicing” a little longer the women from the community and the group from the U.S. headed to the future locations of the first community gardens in El Cañon.

Check back next time to find out how project started to move from an idea to a reality (and how the beans begin to play a role in the story).

– James Belt


Beans for Change

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Over the past few posts I recounted the story of Brenda, the young girl from the remote village of Albellanas, and her life-changing encounter with practical hope. Practical hope can take different forms in different situations, even the form of a bean.

A plant and hope have a lot in common. They both typically start from something seemingly small and insignificant. However, over time, that small “seed” can become a giant tree, a tomato plant, or a changed life. El Cañon, a community on the outskirts of Managua, does not have much, but it does have great soil, sun, and people in need of an opportunity. In other words, it is a great place to plant a seed.

The “seed” was really first planted in Veracruz, where NicaWorks! had been working on various agriculture projects, including the development of a papaya farm. That “seed” germinated an idea in the mind of Maria Jose, the Director of the Puente de Amistad Orphanage in El Cañon.  “We can grow our own produce,” Maria Jose thought. The led her to ask for literal seeds from Katie Adams, the Executive Director of NicaWorks!. This small orphanage garden led to bigger gardens and eventually to a vocational gardening and agriculture class for the kids at the orphanage.

Realizing the potential, this led to an idea in the minds of Tim Adams, Katie’s husband and co-founder of NicaWorks!, and the rest of the NicaWorks! team- What if we gave the same opportunity to the entire community of El Cañon?

Agriculture is not new to Nicaragua. In fact, agriculture makes up 18% of Nicaragua’s economy and 31% of the labor force according to CIA World Fact. From coffee to bananas to beef, Nicaragua has long been known for its agricultural production. Despite its poverty, Nicaragua is rich in arable land.

With great soil and an existing market, why don’t impoverished Nicaraguans grow and sell crops to sustain themselves economically? This is a very complicated question. The reality is that many Nicaraguans try this approach with varying levels of success. However, the problem is that they do not have access to, or the funds necessary to acquire, what is needed to begin the process. For example, while arable land is plentiful in Nicaragua, it is often inaccessible for the average Nicaraguan living in poverty as they do not have the funds necessary to purchase or rent it. When access to property is not the issue, purchase of the seeds, inputs such as fertilizer, and farming equipment often are.

In the event that a Nicaraguan living in a community such as El Cañon has all of this, different issues often arise when it comes time to care for and sell the crops. For example, the poor farmer may generally know how to care for his crops, but he may not have the knowledge to maximize his production due to limited education. Another potential issue is access to water, one of the key environmental factors in farming. As a country with a dry and a rainy season, Nicaraguan farmers count on a good rainy season as they cannot afford to dig a well or install irrigation. If the rainy season is bad, they tend to lose their crops.

Selling their crops can also be a problem for poor Nicaraguan farmers. This might be because they do not have access to a local market due to limited transportation or poor infrastructure. Additionally, the farmer may not be an expert in marketing his or her product, leading to limited sales and low selling prices. Another market issue common in countries such as Nicaragua is the monopolization of markets by wealthy farmers and middlemen. This can lead to artificially low selling prices for small farmers or the need to sell to a middleman that takes advantage of all of the other complicating factors. This middleman purchases the product for sometimes less than it took the farmer to grow it. While it does not make sense for farmers to sell their products at such low prices, they do not have much of a choice as it is often a life or death proposition for them and their families.

When all of these tangible barriers are overcome, another issue exists. Money management is a real problem in all corners of the globe. However, in places with rampant poverty, budgeting and saving are very foreign concepts for obvious reasons. To say it another way, if you are not sure where your next meal is coming from, why would you worry about the next day, or month, or year. When this is introduced into a business environment such as such as small farms there are dire consequences. Without budgeting and saving for the next crop, it is almost impossible for a small farmer to build a sustainable business for the long term. This is even more true when an unexpected event occurs such as an illness in the family. If budgeting and saving are not being employed, this unexpected event can easily put a small farmer, or any other small business for that matter, out of business in poverty stricken areas. Unfortunately, this is a common story in places like Nicaragua.

What does this have to do with hope producing beans? Check back next time to find out.

– James Belt


Hopeless No More

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

We last left off with Brenda and her mother traveling from Albellanas, a small remote village in the northern region of Nicaragua, to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, with the team from the U.S. to seek medical attention for Brenda’s infection. This was all very new for Brenda and this trip would have a life-changing impact.

Arriving in Managua, part of the team took Brenda and her mother to the hospital where they would begin treatment for the infection on Brenda’s scalp. It would be decided that Brenda should stay in the Managua area for a few months to ensure that the dangerous infection did not return. As the infection began to subside and the bandana spent less and less time on Brenda’s head, something both symbolically and literally beautiful began to happen- Brenda’s hair started to grow back.

Before long, what was once a picture of the hopelessness of extreme poverty, became the most beautiful head of flowing, light-brown hair any of us had ever seen. The restoration of Brenda’s hair was the beginning of a story of powerful tangible hope.

Remaining in Managua to finish her treatment meant that Brenda need somewhere to stay for a few months. Roger, who had himself been given an opportunity to leave Albellanas though for very different reasons, graciously decided to provide the support necessary for Brenda to live at the Casa Bernabe orphanage on the outskirts of Managua. Casa Bernabe was a very familiar place for Roger as it was the exact place to which he moved as a teenager to continue his schooling. Roger never could have guessed that his story would become someone else’s journey in part because of the very blessing he had been given many years before.

During her stay at Casa Bernabe Brenda took entrance exams so that she could continue her education. To everyone’s amazement, Brenda tested extremely high and began class at the Verbo School, a private school funded by the same church that manages the orphanage. While Brenda did receive basic primary school classes in Albellanas, no one could have guessed that she would be so intellectually advanced. Realizing that her daughter had a desire to learn and the opportunity of a lifetime to do so, Brenda’s mother decided that it would be best for Brenda to stay at Casa Bernabe if they would permit it and she so desired. To many on the outside, leaving your child at an orphanage might seem heartless. However, for Brenda’s mother it was a sacrifice of love to give Brenda the opportunity she had never had. What started out as a story of survival suddenly became a story of life changing hope.

This reality was not lost on Brenda. Now recovered from a potentially deadly infection because of a group of people that believed her life mattered, Brenda began to thrive. A young girl who was once ashamed to show her head had become a girl confident that she could do anything with her life. The practical hope given to her through the care of a doctor and the chance to learn had transformed her perspective on what was possible.

I know this is true because of what Brenda has accomplished over the years since that life-changing day. In May of 2016 I visited the Casa Bernabe orphanage with a small group from NicaWorks!, the organization I work with in Nicaragua. On that visit on learned that Brenda was at the top of her class and had been learning English. I could also see it in her eyes as she interacted with her North American friends. No longer worried about her most basic practical needs, Brenda was truly living. I do not know what the future holds for Brenda, but my guess is that it is bright.

Check back in next week for another story practical hope.

– James Belt

Behind the Bandana

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Last time I touched on the remote, impoverished village in the northern region of Nicaragua called Albellanas and the eye-opening day I met a little girl named Brenda. That day, the last day we would stay in Albellanas on our short trip to the community, has impacted the way I see the world even today.

While packing up to leave in the open-air school that had been turned into our team’s makeshift sleeping quarters, a woman approached a few of our team members. On the outside, the woman was calm, but on the inside she appeared to be carrying something very heavy and anxiety-inducing. After finding a translator, she began speaking frantically about one of the children who had been coloring with the team earlier that morning. We would come to find out that this worried woman was Brenda’s mother.

Brenda, a beautiful light skinned little Nicaraguan girl from the community, appeared to be like any other elementary school child. She enjoyed playing and interacting with the group, and seemed healthy from an outsiders perspective. The only difference was the bandana she wore around her head, but none of us assumed it was anything more than a fashion accessory. We would come to learn that is was doing much more than keeping her hair back.

As Brenda’s mother continued to talk, explaining that her daughter had a medical issue that she did not know how to address, she began to remove the bandana from Brenda’s head. Carefully pulling it away from her head, the mother revealed a serious wound that covered at least half of Brenda’s almost hairless scalp.

We would later come to find out that this was a bacterial infection typically caused by exposure to horse or cow manure. Unfortunately, these types of infections were not uncommon in rural communities affected by extreme poverty due to their lack of access to clean water and hygiene items. When you bathe in the same water as the animals it is hard to avoid exposure to infection causing bacteria. When you also often drink that same water your likelihood of illness is almost a foregone conclusion.

In Brenda’s case, the bacterial infection had eaten away at what was once a full head of hair. However, the bigger issue was the possibility that the infection could eventually travel to the brain through the bloodstream, causing disability if not death.

Beginning to cry, Brenda’s mom desperately pleased with us to do something about what she had no power to change on her own. The sad reality is that in communities like Albellanas these tears of desperation often go unheard by any person who can help. Child mortality rates, from what are easily treatable illnesses for most of the world, are tragically high in places suffering from extreme poverty. Brenda easily could have been a part of these statistics had what I believe was a divinely appointed moment not occurred.

“Please help my daughter”, she said in Spanish as she looked into the eyes of her daughter’s only hope apart from a miracle. Discussing a plan to help Brenda, we determined that taking her to Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city, a trip of over three hours, was the only legitimate option. While there were health clinics in nearby towns such as Sebaco, none of them would more than likely have the staff, medicine, and equipment necessary to address this serious situation. The only solution was to take Brenda from the only place she had ever known.

After coming to this conclusion, the team told the mother that the only option was for her and her daughter to travel back to Managua with the group of “Gringos” they had just met. Without hesitation, the worried mother agreed to the life-saving plan.

Brenda, who had lived all of her short life in an adobe house without electricity or running water, was about to travel through generations of civilizational advancements in one afternoon.

Upon saying goodbye to the people of Albellanas, the team and their two guests jumped in the rented Toyota pick-up trucks to head to Managua. This was the first of many “firsts” for Brenda who had never been in a car. As we left Albellanas, I could not help but wonder if Brenda and her mother were full of hope, fear, or some combination of the two. I would later learn that this trip would produce life-changing hope in the heart of this beautiful, young girl.

More on the rest of Brenda’s journey next time.

– James Belt

From Practical Theory to Actual Reality

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Previously, I referred to the difference practical and tangible hope can make in a seemingly hopeless situation. While it sounds good, the old saying “talk is cheap” comes to mind. At an early I was taught that “your word is your bond”. While I think this applies to personal actions, I also believe it applies to theories and ideas. Theories without actionable evidence are dead, or maybe never existed beyond someone’s mind. In other words, what something looks like in practice or “in action” will tell you whether or not it is useful.

In the spirit of “talk is cheap” and theories being only as valuable as their real-life effectiveness, I want to share a few stories that make this “nice” idea of practical hope a powerful tool for change.

Shortly after moving to Nicaragua in 2012, I had an experience that would forever change the way I saw the world. Over my first few weeks living in Nicaragua, after years of just visiting, much of what I understood about life was challenged. From experiencing life as a minority for the first time, to feeling unsure about my purpose for being in Nicaragua and my ability to make a difference, to realizing that I was in even less control of the future than I had already accepted, I was in a “baptism by fire” classroom called Managua, Nicaragua. Then came Albellanas.

Albellanas is a small, rural village in the northern mountain region of Nicaragua. If I had thought life was challenging in Managua, Albellanas would show me an entirely new reality. No running (or even potable) water, no electricity, little educational opportunities, and no access to healthcare were just a few of the issues the people of Albellanas lived with on a daily basis. Extreme poverty was well and good in Albellanas and it showed no signs of changing.

Interestingly enough, my introduction to this remote and mostly forgotten village came from a former resident of Albellanas who had been given the opportunity to move to the United States for college. Roger, who ended up falling in love with and marrying a girl from Virginia, was an inspiration to his village as he was one of the few people to ever escape their extreme poverty reality. Understanding his significance to his hometown, Roger did and continues to invest in Albellanas, providing assistance to those who did not have the chance to escape. Roger is a great picture himself of what practical hope can mean to someone stuck in the cycle of extreme poverty, but that is another story. It was on one of Roger’s trips to Alebellanas that I traveled to this place that would significantly impact my worldview.

In addition to Roger, eight or so other men from Virginia came to Nicaragua to make a difference in Alebellanas. “Off the beaten path” does not do justice to the road into the community. In fact, the “road” to Alebellanas did not appear to have been “beaten” for quite some time. After the hour and a half, ten kilometer drive from the paved road, we finally arrived in the village.

Over the next two days we had the opportunity to share our faith and serve with the people of Albellanas. Many great things happened on this trip, but none of them stick out in my mind quite like Brenda.

More on Brenda’s story and my eye-opening experience next time.

– James Belt

Losing Self-Preservation

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Over the past couple of weeks I had the opportunity to spend nine days in Nicaragua. I learn something on every trip to Nicaragua, but some lessons are more impactful than others. This trip taught me something particularly meaningful so I am going to take a break from talking about hope to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it!

Why do we settle? Why do we choose to live lives that are less joyful, vibrant, and meaningful than they could be? This was something that went through my head while spending time in Nicaragua over the past couple of weeks. The question came to mind in part because I tend to live with more freedom when I am in Nicaragua. Some of it is being away from the pressures of every day life, but I think there is more to it. What holds me back from living in a way that I know is more fulfilling?

As I pondered that question one hyphenated word came to mind- self-preservation. Before I lose you, or you begin to argue with me in your head, let me be clear- self-preservation at its most basic instinctual level is good and necessary. It keeps us alive and allows us to make important judgement calls when it comes to our safety.

It is when it becomes our standard operating procedure for life that it begins to be unhelpful and unhealthy. In other words, when life becomes all about protecting the status-quo and our own level of comfort it ultimately robs us of joy and significance. We become unwilling to take risks in the way we pursue life, love people, seek growth, and generally enjoy each moment of the life we have been given. One day we wake up wondering what could have been and why life seems so passionless.

We never end up in these places intentionally. It is a slow drift and the accumlation of many small decisions that lead us there. In the end, I think much of it comes back to trust and what ultimately matters most to you. I am reminded of Jesus’ charge to his disciple that life is gained in a willingness to lay it down. Jesus was primarily referring to laying our lives down for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, but I think it extends to the way we live generally.

In a willingness to trust God fully with our lives and to put our significance in his desires for our life, we lose our need for unhealthy self-preservation. We become willing to take risks to live, love, care, and enjoy fully knowing that God’s desires for us our good. We become willing to be vulnerable and fail knowing that true significance is found in embracing the life for which God designed you- a life filled, yes, with risk, but also with freedom and meaning.

Returning from Nicaragua that is where I want to live. I want to love my family and friends better. I want to care for people without concern for how it helps me. I want to live being willing to risk and be vulnerable, even at the prospect of failure. I want to stop living for self-preservation and start living for a life to the fullest. I hope the same for you.

– James Belt


Hopelessness Is Not the End

Good morning from Westminster, MD!

Yes, the world is broken, but there is hope. This is where we left off last time. This hope is where we start today.

While we live in a world full of hopelessness and brokenness the good news is that it can be and will different- the Shalom I mentioned last time is the end of the story. The Creator, God, chose from the moment brokenness entered the world to redeem and restore his creation. This started with God providing covering to his created, Adam and Eve, a very practical solution for a very tangible need.

This continued on until God offered the ultimate solution in the form of Jesus Christ, who died to redeem and restore creation to its original form. This incredible act of love included the redemption and restoration of spiritual and relational connection with the God who created us. The Creator’s redemption and restoration plan also extended and still extends to His physical creation.

You only have to look at Jesus’ life to know this is true. In addition to offering spiritual hope to his listeners, Jesus healed many people, provided food to the hungry, and offered safety for the endangered. Jesus did not see the practical and tangible as unimportant as some would suggest. Instead, he modeled a process of providing practical and tangible hope to the otherwise hopeless.

This model of hope is a picture of what we should do to break the hold of the same hopelessness. If Jesus, who rose from the dead and redeemed the world, thought it was a good plan, it makes sense to me.

The impact of taking this approach can be great. We will take a look at that next time.

– James Belt