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

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