Tropical birds float among puffy white clouds resting in the steamy blue sky. Monkeys bounce playfully in the branches of palm trees, as they watch turtles emerge from the Caribbean.
In Nicaragua, the land is fertile and the sea pristine. Exotic flora and fauna fragrance the air and populate the ground.
But nearby, families of three and four generations live together in plastic tents or wooden huts, their days spent gathering and cutting firewood, filling water buckets from the community spigot, feeding livestock, picking vegetables, cutting down plantain. Children panhandle on the streets of the bigger cities.
Life is very hard for most Nicaraguans living in the impoverished country.
It’s a life that Blaine resident Jay Gustafson, director of IT for ECM Publishers, Coon Rapids, would like to see improved. In fact, he and his family have traveled to Nicaragua many times – both as tourists and as people on a mission to provide help and hope to the struggling people.
“The number one need is education. With education, with learning to speak English, they could do so much more. Life could be so much better,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson believes the number two need for Nicaraguans is job opportunities, he said.
“It’s true that Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the world, but they have the potential to become a major tourist destination as well as having enormous industrial and business opportunities available to investors who know what to look for,” Gustafson said, eager to dissuade people’s misperception that Nicaragua is still a war-torn country.
On visits to the Central American country, Gustafson and his family have toured caves carved out of the ground by flowing volcanic lava, they’ve gone on boat excursions and hiking expeditions, they’ve snorkeled and tried deep sea fishing, too.
While vacationing there, the Gustafson family stayed in a colonial style house in Granada, one with four enclosed bedrooms, a wide open kitchen and living room with a garden area and swimming pool in the center of the home.
“There’s so much to do, so much to see and vacationing there is very inexpensive compared to going to Hawaii,” Gustafson said.
In addition to helping to boost Nicaragua’s economy while on vacation, Gustafson’s efforts to provide help and hope to the country’s struggling people began a few years ago when he began sponsoring a high school student through an organization called La Esperanza Granada.
That non-profit organization, the name of which translates to “the Granada hope,” (Granada is the fifth-most populous city in Nicaragua), a volunteer group formed in 2002 and focusing on children’s education by going into schools and assisting teachers, tutoring young children, running sports programs, introducing children to computers, teaching English and helping to stimulate an interest in learning.
Besides traveling to Nicaragua and volunteering with La Esperanza Granada, Gustafson’s annual $250 sponsorship helps provide school supplies and uniforms for the girl he sponsors as well as helping to pay for food and medical and dental care.
With 80 percent of Nicaraguans living on less than $2 a day, sponsorships such as those provided through La Esperanza Granada “really help keep kids in school,” Gustafson said.
“The needs (in the schools) are almost infinite,” he said, describing overcrowded classrooms in which two or three students each share a dilapidated old wooden desk while more students sit on the floor or stand in the back of the room.
Not only that, school supplies are desperately needed, Gustafson said.
“The teacher will have only one textbook for her entire class of 50 or 60 students. The kids have no paper, no pencils, the chalkboard is a painted wall. It creates such a situation of hopelessness.”
And so it’s no wonder that 70 percent of Nicaraguan students drop out – half of them before reaching high school.
“It creates self-perpetuating poverty,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson has recently expanded his charitable efforts, sponsoring four children in the same family and helping to build a “proper home” for them, he said. Meanwhile, he also sponsors private English lessons for seven additional students.
“I just think life there could be so much better,” Gustafson said. “With education, with jobs (Nicaragua has) the potential to become a major tourist destination as well as having enormous industrial and business opportunities available to investors who know what to look for.”
He urged people to change their perception of Nicaragua, the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordering Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south.
To learn more about La Esperanza Granada, to sponsor a child, or to volunteer with projects there, visit www.la-esperanza-granada.org.
To review Gustafson’s personal Nicaragua informational page visit www.jay.org/nicaragua.
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]