Although acquainted with the Deaf via service trips in Belize since 2005, Nicaragua, I found out in 2007, was different. In every way different: language, cultural diversity, temperament, geography and nationalism. I saw in the lined faces of the farmers and the colorful, handsewn dresses of the female teachers a kind of colorful passion for life that drew me into their world and left me hungry for more Gallo Pinto.
As a seeker, I was happy to offer whatever skills or resources the Deaf people in Nicaragua needed from me. Signing since childhood, laughter and learning were second nature. At first I brought down groups of college students who visited the Deaf Blind School in Managua called Melania Morales in the neighborhood of San Judas. It inspired us all to see hearing and deaf teachers working side-by-side, teaching pre-school through high school camaraderie and respect. Their teaching model is an example to schools in the US for how young Deaf children learn best.
Since 1979, the Sandinistas made sure there was a place for educating children with disabilities. Little did the founders know that this school would become an international research site for the language evolution of young children thrown together with teachers who knew no signed language and would go on to invent “Nicaraguan Sign Language”. Linguists, from around the world came to observe the emergence of this new signed language born through the hands of their Deaf children. Never before had there been a centralized incubator for a native born sign language in our lifetime. The time had come and Nicaraguan sign language was born through its native youth. The research, to this day, allows linguists a model for how the brain lays down tracks for language.
Since 2007 those service trips created a venue not only for college student learning, but granted those Melania classrooms to be infused with 4-5 suitcases worth of laminated maps, clocks, alphabet charts, number boards, interactive weather charts and homemade story books. Those materials would slowly fill up a resource room filled with borrowable materials that the whole school would use.
They would also get a giant outdoor mural painted by US students working side-by-side with the Melania Morales teachers and a few students. It would assist geography learning and be a source of pride of their inspirational nation. As I would come to know the needs and wants of the Melania teachers, the Deaf Assn., Los Pepitos (a foundation formed by parents of children with disabilities) and MINSA, my vision would begin to expand to the needs outside of Managua. It felt good to know that the collective efforts of a few could be transformative to a whole lot of Deaf children and teachers.
An unplanned occurrence, and reflective of the international growth of social media, I’ve watched my number of Nicaraguan Facebook friends grow after each service trip, becoming part of my International family. It makes me wonder how FB is changing the way that service trips function in developing nations around the world. People with few material resources see how others live via their pictures and witness the day-to-day losses, tragedies and victories of ordinary folks in other places. They can imagine new possibilities. And we, as Americans, become connected through our hearts to new lands. This is a new social science territory and we are living it.
After fifteen service trips, I joined forces with Hopeful Ways out of NY who have a strong working relationship with the Lion’s Club of Camoapa, the largest Lion’s club in Nicaragua. It was a chance to try out what I believed was possible; marry the American knowledge base and financial resources with the ingenuity and hardworking passion of Nicaraguans. If any service offering for the Deaf would grow legs, I knew that there would need to be a coordinated effort of medical personnel and Deaf educators from Managua. It sure is easier to plan for a two-week service trip with people you can meet for coffee in the same time zone, much trickier with dozens of professionals from different states and different departments in Nicaragua via the US. Yet, I knew this was a way to capitalize on a few strong member’s skill sets and minimize people management.
For about a year in Southern Maine I planned a single fundraiser set for fall of 2014, used Skype to plan with Jim Carlins of the Pendleton NY Lions club and Hopeful Ways to become part of the Eye Care team, as a new component providing hearing care and signed language. Using contacts in Managua from prior trips, I invited two 5th year medical students to provide ear exams and an interpreter/teacher from Melania Morales to help with audiological exams and teach sign language with Deaf individuals from Camoapa once we were set up in town. Ambitious mission, with potential for a ton of screw-ups.
One key I’ve learned over the years is there can never be enough money raised to support a mission trip. That meant my fundraising event had to produce results to pay those three professionals from Managua, unable to afford the expense of a one week unpaid work “vacation”. Without them, what I could offer solo or with untrained workers who could not speak Spanish was extraordinarily limited.
So, plan I did. One night, two bands, one Lion’s club, a bartender and 50+ donated raffle items, restaurant donations and some extraordinary girlfriends helped make it all work for a night of exhilarating fundraising. All through the night I kept introducing friends to friends. It felt like a party, with good souls reaching out to folks they would never meet, but wanted to help.
And yeah, it worked. In the morning there was enough money to pay for my portion of the trip and some supplies, and Hopeful Ways generously offered to subsidize the three Managua professionals to come. The nurse-manager kindly connected me to her family foundation for an equipment donation of a much needed audiometer. And even better, she volunteered to come with me, as in, she came up to me and said, “I’m coming with you to be your right arm in Nicaragua. I’ll do anything” And she did.
That made a team of 5. Damn. What a team!
The Hopeful Ways Eye Care crew along with the support of the Lion’s club were something to behold. With a clinic setup in the Community Center of a church and the use of an operating room at the local hospital, they were able to complete 30 surgeries and provide eye examinations and eyeglasses to over 2600 patients.
The Ear Care project used a local school to offer hearing screenings, ear exams and sign language lessons. The team provided a variety of functions including physical exams of children, focusing on ear health but also looking at overall health markers and intellectual development. The team diagnosed and treated various ailments including but not limited to: middle ear infections, fungal infections and infestations in the ear canal, wax buildup, and hearing loss. Physical exams occurred in the #2 school in Camoapa and in the Hogar Luceros Alamanecer (Sunrise Home). Total adults and children seen was approx. 100 at the school and Hogar over the 5 days. Eardrops for wax were given and recommendations for antibiotic use were encouraged for those seen with chronic or severe infections. We ran out of medicines by the end of the first day…. And in our few remaining minutes, played soccer with the local kids.
For two days at the end of the week, Hansel and I worked with local Deaf Teacher Jony Eduardo Fargas instructing Nicaraguan sign language to 63 teachers on both days in the afternoon, and to about 30 family members including Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing members in the mornings. Families were eager to learn signs, and the Deaf or hard of hearing were eager to know one another.
Two days experiences are of particular note. On Tuesday January 27, six young people were diagnosed with severe to profound, irreversible hearing loss. Two of those children were between 9-11 years of age, and one was 5. The news was delivered as delicately as possible, yet the sobs of the mothers silenced the room. The only humane response was to offer a holding hug from diagnostician to parent; a mother-to-mother moment. The importance of language was explained and modeled. It was our goal to provide hope that their child could now have access to the world of learning and thus move from the world of home-gestures to real language. Joyfully, the invitations were accepted for 2 out of the 3 boys. The youngest child’s family was convinced that he would speak and insisted that he would only attend a “normal” school.
Thursday, January 29 was a day devoted to teaching sign in the morning to families with Deaf/hard of hearing children and the afternoon for teachers. That day 12 Deaf or hard of hearing young people showed up with their families. None knew signed language, only home signed gestures to communicate with their families. They were shy. Yet, 1 by 1 the light bulbs went off as our hands flew through the air. By noon of that day 12 people had entered into a new world, the world of language. And they had been initiated with their own name signs. Like a baptism, they now had a name, and their smiles radiated like the sun around the room. A sunrise, indeed, had come to Camoapa.
And happily, the light has stayed on as the Nicaraguan medical students have returned again and again over the past year to keep the project moving forward by providing medical exams for the children, and I hope to return in 2016.
Anyone wishing to support these projects may contact me at Pamworks@aol.com. Thank you for your interest and love.