Reflections on day 6


Today is our last day of construction. Tomorrow we are heading back to Managua to stay as our flight out on Friday is very early in the morning.  I was supposed to work on the high school building again – and I really wanted to – but my wanna-make-it-better-for-everyone side warred with my I-wanna-be-selfish side, and the wanna-make-it-better side won out. I’m glad too because it turned out to be a good choice.

Here’s a little bit of what happened: a number of our volunteers ended up with stomach issues, so instead of 23 people strong, we were only 16.  Of those, only 3 were left to go out to Casa Rio del Coco.  The remaining 13 volunteers going to work on the school were joined by 12 additional school attendees and teachers.  Soooo, the school has plenty of help and the village? Well, not so much.  So, I stay on the bus for the mountainous, gear-grinding, bus ride south.  At least it’s not raining today.


Monday’s wet and muddy drive south.

On Monday we worked on the stove bases.  Today we will continue with the chimneys and assembly. We are also set to build 15 Eco Biosand water filters.

Bicoand filter

Biosand Filter

These filters are made of simple materials that cost about $19. They are plastic buckets with a sieve at the top. The water is poured into the sieve and then filters down through sand.   The organic material present in the dirty water is trapped at the surface of the sand bed, forming a biological layer which actively removes pathogens and contaminants. (There is a scientific name for this layer but we know it as common slime.)  The filters are 95 – 99% effective in removing dangerous contaminants from the water, and 100% effective in removing parasites, rendering it clean and drinkable. Drinking waterWe completed 8 filters and have all the parts ready for assembly for the additional 7.  While working on the filters I learned 2 important lessons:

  1. The hardware store around the corner from my house in Denver is a pure luxury.
  2. Wastefulness comes in many forms – not all of them tangible.

Let me explain.  Lesson 1: Part of the process for assembling the filters involves a rubber washer.

Hose washer

The $0.17 washer that stopped us cold.

Just a simple one – the kind you use when attaching your garden hose to the spigot.  It costs around $0.17 each. You probably have a few of them scattered around the workbench or lying on the garden shed floor. Well, we ran out of them about half-way through.  And when you run out there is no Home Depot around the corner to just “go and grab what you need”. Honestly, I don’t even know where you get your building supplies. So when we had assembled all we could, we just continued with what was left- knowing that the final assembly would have to wait for another day.

Lesson 2: I got an insight on all the little wasteful habits I have. It came when I was changing the drill bit from a small one to the keyhole bit. Most of you know I use drills on a daily basis. I am very familiar with all the workings, chucks, keys, reverse, forward, strength, and speed. So I didn’t even pause when starting to change the bit.  I held on to the chuck

Drilling buckets

A lesson in wastefulness. (With Antonia & MK.)

(that’s the black section just below the drill bit), set the function to reverse, and squeezed the trigger to roll back the bit holder. It takes about 1 second to open up the bit holder enough to replace the bit.  As I was putting down the small bit to pick up the new one, Antonia took the drill from me and showed me that I should just unscrew the chuck manually rather than using the power to assist. In one flash I saw how important the littlest things are when you are not in a privileged area.  I realized that when the battery pack ran out of juice, we were done.  There was no plugging in, no switching out of battery packs, no running to the hardware store.  Power gone = project stopped.


I really can’t even begin to tell you what lessons, how many, all the insights, and (hackneyed as it sounds) soul changing experiences I had while in Nicaragua. Since I came home, I have been asked many times about the trip. Sometimes I don’t know where to start to tell about everything.  But in the end, this is what I think sums up the entire trip:

“It was amazing!  Absolutely incredible – but what was most important was that I learned that almost 100% money you donated ends up funding the charity. The staffers from are 100% volunteer.  Not only do they each give their time, but they each paid for their own trips. On top of that, the money goes directly into the economy.  All of the construction workers are 100% local; the general contractor is an expat living in San Juan del Sur, so his money goes back into the community – you are funding salaries, jobs, families, people. You are bringing clean air and safe drinking water to children, adults, and villages. All of the building supplies are locally sourced, renewable, and unbelievably beautiful! The school is not supported or funded by the government.  With the exception of some teacher training and accreditation, all funding for the school comes from donations, foundations, and primarily through the sister city project.”

That’s it!  I confirmed what I already believed – this is a great charity, funding an independent, well-deserving project. Checks are written and people paid.  I couldn’t be happier with my choice and I believe that everyone who helped should rest assured that each donation went where it should. Period. Fini. The end….  well, not really, I have a lot more to tell you, so look for more posts in the future.

This is a really great video -a 360º walkthru of the new building.  Be sure to use the left and right controls in the upper left corner to swivel the view to see the entire room.

Reflections on day 5: Building Site

Today I get to build at the school site.  I am so excited to think that I can add my vast knowledge and experience to helping move this project along. Do you hear the snarky sarcasm in that sentence?  Austin Drill, the general contractor, has set up six stations for us to move through in order to give us a sense of what it takes to put a building together. Confident in my ability to learn new things, I dive right into the library where we are filling gaps in the bamboo with wood filler, sanding, and adding varnish.


View of the library/computer lab from the entry door.

Perfect for me – gooey, messy, dirty, detail-oriented, and fun! The kicker to this project is that the construction workers don’t speak English, and well, we’ve already established that “Hablo a muy poco español.” Needless to say, there is much gesturing, pointing, awkward silences, and laughter.

The wood filler is a simple combination of sawdust from the bamboo and Elmer’s glue. This way it matches in color, is easy to make, and dries quickly.

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I did this!

Once dry, it is sanded and then sealed with at least two coats of varnish. I could have stayed with this station all day – but it was time to move on to fine plaster.  Bring it on!


Overconfidence can be a real bitch. We can skip over the fine plastering lessons and just say I have a heavy hand not suitable to the subtle finishing touches needed to make a smooth wall.


At this point, I threw in my sponge.

(Here is where I learned that being tolerated is a kindness in any country.) On to rough plaster…


Okay, not much better here.  Apparently, there is a real finesse to throwing mud at the wall.  Who knew? Eventually, I went back to the library where I knew I could actually help and not hinder.


Cassie Harrison & Lorin DeBellis got the mud throwing s


A couple days later, when I went back to see the finished product, my rough plaster teacher had such a look of dismay on his face thinking that I was back for more, that I took pity on the man and quickly ran away.


It was great to be able to help a little on the actual building, and it is nice that they are willing to let us try our hand, but like I said in an earlier post – it isn’t about the difference we can make with the physical structure – it’s about the money we can raise to pay for wages, materials, and supplies. Our being here increases our understanding – oh, and gives the guys a great laugh. (I do know when I’m being laughed at even if I can’t understand the words. It’s okay, I’m used to it. They were still kind.)

I also think it helps the construction crew, school kids, and adults, and everyone else who benefit from the money raised, to understand that this isn’t a pity charity. It is a passion shared by both Nicaraguans and Americans. Raising funds is really the only contribution we can make to the project from so very far away. It is personal and close to the hearts of everyone on this trip.  We may not be attending the school, or relying on the money to pay for our needs, but we are as invested as those who do.

The building should be finished around November of this year, about 12 months from the start of the project.  Classes end around that time and when they resume in February, the upper two grades plus the technical classes will be held in the new building, and the administration will finally have a place to call home.  I can’t wait to see the finished product!


Nov2015 July2016

November 2015                                                                    July 2016


Follow the link below to see the daily video diary by the Random Acts team.

Dreams to Acts: 2016 | Daily Diary Day 5

Reflections on day 4

Beach outside of Restaurante Puesta del Sol at Playa del Coco

I’m not sure how to recap today’s adventures – it was such an amazing day. Today is the reason I wanted to come, to spend my birthday building a school. However, I am actually out in a village miles from San Juan del Sur, helping to build cooking stoves.

There are two side projects being funded by Random Acts: building cooking stoves and Biosand Water Filters.  Today we are helping to build the stoves.   There is a major health epidemic created by cooking over solid fuel fires (wood, animal dung, crop waste, and coal) without proper ventilation – creating air unfit to breathe. According to the World Heath Organization, every year, over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuel.

The design of the stove we are building comes with multiple benefits: The materials are inexpensive (roughly $45) as the bricks are primarily a mixture of sand, dirt, and concrete; it uses less wood by burning hotter and longer; and the chimney vents the smoke out of the home through a hole in the roof. 


Village of Casa Rio del Coco


Village life

The team has split into groups, part going to the school site and part to Casa Rio del Coco, a village of 35 families near the southeastern coast – I’m headed to the village. Before I left the states, I went to a Dollar Tree and bought some arts and crafts supplies: colored pencils, paper, etc.   I am bringing these items with me today to share with any children that might live there.  

The road to the village is a combination of cobblestone and dirt – well, mud actually, as it is raining really hard again.

There is a water truck delivering water to the outlying villages that comes within feet of sliding into the back of us.  The bus grinds up the hills, moving about 10 miles an hour and you can feel the tires slip in the mud.  It takes about an hour to get out to the village but by the time we arrive the rain has passed.

As we get off the bus, we are hesitant, but then, so are the villagers. Richard smooths the way with introductions and directions.


We start by moving a pile of dirt about 5 feet to the left.  It feels a little like we are being punked


We all wondered if we were being punked when asked to move the pile of dirt 5 feet to the left.

but the truth is it needed to be moved out from under the covered area so that we could use the space if it rains.  After relocating the dirt pile (which interestingly enough was being guarded by two rather aggressive land crabs) we got our instructions on how to make bricks – and away we went. We won’t actually be able to assemble the stoves, as the bricks take a few days to dry, but we also cut wire and rebar to make the internal support structures.


Volunteer AndRea Niessen measuring and lining up rebar.

Meanwhile, children begin to arrive to see what we are doing. Some are shy and hesitant, some bold and boisterous – you know, typical children. I pulled out the crayons and paper and made a space at what I think is the community table. And Voila! instant arts and crafts time. It sort of exploded into an all out drawing fest. It was amazing! So much fun to see the creativity overflow. They asked me to draw pictures for them to color – so of course I obliged. Me with kidsYou gotta satisfy your fans. 😎  The frustrating part was my inability to talk with the kids.  My Spanish is less than non-existent, and their accents were definitely regional.  Between those two things, we just smiled. laughed and drew.  At one point, one of the kids wanted to use the paints.  Richard had to explain to a mom what was in the paint tube.  I swear the eye roll she gave him was typical of any mom, anywhere, preparing for a messy disaster.


“For you Andrea”

When we were getting packed up one mom gathered all the materials together to give back to me.  I had Richard tell them that they were a gift. She smiled, said “Gracias” and I melted.  Best birthday ever.

The second half of the day was spent as a tourist – on the beach and in the surf.  This part of Nicaragua is quickly becoming a haven for surf enthusiasts.  There were a few people who rented boards from the restaurant where we were and yours truly valiantly gave it a try.  Caught one wave, but never got off my belly. Oh well, at least I can say I tried.

The evening finished with a beautiful sunset and surprise fireworks on the beach. When offered the chance to light one off, of course, I jumped.  However, the instructions were a little far from what mom taught me as a kid – never hold the bottle rocket in your hand when lighting it. (Side note, the instructions were something like this: “Now make sure you let got when you feel it begin to tug.”) After three successful launches,  I decided that I had tempted fate enough and called it quits.

A beautiful end to a beautiful day.  Thank you to all for making my birthday gift a reality.  You rock!




Follow the link below to see the daily video diary by the Random Acts team.

Watch the Random Acts Daily Diary – Day 4

Reflections on Day 2

Opening of the Saturday School

Today I learned that I will continue to help fund this project for as long as they need.  Why? Because I met the students of the Free High School – and they blew me away.

It felt awkward as we arrived – a group of all white women (and 2 men) tromping through the front gate looking more like tourists than humanly possible – wearing backpacks, carrying water bottles, wielding cameras. All I could think about was how much they must resent us as we walked around with wide eyes, mouths hanging open, and cameras clicking. I wondered if they thought of us as rich American intruders. Boy, was I wrong!

They welcomed us as emissaries for the funding that is making it easier for them to see their own dreams come true. Richard and Rosa at presentationThey saw us as eager to learn about them – their needs, their motivations, their dreams, their successes, their challenges. They were amazingly accepting, and they taught me many things.

Here are just a few of the many lessons I learned today:

The students range in age from young to working adult. I was seriously impressed with the teenaged girl who presented at the opening ceremony.  I believe she is in the last year of high school.  So self-assured, standing as tall as her five-foot frame would let her, holding the microphone with grace and ease. She was also in the English class I audited (for me it was a Spanish class – and I failed miserably) and was the only student who willingly volunteered to come to the front of the class to answer a question on the board.

Then there is the woman who stopped going to school in 6th grade because “she didn’t like it”. She works a full-time job from Monday to Friday, has children to care for, and must take the bus to get to the school. She wants to be a nurse.

There is a man in his 30s who has already attended the technical school (another part of the Free High School). He works every day with the trade he learned; now he wants to finish high school so that he will be “more successful.”

Dreana and child hopschotching.jpg

A Random Acts volunteer playing hopscotch with a student’s little girl.

Then there are the kids playing in the courtyard – they are children of some of the students – accompanying their moms or dads because there is no one else to watch them during school time. They are not completely unsupervised (I think), but mom or dad is in class, hopefully not too distracted by what might be going on in the courtyard.

We were allowed to audit classes for a while.  Since my Spanish is less than nonexistent, I thought, “Sure! An English class sounds right up my alley!” Foolish me.  Good thing, a long time ago, I got over being the focus of laughter. The teacher was great – this student – not so much. The three girls I was asked to sit with and “help” with their English answers, couldn’t get a word out through the giggles, guffaws, laughs, and endless mirth.  Eventually, the teacher came over and saved my sorry butt.  They wanted to know what I did – so I told them (through the teacher’s translation) about being a special education teacher once, and now a health care partner.  They were so welcoming, so fun, so…not what I thought.

The students actually have a responsibility for their education as well. I learned they “payback” by going out into local villages to educate the residents about health and hygiene – checking that filtered water is stored safely to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.  They also function as an investigative unit – working to find children being sexually exploited.  The head of the school proudly shared a story of how, thanks to the efforts of their students, the police were able to recover two fifteen-year-old girls that had been kidnapped and were being taken to Costa Rica to be sold into prostitution.

My mind is blown.The force for change that is this school is astounding!


360 team picture

The volunteer team in the school playground.


I would have liked to have the opportunity for them to ask questions of us.  I can only imagine what we could learn if we were the ones in the hot seat.

So whether of not, I am able to return with the team next year, I will be an avid fundraiser for this cause. Those touristy, geeky, awkward, uncomfortable volunteers who walked through the gates, left awed, amazed, floored, humbled, and committed to continue to help.

Follow the link to watch the Random Acts daily video diary:

Dreams to Acts: 2016 | Daily Diary Day 2

Reflections on Day 1

It’s 5:30 am on July 2nd and I am sitting outside on the porch of the villa where we are staying.  I am struck by the absolute quiet and the intense noise of the morning.  I know, more of the usual contradictory pronouncements I like to make.  But let me explain a little: When I say quiet, I mean quiet to a city-dwelling American. No cars – none at all – no sirens, trains, busses, stoplights that ding or speak, or belching semis.  It’s not that they don’t exist, it’s just that they don’t exist, now.

What I do hear is the earth. There is a beautiful breeze and it whispers through the leaves of the trees. The birds are singing in a call and answer, changing the pattern ever so slightly with each round.  And insects – oh insects galore. Something that sounds like a cricket, mosquitoes humming in my ear, a very large spider making scritching noises on the stones, and a bee sounding like it is eternally struggling to stay in the air.

Okay, enough waxing poetic. I am trying to decide how to tell you about yesterday.  I could detail all the moments as they passed –


Beautiful sunny Nicaragua

telling you about the bus ride in the pouring (and I mean pouring) rain; about the smells of cooking fires mixed with wet manure; or the 2 lane road that our bus driver navigated with the skill of an indy driver (although not the speed – we are talking school bus here.) But I think what is more important is the way I am just beginning to understand the rightness of this charity.  I use the word rightness because I think it fits, and here’s why:


Many of you asked me why I had to raise $5000, and my answer was “to qualify to go on the trip”. But that’s not really it, not exactly. This trip is about the money, as crass and blunt as that sounds. At dinner last night, I learned more about how Random Acts chooses the projects they want to support. It is very different from what I understood. It is also something I don’t think I could have ever understood from just reading about it.  But (dear reader) since that is the only way I can help you understand, I will do my best to explain.

It starts with a community leader who has a vision and a need.  I would like you to meet Dr. Rosa Elena Bello.



Dr. Rosa Elena Bello

This project is her vision.  It originated with a frustration over poor health and nutrition.  Infants and children suffering from chronic dysentery and malnutrition.  Rosa understands true and lasting change requires education (For example, if you can’t read how do you know the dosage of a medicine to give to your child? Maybe someone told you, but you forgot.  What then?)  So she began an educational movement.  In a matter of three years, hundreds of women earned sixth-grade diplomas.  But learning is contagious and begins to demand more.  Some of these graduates wanted to continue to a secondary education – creating a moment in time for a historical change. At the time, the ordinary daily high school in Nicaragua would accept no woman over 18, pregnant or who had a baby.*  Flash forward to the established school – the Free High School and the Technical High both operate in San Juan proper as Saturday Schools, allowing tradesmen, working woman, and those living at a distance to attend. That is Dr. Bello’s vision recognized.

Now, let’s talk need.  They need their own building – buildings – campus.  They currently share a space in an elementary school.  Imagine your last parent-teacher conference with your child’s kindergarten teacher.  Think about it… Got it… Yep – knees up to your chest, cramped, butt cheeks maybe hanging off the sides of the chair.  Funny right? Not so much.  They need their own school – and for many (and better reasons) then just the uncomfortable small desk.


Richard Krushnic, General Contractor introducing us to the onsite build team.


Enter Random Acts – stage left. Random Acts found this project through a fairly convoluted path – but it really isn’t important how they found the need – they did.  And in true Random Acts form, they decided to help fill that need up. The construction crew is 100% Nicaraguan with general contractors Austin and Michelle Drill.

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Austin Drill, General Contractor (yes, that’s really his name).

Austin and Michelle moved to San Juan del Sur seven years ago and started Casa de Tierra, which specializes in green construction. Together they are building the campus that will truly make the Free High School, free.  Radom Acts and other similar charities provide the funding for salaries, supplies, etc.  We do not come in, change the projects, slap down what we think the locals need, and then leave.  Nooooo.  The $5,000 that each of us raised, for a total of $89,930 will go a long way to funding this building.  There are 2 more buildings planned, but that is another discussion.


So the answer to the question, “Why do you have to raise $5000 to join the team?” is – you don’t.  You raise $5,000 to pay for food, rent, children’s medicines, cooking fuel, transportation, etc.- you are paying someone’s salary – funding their livelihood. Being on the team and getting to come to Nicaragua is a bonus – and a way to really understand what this amazing charity does. We do get to build, but really, how much can we accomplish in a week? (Look for that in a future post.)  But when we leave, we are not leaving behind our own vision, or concept, or morals, or socio-political agenda.  We are leaving behind a school to support a local visionary’s dream. Be proud of your participation.  Your support has already gone a long way.

1 building up (kinda), 2 more to go.

Now, the human side of San Juan del Sur is waking up – and beginning the day.  And I need to join them – as I have so much more to learn today.

*For more specifics go to

Follow the link below to see the daily video diary by the Random Acts team.

Dreams to Acts: 2016 | Daily Diary Day 1

So this is the week – Bound for Nicaragua!

Two intersecting circles. The left contains synonyms for the word selfish and the right for the word charitable. Where the two circles overlap, is the word me.
Stuck in the middle again...

It’s Sunday morning in sunny Colorado.  It’s quiet since the animals are all downstairs eating and Mike is in Connecticut teaching.  Inevitably, the silence makes my brain start whirring.  Round and round with thoughts of this week. It winds up, spins like a top, and spits out all kinds of emotions- like panic, excitement, fear, wonder, anxiety, and eagerness.  You know, just the usual extremes for me. But as I make my lists, pack my bags, arrange my life, and then undo everything to start over, I keep thinking about why it is important that I make this journey – and I keep coming back to one conclusion – pure selfishness.

Many of you know that I am the queen of beating myself up. There is nothing a bully or mean person could say that I haven’t already said to myself in my head.  Anxiety, panic, and depression are ripe with negative self-talk. This morning’s conversation goes a little like this:

Me: “You know you did all this only for yourself. You didn’t think about what it would take.”

Me too: “Yeah, it was all about what I wanted for my birthday. I didn’t think about the cost or consequences.”

Me: “All you wanted was some splashy big trip to a foreign country.  It was all about your needs, and blah blah blah naggy nag.”

That may not exactly be true, but there is some truth in it. The definition of selfishness is “concerned chiefly or only with yourself and your advantage to the exclusion of others.” So when you think of a charitable act or humanitarian trip as being selfish, it doesn’t really fit – there is an advantage to others and not just to me.  But yet it does. The team was asked to think about what motivated them to participate, to raise the money, to want to go.  I come right out and say it in the video – “I want to spend my birthday building a school.” I – My – So that is selfish.

I guess, though, almost everything we do has some element of selfishness to it. We may not always realize it or even put it into words, but when you ask about someone’s motivation, there will always be a little bit of self-benefit. Even the things that aren’t fun, like mowing the lawn, working out, or scooping poop out of the litter box, has some element of self-benefit. Mow the lawn so you don’t have to listen to the landlord complain; work out to feel and look better; scoop the poop so you don’t have to smell the stink.  See? Selfish.

I think it is when the benefits to others outweigh the benefit to oneself that a little bit of selfishness is okay. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So to those who indulged my selfishness by helping fund my charity, I think you from the bottom of my selfish little heart.

Let’s get ready to go build a school! We leave on Wednesday – me, me too, and all the others that live in my head.  We are going to have a wild ride.