'Voluntours' pack for Nicaragua
Eight Vineyard residents have been preparing for months to embark on a vacation of sorts to Pacaya, a village in Nicaragua where they will teach English to nearly 200 elementary school children. From April 15 to April 27, this group of volunteer travelers will spend their days working in an isolated community school founded by former Vineyard resident Muriel Laverty and her Nicaraguan husband, Omar Gonzalez Espinoza. In the weeks prior to departure they are gathering donated goods and funds from generous Island residents to support their efforts.
The volunteer service vacation concept, often called "voluntourism," has been gaining momentum over the last decade. A recent Google search yielded 132,000 hits, including hundreds of websites devoted to helping potential travelers connect with opportunities to "do good" while experiencing a new environment.
Lynn Ditchfield, Director of ACE MV, the Island's Adult and Continuing Education program, teamed up with Sandra Grymes, an ACE MV colleague and retired West Tisbury School teacher, to create the trip to Nicaragua in conjunction with preparatory courses through the program. If fact, they got so excited about the opportunity that they're making the journey themselves.
"There are so many Vineyarders involved in humanitarian efforts around the world," Ms. Ditchfield explains, "that we decided to develop an annual program enabling Island residents to get involved with these established initiatives."
In addition to coordinating the travel plans, ACE MV offered several courses designed specifically to prepare travelers for their mission. According to Ms. Ditchfield, all eight voluntours signed up for one or more of the classes in Spanish language, Latin American history and culture, and a teaching workshop. She plans to provide an International Volunteer Service Project along with preparatory courses each year through ACE MV.
"We're already exploring locations and programs for next winter," Ms. Ditchfield says. "There are Vineyarders involved in ongoing volunteer activities in Brazil, Haiti, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cambodia, to name just a few. We'd like to partner with established programs in order to represent the Vineyard in a meaningful way around the world."
Ms. Laverty says she's delighted that the ACE MV volunteers are heading her way. "Many of the children here are from families where the parents never got beyond second or third grade," she says. "We're trying to teach them the importance of educating their children. We've gotten many children through high school and on to college. We're hoping for an open, ongoing exchange between Pacaya and Martha's Vineyard."
Pacaya is an impoverished village of small plastic shacks with dirt floors where many young children are awakened before 4 am to go out and work. "Even the children who go to school are often sent out for several hours before coming to class," Ms. Laverty says.
Until recently, as many as 70 school children in Pacaya had to share a single textbook. ACE MV is asking for cash donations for books and paper that the school can purchase locally, as well as the following items which participants plan to carry with them: white short-sleeved shirts and blouses in children's sizes, dry erase markers, colored pencil sets, Frisbees, soccer balls, baseballs, wiffle ball sets, and inflatable globes.
Ms. Laverty is also beseeching Islanders to donate used PC laptop computers (in working condition). Donations can be dropped off at any Martha's Vineyard public school library, including The Charter School.
Julie Hitchings of West Tisbury, a retired language arts and social studies teacher at the West Tisbury School, says she is thrilled to be going on the trip. "I've always wanted to help as a teacher and as a citizen. Now that I've raised my family and retired from teaching, I'm really excited to play a small part in helping. Compared to what others do," she insists, "it's no big deal."
Ms. Hitchings edits the ACE MV newsletter as a volunteer and has played an important role in promoting the International Volunteer Service Project. She is working with teachers at the West Tisbury School to encourage students there to write letters, take photographs, and draw pictures for their Nicaraguan counterparts.
Edgartown antiques appraiser Nancy Whipple also plans to join the group of volunteer travelers. Intrigued by both Latin America and the concept of donating her time for a worthy cause, Ms. Whipple says she has reaped an unexpected benefit from her involvement: "I've reconnected with two old friends through ACE MV," she explains, adding that she took the Spanish and Latin American courses.
Ms. Whipple says she is really excited about experiencing a new culture through a volunteer vacation. "Hats off to Lynn Ditchfield for organizing this wonderful opportunity," she says.
As much as the students in Pacaya may benefit from the energy and expertise of visiting ACE volunteers, the volunteers will likely return home with a new, or at least refreshed, appreciation of the world around us. "The Vineyard is a wonderful, protected environment that is completely wrapped up with things that seem really remote from here," says Ms. Laverty. This trip offers Island residents a chance to see how four-fifths of the world lives."
For more information on ACE MV, visit www.acemv.org or call Lynn Ditchfield at 508-693-1033, ext. 240.