The time of her life

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

With a life’s worth of degrees — BA in music education and therapy, Masters in social work, MBA in international business – that could make her an excellent living financially, 62-year-old Michiganian Lorrie Douglas found her passion as a volunteer in her areas of study.

She calls herself a “hybrid” because in social work she is an expert on the administrative side – raising funds through grants and solicitation, negotiating with various groups. On the business end, she is a humanist, having earned her degree through Temple University in Philadelphia while studying in Paris and Tokyo with an international group of 25, learning to get along and work agreeably and equitably in countries other than their own. “I found my voice when I went back to school,” Lorrie said. “It was while I was studying international business abroad that I changed. The work enhanced my skills, and I found it to be a spiritual experience.”

Lorrie performs a high-grade volunteer effort for this one particular non-governmental organization* that she could not resist once she landed there. She was hired in 2008 to do a feasibility study to see if the recipients could uphold the project on their end. Doing her on-site investigation, she found that they could. Then she fell in love with the place and the people, and then she felt that she was too expensive for the non-profit to pay her when there was such need among the people.

She refused the pay and volunteered the work back into the group. She became a volunteer for Nicaragua Project and has worked in various capacities since. Lorrie said their purpose in the largest and second poorest Central American country lies in the town of Catarina, population around 7,000. There, in league with El Puente volunteers, locals who are church people and non-church people, kids, mothers and artists, as well as foreign volunteers like Lorrie, the Project is building the Cultural Exchange Center, a first step in eventually providing jobs that will be paid by a particular kind of tourist.

“This will be a place for the niche tourist who is guided by social justice rather than a need to stay in a five-star hotel in a big city,” Lorrie said. The Project will pinpoint tourists who are curious about other cultures, scholars who seek educational opportunities including Spanish language immersion, and science and social studies research into such things as the cloud forests or the high happiness quotient of these very poor people. As well, Catarina is a center of artistic inspiration.

“Nicaragua is home to a long, long tradition of poets,” Lorrie said. The Nicaraguan Poetry Festival, an international poetry, music and dance gathering meets in Granada each year. As often happens, where there are poets there are other artists. In Catarina the writers share the tropical spot beside a volcanic lake in a benign climate with artists and artisans of every stripe who make any number of art objects – furniture, hammocks, clothing, flat art, pots. “The clay is found in their backyards,” she said, “thus the tradition of making artistic functional pottery has been handed down in families for generations.”

Foreign volunteers like Lorrie transport needed goods to Catarina for the locals to sell, and they bring back Nicaraguan art to sell in the States. “We don’t have many permanent outlets for the art yet,” she said. “except for a Latin restaurant in Ann Arbor that will take almost anything we give them. I’m supposed to be working on lining up places, getting more outlets, but I’m too busy yet to get going on it. Here at home we sell at church fairs and non-profit-group fests.”

The early phase of the Cultural Exchange main building is nearly complete – thatched-roof convention center, outdoor kitchen, working bathrooms, soon a classroom – and it will be the centerpiece for the Project in “bringing capital to Nicaragua in a sustainable way,” Lorrie said. “What can we do to keep it going, to help tap the tourist industry that will keep the money here, not in the hands of the wealthy from other places? That’s our goal.” Some of what will happen will be classes, art projects, a hotel, putting tools into the hands of women, inviting delegations and school groups to investigate, study, work as volunteers.

Already, Lorrie has completed a deal with an alternative energy company in Michigan that will donate and install solar panels in Catarina for the Exchange; leftover energy will be shared with the people of the town.

Lorrie is the board president in the States, and she travels to Nicaragua six or seven times a year, taking medical equipment with her. “This is specific surgical equipment that they have difficulty finding,” she said.

The Nicaraguan woman who sells these goods in Catarina now has a cottage industry that makes her life a little easier. The average family needs $450 a month to live reasonably, but most Catarinans live on $200 to $250 a month, many with several dependent children or non-working adults in the family. Some people live on $1.50 to $2 a day.

“Going back and forth over the years – the Nicaragua Project was officially founded in 2009 – both sides have learned about each other,” Lorrie said. “And about themselves. We are careful to listen and let them drive the decision-making in this organization. They asked us [the initial exchange was through their local Baptist church and an Episcopalian church in Michigan] to be partners in the project, to keep it all transparent, all of us learning to do business and have it work on both sides.” The organization maintains six regular and 52 short-term jobs.

Lorrie said that she is sometimes asked, “Why Nicaragua? Why not volunteer here at home?”

Her thoughts on this are wise: “My answer is that we’re all neighbors, we’re all part of the same world. When we have a tough time in the U.S., here in Catarina they’re bleeding. I first came here knowing nothing and no one, and people took me into their homes knowing not a thing about me. They’re in my heart now.”

Nicaragua is the second safest country in the Americas next to Canada. “There is domestic violence and alcoholism as is usual with poverty,” Lorrie said. “But oh, my god, they’re so wonderful, so hospitable. They almost teach us how to love, these people who have so little but who will give others all they have. The neatest thing about going down there is that you get to meet them.”

*A non-governmental organization (NGO) is any non-profit, tax deductible 501C(3) voluntary citizens’ group organized on a local, national or international level. Nicaragua Project is the American end of Capital to Bridge the Divide, whose Central American partner is Fundacion El Puente (the Bridge Foundation) in Nicaragua. For information, please contact info [at] NicaraguaProject [dot] org

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