BCAS (Building Capacity and Sustainability) is a project that partners with Si a La Vida in their work with children and young people in Nicaragua. Margaret Nixon and Martin Reilly have been involved with Si A La Vida since the organization's very beginning, when they met Si A La Vida founders Jonathan Roice and Mercedes Guido Huete in the early 1990s.
Photo: Martin Reilly and children of Si A La Vida on Ometepe Island
ASALV: When and how did you get involved with Si A La Vida?
Margaret & Martin: In 1992-1996 we came to Nicaragua to be involved in missional work with rural communities through the Baptist church. We met Jonathan Roise through an Australian friend. A close bond formed and Martin commenced working with Jonathan when he told Martin of the children he encountered in the Ivan market. Margaret was working as a volunteer with an NGO at the time assisting children living and working on the rubbish dump. With her background as an education specialist she became very involved with shaping, mentoring and guiding the programs underway at Si A La Vida.
ASALV: You've been involved in several community development projects in Nicaragua, including Si A La Vida, for a long time. What sustains you in this volunteer work?
Margaret & Martin: Complicated question, but briefly, we started with Si A La Vida right at the beginning and returned to Australia in 1996, always thinking we would one day return. Why we do what we do and what keeps us going, and why we returned to Nicaragua and particularly Si A La Vida is informed by our faith, is fostered through the various connections and friendships we have established over the years, and is based on our belief in the project of Si A La Vida to give life to vulnerable and at risk children: all of that sustains us.
ASALV: Your current focus is the Altagracia project, where you have spearheaded the transition from a residential facility for boys to a day program with boys and girls both. What challenges have you faced in that?
Margaret & Martin: The first challenge was to farewell the children in our residential program in 2015. That was very tough and very emotional for the children and all involved at Si A La Vida. And us! With that attended to as sensitively as we could, we turned to the next challenge of thinking how Si A La Vida would continue on. We thought long and hard about some of the things we could do better, and what was needed, and the answer became readily apparent: to work with the children in need in our local area. In a very short space of time, we found a new place to work, just near the school, we framed a program around prevention, and we engaged local school Principals, health care professionals, police, council members who helped us identify the issues of children in the community. It was clear that there was need. And so we began. The changes and the support from the community here in Altagracia has been overwhelming. But what is our next challenge? The next challenge is to keep the work going, to secure funds, and to expand our programs because there is so much more we could do.
ASALV: How has the introduction of girls to the project changed the dynamics?
Margaret & Martin: Girls, girls girls!!! It has been wonderful to work with the girls and our program is richer for it. There has really not been too many challenges, but more greater considerations. Having said that we are no longer a residential program! Teenage pregnancies is a real concern here in Nicaragua and while this is a whole community issue, we are mindful of what positive influences we can have on our girls in becoming strong and vibrant young women. We are mindful that sex education classes for girls and boys is desperately needed, especially for our teenagers, and that we need to engage the parents in terms of expectations and role modelling. In a machismo disempowering society the pressures on girls are enormous here: we would like to try to build capacities and, with that, broaden their dreams for the future.
Margaret & Martin: We would love - LOVE!! - to have volunteers working with us and the children and even volunteers to work on our micro enterprise projects at our Finca (the 14 or so acres where the children used to live). The former could be anything from English teaching to yoga practice. We are open to anything just about. The later could be farm management, labouring work, and even painting!! We hope, too, that volunteers could visit and help out in Managua. We desperately need people with administration experience, and even IT skills. Volunteer for short term or long term. We are not that far away!!
ASALV: How is your cash flow?
Margaret & Martin: Our cash flow is really tight. We would love to pay our staff more than the basis wage, but we don't have the funds. We would love to appoint more teachers, but we don't have the funds. We would love to nurture new programs and equip our existing programs, but we don't have the funds. We would love to start a food program with our children in Managua, but we don't have the funds. We are trying to be more self sustaining with the introduction of small micro enterprises involving chickens and cows, and even developing the Casa Mariano into a hostel. But the returns from these are slow, and not enough to be totally self funding. We still rely on overseas financial support.
ASALV: Any comments about the Si A La Vida organization and staff?
Margaret & Martin: In our Managua centre and here in Altagracia, we have in total about 12 Nicaraguan employees. They are all truly wonderful people, with big hearts, and generous spirits. We are currently transforming all that we do through a commission. This commission surveyed all our staff and with that input we will clarify what we do, and detail roles and responsibilities for our staff. This should sharpen the nature of our preventative care of our children and give us a more efficient operating structure.
ASALV: For 2017 what will be your areas of focus?
Margaret & Martin: This year we hope to put into operation the recommendations of our commission, consolidate our prevention programs and continue to work with the children that come through our doors. It is now different work from when we first started in 1993, but we still very much have the same ethos of giving hope to children in need. We believe we are now far clearer in our methodology, and working with local children means that our interface with the community is much more encouraging and valued.
ASALV: Best ways to get involved?
Margaret & Martin: Come and visit, come and see, come for a short time or even a longer time. We need to rekindle the volunteer and student links when Jonathan was alive, but more than that, we need people to see that what we do matters and impacts lives of children who have experienced incredible trauma whether from poverty, from abuse, or from struggles at home or at school because of learning or cognitive deficits. It is a pleasure and privilege to have this time. Even if people cannot experience first hand what we do here, they can be part of us. Every child that comes through the door, every person who helps, whether here or around the world, every person is part of Si A La Vida. We all belong; we all have different roles. Together we are doing a good thing.
ASALV: Thank you both very much for your wonderful work with the project and we offer our best wishes for more success in 2017.
BCAS link: http://www.bcasnicaragua.com
Photo: Margaret Nixon in classroom with Si A La Vida staff on Ometepe Island