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Becoming the Big Picture
by Jessica Neff
Posted March 28, 2002

In rural Nicaragua, a Peace Corps Volunteer moves far beyond her initial job description and creates a vibrant international connection designed to improve the futures of the children of her village.

NEW Reader Responses are a goodthing! Join Sonia Lugo of Puerto Rico in the conversation!

Fellow GoodLetter readers,

Before I was a teenager, my best friend, Liz, and I would talk with her uncle about his Peace Corps adventures in Africa. I loved to hear the stories. Later, when I was in high school and then college, the idea of being a Peace Corps Volunteer began to seem more real. I would read articles about volunteers, their incredible adventures, and the genuine love they all seemed to share for their jobs. It seemed they were all part of "the big picture" that I so wanted to connect with.

I remember when the Peace Corps recruiter came and spoke at my college, I already knew I would be going. Frightening as it was, my mind was made up, and you can ask anyone who knows me, nothing was going to change it.

I signed up to be a Peace Corps Volunteer helping farmers in Nicaragua. I did not speak one word of Spanish, nor did I know the first thing about agriculture. But I believed that I could do it and that I would learn the things I needed to know in order to help as much as I could.

I began my two-year, three-month adventure in September 2000. I learned Spanish and received basic agriculture training while living with a family. I was then sent to my community, Santa Teresa, not knowing what I was going to do or how I would be of use to the people there. A year and a half later, I can tell you that one of things I'm doing is helping farmers improve their corn and bean production. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I work hard to fit into the community and help people find their own solutions to their problems.

My time in Nicaragua was soon about far more than agriculture. When I first arrived in Santa Teresa in late December, I spent my time visiting with the adults, getting to know the people who are now my community. Most families in this village do all they can to be self-sustaining. They live in small one- to three-room houses, usually with dirt floors.

And since school was out of session until February, I played a lot of soccer and cards with the kids. One of my biggest shocks in those first weeks was the collective blank stare I would get when I would ask them, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Often, they'd ask me to repeat the question. Most of them would eventually say being a farmer, getting married, and starting a family was what they imagined. Getting married and looking for work usually starts at age fifteen, just when they would otherwise be in high school.

I wanted to start some art classes and basic environmental education in town, but when I asked about working in the high school, I quickly realized why the kids couldn't answer my question. They told me the closest high school was a 10-kilometer bus ride costing the equivalent of fifty cents each way. They said almost no students continued to study past sixth grade because they could not afford the costs of the bus, food, matriculation, uniforms, and the like. I worked out the cost for one year of school, and it came to around $100 per student. It immediately sparked my imagination about how I might add to my Peace Corps experience and, more importantly, make a lasting difference in Santa Teresa.

I talked it over with another volunteer who had lived in the village before me, and we had an idea. Why not look for donors in the US and elsewhere to "adopt" a local student for their five years of high school? We decided to create a scholarship project. The donor would pay $100 for each of five years and would exchange letters throughout the experience with their student, creating a vivid cultural link as well as a once-impossible opportunity to deserving children who just want to be able to look for a job once they've graduated, read and write well, and possibly make enough money to help their families.

The Santa Teresa scholarship program has grown immensely from our first year, when we received 30 applications from local children, to this year's 75. As a condition of the scholarship, the awardees are obligated to do 10 hours of community service each semester, in order to improve the lives of others through everything from reforestation to tutoring. I'm so proud of the positive effects I've seen firsthand that our little project has had in Nicaragua.

It's also made a difference for the scholarship donors, as well. I returned home to Seattle this year over the holidays to visit my family and friends. I had the opportunity to talk with many of the people who began donating last year and felt a thrilling sense of accomplishment after hearing how excited they were when they received letters and photos from students they were supporting. Many donors admitted that before they got involved with the project, they had no idea what people in Nicaragua were like -- their food, homes, landscape, economic situation. They loved that this project had provided them with an opportunity to see far beyond their own backyards.

Since returning to Santa Teresa for my second year of Peace Corps service, the new school year has begun, and I am now seeing the sadness of those who were not selected for scholarships. I am now determined to figure out how I can bring the high school teachers to the community of Santa Teresa. Why not give an opportunity to all the students instead of a lucky handful?

I feel I was put here in Santa Teresa for a reason, and I think I have found it. Nicaragua is a culture of unconditional love, with warm-hearted, humble people who have opened their homes and hearts to me, fed me, and comforted me. I feel happy I have had a chance to give something back to them.

:: Jessica Neff
Santa Teresa, Nicaragua

Jessica was born and raised in Seattle. As for the future after the Peace Corps, she is waiting for the fates to decide.

(Thoughts on Jessica's GoodLetter? Inspired by what you've read? E-mail us -- don't forget to tell us your name, where you're from, and if we can use your words in a future GoodLetter or on our Web site.)

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When have you gone the extra mile to do something more than was expected of you, or that even you expected of yourself? Share your stories and ideas.

Learn more about Santa Teresa, Nicaragua
:: Lonely Planet

Learn more about Jessica Neff's Peace Corps experience in Santa Teresa
:: Soil Soup
:: Peace Corps

Interested in innovative ways to educate children? Explore these Web sites:
:: Jumpstart
:: Essential Schools
:: Generations Incorporated

Interested in efforts to implement sustainable agricultural production to Nicaragua and other parts of the world?
:: Future Harvest
:: Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Islands Association
:: International cooperatives

:: Interested in finding out how you can support Jessica Neff's Santa Teresa, Nicaragua scholarship program? Send an e-mail request to us with "Santa Teresa" in the subject line and a brief message describing your interest. We'll help you get involved!

Readers Respond

Dear GoodThings,

I loved the letter. I have been looking for your type of site for along time. Thanks to CNN's note on your location, I have found what I have been looking for. As for Jessica's letter, it brought back memories of the two years I spent doing similar work in a remote Alaska village called Hoonah. I was even shipwrecked. Life sure brings wonderful challenges and experiences. Thanks for your site.

Charles Alvarez

Dear GoodThings,

It is so refreshing to know about Jessica's work with the Peace Corps. She could be doing otherwise with all her talents but she chose to be live a humble life among the needy. It is certainly an example for the youth. If we could have more people like her involved in doing good for others, this would be a better world.

Sonia Lugo
Puerto Rico

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