|By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, May 20, 2003 - 5:52 pm: Edit Post|
Heather Gardner teaches health education in Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua
Heather Gardner teaches health education in Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua
A Helping Hand
Cupertino resident teaches health education in Nicaragua
By Julie Wang
Sitting in the sunlit, cozy, blue and white kitchen of her parents' home in Cupertino, Heather Gardner smiles thoughtfully as she þips through her photo album packed with pictures of children, friends and landmarks from Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua.
Gardner, who returned last week from a two-year volunteer program with the United States Peace Corps, reminisces fondly on her time spent in the Latin American country. The Peace Corps is an organization that sends volunteers to fight against hunger, disease, poverty and lack of opportunity in developing countries.
"I won't claim that I understand the country perfectly, but I've been blessed with seeing how it works and realized how blessed we are here [in the United States]," Gardner says.
Boca de Sabalos, Gardner's assigned station, is a small rural town in southern Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border. Although this small town did not lack civilized comforts such as running water, it was still relatively undeveloped in comparison with modern cities like Managua.
"There is such a discrepancy between countryside life and going into Managua for a nice dinner," she says.
A graduate of Cupertino High School and UC-Santa Cruz, Gardner entered the country with little more than a few years of college-level Spanish, three months of Peace Corps training and a fascination with Latin America.
"The most challenging thing was finding a role for myself in the new community," she says. "The Peace Corps doesn't tell you exactly what to do with the site after training."
Living off a monthly stipend provided by the Peace Corps, Gardner set out to define her role in the southern Nicaraguan countryside. Known to Boca de Sabalos' citizens as "Anna"--her middle name--Gardner befriended many of the children and adults in the community.
"I really enjoyed the kids," she says. "They used to scream 'Anna' whenever they saw me, and would run to give me a big hug. That just made my day."
"Anna" soon assimilated into her host family and the Nicaraguan culture--waking with the locals around 6 a.m. and going for an hour-long jog in the countryside every morning. After her morning workouts, she constructed a list of to-dos for the day during breakfasts consisting of a hot tortilla and fruit.
"I operated as a person without a manager," Gardner explains. "So to provide my day with some structure I would make a list."
As a Peace Corps volunteer in health education, she worked closely with two other American volunteers and a Nicaraguan doctor to teach children basic health at two rural elementary schools. Gardner visited the local health center daily, preparing health talks in the morning and giving presentations in two classes later in the afternoon.
"It wasn't boring," Gardner says. "Peace Corps advocates a methodology that's participative, especially with children."
Heather Gardner is taken on a tour of the San Juan River along the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica in February 1998 during her parents' visit.
Through singing and other hands-on activities, the children learned about hygiene and personal health subjects such as diarrhea.
"I wanted to have the chance to not be just a tourist passing through and to see the day-to-day life," Gardner says. "I believed I had some type of skill I could offer to a community in Nicaragua."
Adhering to this belief, Gardner collaborated with other volunteers to co-author a book on health dedicated to the teachers and students where she taught.
"We came, tried to be a model and tried to incorporate some aspect of sustainability," Gardner explains.
However, her success with the health education project came only after overcoming the initial challenges of settling into a foreign community.
"The infrastructure isn't in as good condition, so it's harder to communicate," she says. "Little everyday things involve more work."
Nevertheless, Gardner adjusted well--socializing with the locals after work, strolling around, practicing her Spanish. The time spent mingling with the community provided her with insight into human relations and developed within her an empathy for immigrants, Gardner says.
"I feel that I have a better understanding of what it's like to be an immigrant in this country, and how important language is to assimilate into a culture," she says. "When you live in a small town, people make things up about you. You really need to be on your best behavior."
In addition, Gardner says, the customs and culture of Nicaragua took some getting used to as well.
"People in Nicaragua don't hesitate to compare you to others, but you just have to realize that every country has a different set of cultural values and rules for courtesy," she says
Despite the distinct differences, the American-born twentysomething still enjoyed living in the serene, natural environment of the Latin American countryside.
"Where I lived was beautiful," Gardner says. "There were beautiful green trees and a biological reserve, and once a month, I would take a boat into Managua on the river to check in with the Peace Corps office there."
The Peace Corps, established in 1961, sponsors programs in education, environmental conservation, business and community development, agriculture, forestry and health in more than 77 countries.
Volunteers like Gardner apply through regional offices nationwide, indicating their preferred global regions and desired program areas. Recruiters select from a wide array of applicants who meet the basic requirements of being at least 18 years of age, in good general health and willing to live abroad for two years.
Since its inception 38 years ago, the Peace Corps has made considerable achievements in many of its project areas. "We're still doing many of the same things in the same countries," says Heidi Thoren, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Peace Corps office.
Belkis and Yulissa, two children of Boca de Sabalos, Nicaragua, are just two of the kids Gardner befriended. People of the village know her as 'Anna,' her middle name.
The valuable work of volunteers like Gardner has enabled the Peace Corps to pull out of countries that no longer need its help. "We also graduated out of Fiji last year," Thoren says. "When the government of a country no longer needs your help, that is a great indicator of success."
For Gardner, her two years abroad have left indications of her own successes. She's walked away with a number of new friends and left a legacy of health advice, and the Peace Corps has extended an offer for her to work in Honduras for four months.
Although Gardner says that she may decline this offer, she still plans to be involved with future Peace Corps activities, perhaps working abroad in projects involving Spanish.
Presently, Gardner has her heart set on completing several activities back home, including continuing with outreach in schools and giving educational talks of her experiences. She's also anxious to catch up with friends and eagerly anticipates the time when she will be able to tell them about the two years they were apart.
"I want to share my experience with friends," Gardner says enthusiastically. "I want to show slides and create space to talk about my experiences."
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|By Anonymous (251.150-183-adsl-pool.axelero.hu - 184.108.40.206) on Tuesday, July 19, 2005 - 8:30 am: Edit Post|
Heather Gardner's story from Boca de Sabalos is very nice and touching, it justs misses to explain the historical, political and social background of the community. Just ten years before she went to Nicaragua, it was a war-torn country thanks to the US-government supported military intervention of the bandits called "contras". As the contras attacked the civil population from Costa Rica also, Boca de Sabalos was in the frontline. The infrastructure is in the state Heather describes it, because the Reagan administration paid the contras to destroy it. The health station she mentions in the village was built by the revolutionary Sandinista government with the help of a Swiss solidarity brigade. There is a small ship-factory in the village built by an international voluntary group organised by the German SCI-branch (with the financial help of the European Community). The wood-factory of the village was run by an Austrian solidarity organisation in the '80s. I think, it is important, that a US-citizen volunteering in Boca de Sabalos knows and reports about the implications of US-imperialism on the given community.
A former volunteer of the International Brigade of SCI