On February 10th, 2018 Random Acts will hold their Grand Opening for the recently completed addition to the Free High School in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.
The school serves as a high school for adults and a technical school. Students who attend can earn their diploma as well as associates degrees in the following areas: tourism, construction, accounting and business administration. The school opened in 2002 as a non-profit to help benefit the community, and when it opened it was based out of a small elementary school classroom having a graduating class of only 12 students. Since then, with some help from Random Acts, the school has been able to grow to see a graduating class of 683 in 2014.
Throughout the years the school has served people in the community, mainly women, who wouldn’t have been able to attend a standard high school otherwise. Most of the people who attend are pregnant women, people with children, people over 18, people who work during the week, the disabled, and rural farmers. The school meets on the weekends which gives members the flexibility to attend school instead of having to make a choice between getting an education or not.
When Random Acts first got involved with this project, it was to purchase a bus back in 2013 to further help people of the community attend this school. Before the gain of this bus to the school, some students would have to walk up to 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) in the rain and through rushing rivers.
After that first assistance from Random Acts, the idea was developed to add an addition to the Free High School to expand their space. This high school now boasts not only more classrooms, but sustainability for the long term to help keep this school operational without much expense.
One of the key factors of this school is that it is entrenched in the community, making sure that everyone is on the same page every step of the way. Think of it as installing a well in a town without water. The town now has a tool to get water but doesn’t know how to use it. Without people being taught how to use the well to get the water, they will still be left without water. This school does just that! It helps educate people while teaching them how to educate others to continue to help this community thrive and break the poverty cycle.
Not only has this school had a significant impact on the community it is in, but the volunteers who have raised money and given their time to assist with this project have had their lives changed as well. We asked a few of the people, Rea Niessen, Taylor Hardman, and Deidre Slingerland, who have been a part of this project to let us know what it has meant to them. This is what they said:
Nerds & Beyond: How did you first find out about the D2A: Nicaragua Project?
Rea: I have been involved with Random Acts, the non-profit organization behind the project since 2011. The first big destination project Random Acts started in 2011 was building an orphanage in Haiti. I remember how I saw a tweet with a video late at night sharing information about the situation down in Haiti and asking people to help in fundraising for an orphanage with the prospect to join a trip down there in the coming summer. I thought back then that being a part of something like this, traveling into such a poor country and helping with my own hands would be something I should do at least one time in my life. As we see now, I was not done with just one time. After going over in 2011, feeling activated and motivated in seeing what an actual wonderful difference we make, it was no longer a question of if I would go on the next trip, but when. As the Haiti project came to an end and we had opened the wonderful safe home for sweet kids, I wished to be more involved with Random Acts. Back then in 2013 I started to volunteer as Regional Representative in Germany in the organization and as the Nicaragua project became real I knew that I wished to be involved again.
Taylor: I actually met many of the girls who volunteered with the Hope to Haiti project through teaming up to do a random act of kindness for a mutual friend. Afterwards we became quite close. When Random Acts announced that Nicaragua would be the next destination project in early 2015, we immediately jumped on the opportunity to begin fundraising together. It’s a great experience to fundraise with friends. For one, it’s fantastic moral support – fundraising $5,000, the requisite amount to earn a spot on the trip, is not easy, and it’s great to have people encouraging you along the way. It’s also friendly competition to keep you motivated!
Deidre: I was a volunteer on Random Acts’ 2013 trip to Jacmel, Haiti. This was also a three-year project, and I was only present for the third year. I’ll never forget the faces of the people that had been there previously when they laid eyes on the completed Jacmel Children’s Center, after having not seen it for a year or more. I knew that whatever that feeling was, I wanted it. I wanted to know what it truly meant to be a part of something
bigger than myself. I vowed in that moment that whatever, whenever, and wherever the next project would be, I would be in it from the beginning.
Have you assisted with this specific project before?
Rea: Yes, I have been on all former trips for this project in 2015, 2016, 2017 and I will go back on this upcoming trip. I am very excited about seeing another beautiful vision, a dream to help people, become a reality.
Taylor: Yes, I fundraised $5,000 and traveled with Random Acts to Nicaragua in 2015, on the first trip. I was unable to join the second trip for personal reasons, but I still fundraised about $2,500 to help the project. I journeyed back to Nicaragua last February with a small group of past volunteers for the grand opening of the first building. I also fundraised another $5,000 this year to qualify to join the team and will be headed back to Nicaragua for a third time in just a few days.
Deidre: Yes, I have been involved with this project since day one. I successfully raised the $5,000 to qualify for the trip each year, 2015, 2016, & 2017. A group of past volunteers came here in February 2017 for the grand opening of building #1. It was during that trip that things started to shift for me. I had a late-night rooftop discussion with another volunteer–just kind of talking crazy–what if we came back over the summer? On our own terms? For a longer time? And so, we did. I returned to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua in May of 2017 and stayed until mid-July. Then, in September, I made the decision to move here full time and work on the construction site. I now spend 48 hours a week building the campus and was given the opportunity late last school year to begin volunteer teaching there as well.
What about this project made you interested in helping?
Rea: I was interested in joining the moment when I heard about the new project. I learned over my years supporting the Hope to Haiti project that Random Acts does amazing work. I experience with all my heart and soul that we are making an actual wonderful difference in people’s lives! Random Acts is a smaller organization with everyone working as a volunteer, which guarantees that donations go into the wonderful causes and not into a big administration machine. Next to that we work in our projects together with local people who know we bring the best effective help to the areas. Having all this in mind, I wished to jump on board immediately.
Taylor: At the time of the first trip, I was completing my senior year of college. I was at a point in my life where I was well equipped to vouch for the importance of a good education. Hearing the stories of women in Nicaragua who had to leave school to take care of their children, or people who were not able to graduate because they could no longer afford school – they had to go get a job instead – spoke to me very deeply. I wanted to be able to do something to help the people in this community to have the same opportunities
that I had taken for granted growing up – the guarantee to a good education, and family that was able to support me while I graduated high school. The Free High School also shares the campus with the Technical Institute. This means that there’s viable post high school education that’s more easily accessible to people in the area than going to an expensive university in one of the bigger cities. People are able to go to classes on Sundays and earn a certificate in Business Administration, Tourism, Computer Programming, or Accounting to give themselves even more tools to be successful. Education is truly the key to being able to do whatever you dream of with your life, and it was incredibly important to me to try and do whatever I could to help make that more possible for the people in this community.
Diedre: In the beginning, it was about satisfying that need within myself to help with something that actually mattered. Later, it became about the faces and the names that I have come to know like family. Nicaragua is a land of passion. This is a place where people sleep at their jobs because they are so dedicated to the cause. It’s a place where in the middle of a tropical storm, people are out celebrating the fact that they still have life, even when everything they’d ever owned was gone. The people here have nothing, but they still find a way to give you everything. I wanted to help because first, they deserved it, and secondly, I feel a responsibility to the amazing people of Nicaragua. They have changed my life, and it’s only fair that I do the absolute best that I can to lift up theirs as well. Also, as I have gotten very familiar with the particular problems in this region, it has become more and more clear to me that education is the answer. It may be cliché, but it’s true: we must “teach the man how to fish.”
What are your hopes for this school?
Rea: During the trips down there, I met several of the students, some of them became familiar faces, dear people whose stories touched me. I hope that they fill this school with so much love and passion for education as I feel they will do. The best reward for fundraising and volunteering is to see a building you helped turn into reality, get filled with life, with hopes and dreams. The school shall bring education to people who would not have access to it otherwise. Some of them are young moms, I hope this campus will help all the students to start into a better future, not only for them but for their children too.
Taylor: I would love to see the school continue growing to suit the needs of the community. I don’t know what Random Acts’ involvement with the school will be after this trip, if any, but I know that this trip will not be a goodbye to this project for me personally. I want to keep fundraising on a personal level to make sure that they continue to have every opportunity to succeed. When we were there for the opening ceremony, the school was already over capacity in the one building we’d finished. Since then, a second building with more classrooms has been completed, but I know that if the school continues to inspire students to pursue an education, it will keep growing – and I will still be here supporting it.
Diedre: I want to see the school continue to grow, not just in size and numbers but in power. Education has the capability to change this area. There are so many issues here with teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, preventable deaths, people not knowing how to properly care for their pets or livestock, nutrition, and simple hygiene. The key to all of this is education. I want to see the school be the driving force of positive change in this community. It already has made such a lasting impact, from young mothers earning diplomas to citizens returning to school after 20, 30, sometimes 40 years. It speaks to the heart of the local people. They have a drive to succeed, and they are starting to again believe in their ability to do it. My current dream for the school is an on-campus children’s center. As mentioned, a lot of the students are parents. I’ve attended class on many occasions, and frequently, several children are in the classrooms with their parents because they have no other option. I believe if we truly want to help with issues in the third world, we must service both the parents and the children. Breaking cycles of poverty starts young. I would like to see the high school students be able to focus 100% on their studies while their children are being taught how to read, write, use their imaginations, learn colors, etc., in a safe, controlled, on-campus environment with qualified caregivers.
Rea: In helping I get the feeling to make a little bit of sense on this planet while I am here. I think we all should make the world the best we can, for us and for everyone around us. Seeing people get out of their ways trying to make a positive change for somebody else, touches me deeply and warms my heart. I wish to live on my highest potential, helping somebody who is not in such a safe life situation that I am in. It can be so easy for us to make a positive change for somebody not so fortunate and it fills me with happiness when I can be a support on somebody’s way. And working with Random Acts on this project, helping these students a little bit on their way into the future with much more possibilities to live a life they wish for is according to what I love and believe in.
Taylor: This project means many different things to me. I think it represents a bit of hope. Education is truly something that can help change someone’s situation and give them the tools they need to be able to be successful, whatever that success may be- whether that’s starting their own business, or just being able to find a better job to support their family. I feel like education gives people a fighting chance at being able to change their own circumstances. This project also means family to me. The girls that I’ve met through participating in this project are truly my sisters. It’s been truly incredible to see what our camaraderie in fundraising has been able to build. One of my close friends was so moved by the project that she moved to Nicaragua – she works on the school full time. It’s incredible to be a part of a group of people so dedicated to helping others.
Diedre: In a word, everything. This project means everything to me. I gave up my home, my business, my care-free life in the United States because my heart was pulling me here. I can’t describe the feeling that I have each and every day… I GET to do this. I’m honored and humbled to have had life bring me to this wonderful place. I have learned so much from the people of Nicaragua. They never give up. Most of the population of this country lives on less than $1 a day. And yet… they find time, energy, and drive for education. They see a better future for themselves and they are running towards it with everything they’ve got. This project means determination. It means faith. And it means hope. I was given the incredible privilege of handing out the diplomas at the 2017 graduation. The graduates all had grand hopes for the future, and the school has taught them that they can achieve these dreams. That’s irreplaceable. This is more than a project. It’s a bright light in the darkness. And, on a personal note, it’s home.
We would like to give a special thanks to Rachel Miner, Rea Niessen, Taylor Hardman and Diedre Slingerland for taking the time to talk to us about this project. If you would like to learn more about the Free High School, you can visit their website here. For more information on Random Acts and their ongoing projects, visit here. We wish all the best for everyone who has been a part of this wonderful project, and hope that it continues to help the people of San Juan del Sur for many years to come.