Volunteers return from Amherst’s sister town in Nicaragua
AMHERST — Damaged and falling ceiling tiles and paint chipping from the walls at the library in Amherst’s Nicaraguan sister city have made it a less than ideal place to study.
But two days of work by visitors from the Amherst area repaired the tiles and gave a fresh coat of paint to the walls, including a mural designed to look like a tree, with its leaves formed by green handprints from the sister-city contingent.
For one week every other year, students and adults travel to La Paz Centro with an aim to improve the lives of those living there and to continue strengthening the ties between the communities.
This year 21 people, including nine teenagers, brought school supplies for four preschools, medical supplies to be used at a health clinic, and sewing machines and cloth, and continued an ongoing project by planting 300 fruit trees.
Liz Etheridge of Leverett, a trip leader, recently returned from La Paz Centro with her husband, Steven Fleiner, and daughter Molly Fleiner-Etheridge, an Amherst Regional High School senior.
Etheridge said the experience is different from other volunteer opportunities because the community has built a long-term relationship that includes ongoing scholarships for some of the students in La Paz Centro.
“It proves to be a very productive time as well as a strong and ongoing relationship builder with this community in Nicaragua,” Etheridge said. “A great number of us return from time to time.”
The relationship was formalized by Town Meeting action in 1987, with those endorsing it initially as a means of expressing their opposition to the U.S. government’s support for the Contra rebels.
It started off by raising money to send supplies there, but beginning in 2001 Amherst started sending a delegation to Central America. Since then, numerous people have gone on the every-other-year trips, with some participating multiple times and others venturing on their own.
When the Americans get there, they stay with families in what is known as the Felipe Lopez barrio of the city. Each of the 21 Americans lives with a different host family, with varying degrees of rustic living. Some homes have kitchens and bathrooms outside, and most have dirt floors.
“People call it one step up from camping,” Etheridge said.
One of the primary efforts over the years has been to assist students to get a better education. This year, 26 teenagers have their tuition and books supported through the committee, Etheridge said.
Fundraisers are done throughout the year, including bake sales at Town Meeting, a craft sale on the Town Common and the sale of Christmas wreaths.
The medical clinic is led each year by Charles Milch of Pelham. This year, 70 patients received a range of medicine, antibiotics, splints and bandages. The clinic is held in a community center that was built by the Amherst contingent during a previous visit. This year reading glasses were also handed out to people in the community.
Another focus has been on planting trees in the hard soil, which is more suitable for the making of bricks, which has led to the deforestation. The tree planters fill the holes with compost to ensure that the trees, including citrus, plantain, bananas and avocados, thrive.
Etheridge said she learned about the sister-city relationship through the First Congregational Church of Amherst, which has been a strong supporter of the relationship.
Larry Siddall of Amherst has visited La Paz Centro in the past.
“Amherst can feel real good about what goes on and what the committee has done over the years,” he said.
This year, the group also brought two sewing machines and cloth material to create reusable bags that they hope the people will use in place of plastic bags. Before the Amherst group even left, 40 women in the village had made 100 bags.
The trip also features a number of excursions out of the barrio, including visits to the beach, a lagoon and local markets, usually with the scholarship children.
Etheridge said the cost of the trip, after raising money, is less than $700 per person.
She is preparing photo albums that will be sent to Nicaragua so the people can relive the experience.
“They love us so much that everyone’s crying at the final goodbye,” Etheridge said.