Everybody asks me, “How’d you get involved with the Nicaragua project?” So here’s the answer. In 2006, right after I returned to North Carolina and to work after a long illness, I got a surprise phone call. My friend and former client, Keren Brown Wilson, founder of the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation in Oregon, called me at work and said, “I need you in Nicaragua in one month.” I objected hard. But she said, “I need you, and you need this. I know you. You’ll drown yourself in work again, and you need something equally important to do.” Four weeks later, I was in a place called Jinotepe, Nicaragua, a place I’d never heard of. The rest, as they say, is history.
On Monday, January 31, 2011, I arrived at the North Carolina Healthcare Facilities Association annual convention, exhausted from my third trip to Nicaragua; suffering from the flu; with almost total laryngitis; and, frankly, just a little “flat.” My dear friend, Carron Suddreth of Wilkes Senior Village, grabbed me and said, “Come on, I’m buying you a drink and I want to hear all about this Nicaragua project of yours.”
So I told her. I told her, as I just told you, how I got involved. I told her about my trip in 2007, when I saw Nicaraguan elders sleeping in the halls of the Jinotepe “hogares de ancionas,” or “home of the ancients.” I told her how they ate infrequently, how the roof was unattached, how goats and chickens roamed the courtyard, how these old folks were dropped off by family and left, and how enormous their basic needs were. I told her how our law firm sponsored a fund-raiser in 2007 and raised enough money to begin construction on renovations and an enlargement of the Jinotepe center. I told her how, in 2008, Su James helped me find Max Kernodle and the staff of Hawfields, who donated enough used therapy equipment, walkers and wheelchairs for every resident to have ambulation assistance. I told her about the 400 diabetes testing meters, lancets and strips that Gerald Cox, Autumn Care and Wincare sent to Nicaragua in 2008 for the country’s first health testing fair – that Gerald and Dave Whitley insisted on paying.
I told her how I went back to Jinotepe in 2009 and saw the completed Jinotepe addition, and the elders coming to a dedication celebration in North Carolina wheelchairs and walkers, all with their own rooms, food and a trained staff of caregivers, AND a doctor the Foundation hired. And I told her the Foundation now supports not just Jinotepe, but five other senior centers in Nicaragua, all with equally dire needs.
Carron, all five foot two of her, looked me in the eye and said “I want to help. What do you need?” It was less a request than a demand. “Well,” I said, “while we’re still working hard to meet the basic housing and medical needs of the Nicaraguan elders, what I noticed most on this trip in all four centers is that the elders have nothing to do. They just sit all day, every day.”
“Here’s what we’ll do,” she said. “I’m telling my activities directors to begin a program in which our residents and staff will make monthly activities care packages for the Nicaraguan elders and then, we’ll send them down there. Then we need to put together a team of trained activities directors and go down there and teach the local center staff about activities.”
“Now,” she said, “what else do you need?” “Well,” I said, almost embarrassed to ask, “We need 160 mattress covers.”
“Come on,” Carron said as she dragged me to a table of vendors. Fifteen minutes later, she had two vendors in a bidding war to see who could find the best mattress covers at the lowest price. This went on all night, and then by email for another 10 days. When she found the mattress covers, she insisted on paying for all of them. Carron will shoot me for telling this story. She’s a modest woman with an enormous heart, just like all the other long term care providers in this state who have helped us over the past four years, along with my clients, friends, work colleagues and family. I tell this story not to brag about myself, my family or my law firm, but about all of you for taking these people who have so little into your hearts.
Carron’s passion for this work has reinspired me and the Foundation. My dream now is to take a team of North Carolina long term care professionals – social workers; activities directors; nurses and doctors, folks like me, with no apparent skills; and my little angel Carron to Nicaragua later this year to help the elders. Over the past four years, many of you have asked me about putting together such a team. Well, we’re going to do it. If you want to come along, please let me know.
We’re also starting the first “Friends of the Hogares” right here in North Carolina to develop local projects to help the Nicaraguan elders. The JFR Foundation wants us to succeed and then replicate this around the country. There’s so much we can do with items that, frankly, we throw away, and with our time and a few dollars. If you’re interested in joining us – as an individual, church group, civic group, or a long term care facility – let me know. We’d love to have you.
I remember asking Keren Wilson of JFR on our first trip to Nicaragua, “With all the needs of this world, and even our own country, why Nicaragua? Why did you choose to help these people?” I’ll never forget her answer, and I’ve tried to live by it ever since – “Because I can,” she said, “because I can.”
You may not be interested in Nicaragua, the country. And that’s perfectly fine. But, in my humble opinion, everyone needs a Nicaragua. Maybe yours is in Asheville, or Raleigh, or Sharpsburg, or wherever you live. But it’s there, somewhere, waiting for you. I’m now 53 years old and have been blessed with many joys in my life, but none greater than the few small things I’ve tried to help do in a country far, far away. To see the joy in the face of an elder you just helped have a meal and a human touch, well, it reminds me of the scripture, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I hope you’ll find your Nicaragua and give it all you have to give.
If you need a reason to give of yourself in your busy, crazy, hectic life, just tell yourself what Keren Wilson told me – because I can.