Our goal: Initiate the first-ever activities program for abandoned elders in Nicaragua.

Our plan: Run a competition in Shorts to find the three best activities professionals in NC. Give them four weeks to plan a national program over the phone. Pay for them to spend seven days in Nicaragua and work them to the bone.

Our challenge: These ladies had never been to Nicaragua, knew virtually nothing about it, didn’t know each other, and frankly, didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. But, thank goodness, they didn’t care. They knew there was a need in someplace far away and believed they could help.
Our outcome: We did it. With financial support from Carron Suddreth of Wilkes Senior Village, Liberty Healthcare, Avante, Lutheran Services for Aging, Autumn Corporation, White Oak Manor Corporation, Kim and Jim Schmidlin, Grove Medical Supply, BB&T, Wincare Corporation, Cheryl Clapp and Denise Coleman, Brian Center of Eden, Lakeside Baptist Church of Rocky Mount, and dozens of other sponsors from around NC, we took three activities directors, a registered nurse (Angie Bunton from Wilkes Senior Village), Carron, and me, along with 18 bags of supplies, to Nicaragua. We traveled hundreds of miles in an uncomfortable minivan to five cities and seven training sites in seven days, trained over 200 people (residents, community volunteers, professors, and government officials) on the importance of activities for elders, and gave them skills and supplies to start their own programs.

Our Story: Sometimes it’s good not to overthink an issue. I know that now that I’m back from my fifth trip to Nicaragua. But on January 11, 2012, when our activities team landed in Managua, Nicaragua, it finally hit me.

“This,” I thought, “is the dumbest, craziest thing I’ve ever done. What have I done?” I’ve asked my friend, Carron Suddreth, to spend thousands of dollars to help me bring three activities directors to Nicaragua, along with her RN (and my beloved pal), Angie Bunton, and to spend seven days with me in hot, rugged Nicaragua to plant the seeds of an activities program for an entire nation of abandoned and poor elders who barely have enough to eat and often lack the most basic medical care. But there they were — Carron, Angie, Brenda Zimmerman from Lutheran Home of Salisbury, Jamie Phillips from
Avante of Wilkesboro, and Erica Johnson from Liberty of Wilmington — bearing bags of supplies from all over NC, weary from travel but bursting with excitement, and all looking at me and Carron with eyes that said, “OK, we’re here, now what?”

In that moment, I was struck with sheer terror. What if this fails? What if someone gets lost or sick? What if Nicaraguan elders don’t care about activities? What if this dream of mine and Carron’s really is one of those “wild, harebrained schemes?” What if, what if, what if?

Well, I was wrong to worry. We actually did it. Every place we trained, we had double the crowd we expected. Everyone loved activities and wanted more. Our team of activities professionals turned out to be three of the most creative, talented, delightful, and loving women imaginable. Having picked them from a competition, for which their employers, colleagues, and, in one case, competitors nominated them, not knowing any of them or them not knowing me or Carron; having never met each other until they hit the Raleigh airport, I must say if I had to hand-pick three activities professionals after months of study, I’d have picked these three.

Looking back now, I realize that these ladies did an amazing thing. They conquered the hearts of an entire nation of elders and those who care about elders. They taught me SO many lessons. They showed us all how to do more with less, in a country that only knows “less.” They breathed enthusiasm, possibility, and hope. They told me over and over to “just calm down.” They laughed at my impatience and made me laugh at myself in the process. In short, they embodied the best of long term care here in NC and they shared it in a country far away, and in doing that, made believers out of all of us who already believed that old age can be the best age and that minds need love and nurture, just like bodies need medicine.

You’ll have to forgive me for my Hallmark moment here. But I’ve just come back from one of the greatest experiences of my life — one that will mark me forever. I also need to thank the many sponsors from NC that have supported our work in Nicaragua for the last five years, many of whom are named in this article. I must especially thank my friend, Carron Suddreth, owner and operator of Wilkes Senior Village in North Wilkesboro, who heard me talk about my work in Nicaragua in 2011 at the NC Healthcare Facilities Association and immediately said, “I want to help.”

It was Carron’s vision and endless energy that made my fantasy of an activities program for Nicaraguan elders a reality. She has tirelessly borrowed from, asked, and begged of her fellow providers, vendors, banks, insurance companies, and friends for money and supplies for Nicaraguan elders. When we were in Nicaragua, Carron worked like a fiend. No task was too small or too big. Any task we asked our team to do, Carron did first. With Carron’s leadership, we took to Nicaragua 18 bags of activities supplies, a new TV, and Wii console for the elders, and over $90,000 to fund the renovation of one of the hogares de anciones (homes for the elders) in Jinotepe, Nicaragua.

On behalf of our NC volunteers, the elders of Nicaragua, and myself, let me say thank you to every one of you who offered us supplies, mattresses, mattress covers, pillows, baseball caps, activities supplies, money, and prayers.

I once read that of all the things that are cherished, none can surpass the memory of a love between the needy and the fulfiller. Each gift you have given, each dollar you have donated, and each good wish you have offered has changed the lives of Nicaraguan elders who must have wondered, as their families dropped them off alone on a mountain or a dark, hillside street, “Does anyone care about me?” Now they know that we do.

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