Dona Hana is six feet two, a striking woman, always perfectly dressed. Her makeup is permanently etched on her face, like a tattoo, because, as she explained to me, “I’m a busy woman and I can’t run around this hot country looking bad.” Dona Hana runs a very successful bakery in Juigulpa, Nicaragua. But she is also the energy behind the Juigulpa hogares for abandoned Nicaraguan elders.

We spent two days at Juigulpa on our recent trip. We poured new sidewalks, cleaned and painted the dining room (which is right next to the kitchen, where they cook on open wood fires), cleaned and painted the new administration office, reorganized the “pharmacy,” and then, exhausted, stinky and sweaty, held a fiesta for the elders with every Nicaraguan’s very favorite thing – a piñata. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a wheelchair-bound 80-year-old woman swinging with all her might at a piñata. And when the bottom comes out and the candy falls, everyone dives for it, wheelchairs and all.

On our first day at Juigulpa, Dona Hana told us how the center was begun by a Catholic priest who has since passed and how she and a group of local women were determined to keep his work, and the center, going. Indeed, they have.

Dona Hana is one of those people you meet once in a lifetime and know you’ll never forget. She is lovely, kind and tough as nails. When families abandon their elders at her doorstep, she takes them in. But she’s been known to show up at the family’s home, all six feet two of her, perfectly coiffed, and say, “You left your mother, and I took her in, and I need 30 dollars for medicine, NOW!” And she gets it.

On our first day, our team went to the local hardware store to buy cement mix, paint, brushes, and other stuff. By the time we arrived, Dona had already called the store and given them a list of items she needed, NOW, and cheap. The items were ready when we walked in the door.

Dona also came to help us, bringing a gorgeous cake from her bakery for the elders’ fiesta. Then she told us about 10 cows and a bull — how the center started with one cow and a bull, and through her sheer determination and strength of will, the herd had grown to 43 cows and a bull. The herd helps support the center and provides milk and food for the elders. I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing that bull took one look at Dona Hana and decided he’d better do what bulls do with cows – and OFTEN!

You often hear of the poverty of Nicaragua—one of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. And you hear of the political corruption, and the wars, the Contras and Sandinistas. But what you don’t hear about is the Dona Hanas. The lovely, warm and happy people of this forgotten country who do what they can out of the sheer will to survive and improve the country of which they are so proud.

So, Dona Hana, thank you for reminding me in my totally luxurious, often selfish life, of a lesson I needed to relearn – ten cows and a bull, and an absolute determination to make this world a better place. Adios mi amiga.

Editor’s Note: The JFR Foundation works to improve the lives of elders worldwide by creating replicable models of housing and services assistance at the local level. Sustainability is also a key goal of every project. The Jinotope hogares, with a grant from the Foundation and assistance from Wake Forest University, is launching a pharmacy to be run from the Center which will provide medications to the local community at deeply discounted prices and help offset the Center’s monthly operating expenses. The Hogare at Boaco is supported in part by a chicken farm coop supported by the Foundation. On our recent trip, we also completed a model “bottle house” made of recycled plastic bottles and trash for a senior who was living in a “hut” made of black trash tarpaulins. The Foundation is now bringing the lessons learned in Nicaragua back home to America and has launched an initiative to work with local communities in West Virginia.

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