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Reflections: The 2011 Experience in Nicaragua
NICARAGUA:

SEPTEMBER 24 to OCTOBER 2

Sight-Seeing.
We began our trip in the country's capital city of Managua.  Our hotel there was a beautiful example of Nicaraguan comfort and hospitality, situated in the city's "new downtown" area.  The locale seemed more like a middle class American neighborhood, with excellent restaurants, embassies and nearby stores.

From Casa Naranja, we journeyed to the Pacific Coast and the beaches at Pochomil; we got an up close look at an active volcano (with sulfuric vapors wafting up!), and we toured the crafts center in the town of Masaya.  We also kicked off our week with the staff of the FSD office at a wonderful dinner in Managua.

Fundacion Fenix
(http://fundacionfenixnicaragua.org/Home_Page.html
).  A long van ride from Managua to the outskirts of Ciudad Sandino brought us to the modest offices of Fundacion Fenix.  There we met Maria Isabel Torres Betanco and Kalra Patricia Medrano Davila, a social worker and psychiatrist, who were trying to secure funding to fight human trafficking in their region.  We were informed that over 100 youngsters disappear each month, succumbing to the prospects of "modeling contracts", cell phones and new clothes.  In an area where most people earn less than $2 a day, these attractions can overwhelm an improverished,  naïve teenager.  Fundacion Fenix had a strong plan to educate over 4,000 children through the schools, with an outreach to the teachers.  They planned to sustain their efforts by increasing their locally grown food programs.  They grow, package and sell food to the local police commissaries to raise funds for their many programs.   Overall, we were very impressed with the knowledge, commitment and passion of Karla and Maria, and Fenix's plans to assist these vulnerable children.

Alternativa (http://alternativanica.org/ingles/mission.html). From Ciudad Sandino, we made our way East to the town of Masaya.  We visited the bustling fruit and vegetable market (Masaya Mercado) where we saw the beneficiaries of our next philanthropy:  women who need financing for their small family businesses.  These women have been the victims of loan sharks charging outrageous fees and interest charges amounting to 20% per day.  Alternativa's mission is to build an urban culture that encourages citizens to work as entrepreneurs, helping them to improve their resources and skill sets to improve their economic situation.  Through Alternativa's microcredit program, these women fruit and vegetable vendors could obtain legitimate financing (at a rate of about 2% per month).  In addition, Alternativa partnered with a women's empowerment organization - IXCHEN - to provide the borrowers with a series of required educational sessions and free medical exams.  Medical services are extremely important to these women - since Masaya is a poor area where medical help is too expensive or simply not available.  We discussed the elements of this program with the founder of Alternativa, Don Leonardo Martinez.  He has helped thousands of people obtain credit, and has a multitude of programs he has initiated and supervises.  The efficiency and drive of the people in Alternativa are very impressive, and their programs make it possible for the local community to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

More Sightseeing
.  Following our time in Masaya, we toured the town of Granada, on the shores of
Lake NicaraguaGranada has a sizeable number of American and European ex-pats, with nice restaurants and hotels to serve them.  We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel owned by a German couple.  While less than $100 a night, it was very luxurious, and yet retained a comfortable,  homey feeling.

We then made our way to an ecolodge on one of the isletas (islands) on Lake Nicaragua.  The lake is huge (about 16 times the surface area of Lake Tahoe) and is dotted with small islands formed when nearby
Mombacho Volcano exploded 10,000 years ago.  On one of the isletas is Jicaro Ecolodge; a true-to-life Fantasy Island.  The staff there was amazing, anticipating every need (like I need a coffee milkshake at 4:00 in the afternoon…but what an unexpected treat).  Like other Nicaraguans we met, they were very friendly.  Our lodging was a marvelous combination of local woods and modern architecture - each visiting party had its own "casita" and there were just 9 of them on the island.  We took jungle tours and kayaked to nearby islands.  It was a great way to wind up our time in Nicaragua.

Giving Circle Deliberations
. We decided to fund both projects, Fundacion Fenix and Alternativa.  Both had excellent proposals and the resources to accomplish a great deal on a limited budget.  We look forward to the progress reports.

Our third annual trip took us to Central America, where we explored the beautiful tropical country of Nicaragua.  Once again, we partnered with the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), and leveraged the connections of their primary office in Ciudad Sandino.  We visited two non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Fundacion Fenix and Alternativa.  FSD partners with more than 300 community-based organizations on three continents to build networks and collaborate on community-driven approaches to development issues.  The NGOs we visited support a variety of community initiatives ranging from education to women's empowerment to ecology.