Viewpoints

How a gift given can also be a gift received

The Rev. Jean Shaw, left, with students at a Nicaraguan school visited recently by Sacramento volunteers.
The Rev. Jean Shaw, left, with students at a Nicaraguan school visited recently by Sacramento volunteers. Eventide Community and Disaster Response Ministries

Recently, a walk past two schools in my Sacramento neighborhood left me reflecting on a volunteer mission our church ministry conducted this year.

For two years in a row, the Sacramento Presbytery has sent a delegation to the city of León, Nicaragua, to help out at a network of schools, founded by the Protestant church during Nicaragua’s civil war, called the Instito CEPAD.

The school where we volunteered serves elementary through high school students and enjoys the reputation of having some of the country’s highest test scores.

Parents pay about $34 a year for their children to attend – not much by California standards. But considering that the average monthly income of a Nicaraguan is $40 a month, the tuition speaks volumes about the dreams parents have for their children’s educations everywhere.

The school subsists on tuition alone. Teachers make less than $200 a month, and most work a second job. The walls are marked by years of wear.

When we arrived, the assembly hall featured an exposed drainage pipe covered with an old wooden desktop. There were no fans in the upstairs classrooms during 91-degree weather, and the school supply cupboard would barely fill a shoebox.

The young people in our group painted the front offices and three bathrooms and gave a fresh coat of Kelly green paint to the front of the school. They painted the school sign and the auditorium.

They also volunteered in classrooms, teaching students English and, in return, learning Spanish. Smiles and laughter needed no translation. As a gift, we brought school supplies and backpacks collected from home.

A week later, adult volunteers arrived to painting the two-story assembly hall and the principal’s office, and to wire two electrical fans in a country that has no standard for color coding of wires. Ninety seconds before we had to leave, the switch was thrown and the fans started turning. Cool air for the students for the first time.

The school subsists on tuition alone. Teachers make less than $200 a month, and most work a second job.

One of our woodworkers hand-cut a square cover for the drainpipe hole and whitewashed it, so that it would have a safe and attractive cover. The school was, of course, grateful. We all prayed together in English and Spanish, and at a school assembly, students sang the Nicaraguan national anthem and recited poems by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario.

But it was a gift to us, too, to make a difference in a place so truly in need.

After coming home from León, as I strolled near my house on a lovely spring day here, I was struck, both by the similarities that unite that America and this one, and by the contrast in advantages.

I wondered if the students in my neighborhood could ever know how fortunate they are to have the resources that they have in their classrooms, in their schools – and in their lives.

The Rev. Jean Shaw is a Presbyterian minister at Eventide Community and Disaster Response Ministries in Sacramento. She can be contacted at revjeanshaw@yahoo.com.

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