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Barrio Planta Project

By Marcela Berrios, Photography: Jonathan Jackson

“Look at me! Look at me,” Israel yells in English to his teacher, as the 11-year-old stands up on a surfboard at Playa Maderas. His teacher, Emily Colder, a staff member of San Juan del Sur’s Barrio la Planta School, congratulates him as he rides the wave onto shore. About 50 of the school’s almost 200 students are spending a special Sunday at the beach learning to surf as part of a fieldtrip for perfect attendance.

The Barrio la Planta Project is named after the La Planta neighborhood, an overlooked community in the beach town of San Juan del Sur, where close to 3000 people reside. The families live like many in an economically underdeveloped country. Poverty, violence, malnutrition and illiteracy are some of the issues they must deal with day to day. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 79.9% of the population in Nicaragua lives with less than $2 per day. Barrio la Planta falls into that category. Many families live in small one-room shacks that hold six or more people. Dirt floors and no water for most of the day are the norm. Many of the men work as fishermen but only get to make about one fishing trip a month, leaving them searching for jobs most of the year. With the boom of tourism in San Juan del Sur, many opportunities for work have been hidden away from the people of La Planta. The Barrio la Planta Project is helping to change that. But to truly understand the rise of this project you must understand the story of its founder, Dyani Makous, 26.

Dyani has an adventurous soul that fills her with the desire to do new things. An education activist from the start, she joined the Philadelphia Student Union in her hometown of Philadelphia. For six years she stood up for higher education opportunities for low-income students. After graduating from the University of Emerson she joined Citizen Schools, a program for enhancing the academic development of middle school students, where she was their team leader for several years.

In 2008, Dyani packed her bags and headed to Nicaragua. She had landed a job that any adventurous lit major would want. She was going to be writing for a travel guide for a few months while traveling through Nicaragua. When she arrived in San Juan del Sur, the warm smiles, beautiful Pacific waters and the humble, passionate culture won her over. Living on the travel guide’s salary became a waste of her time, as she found herself broke, spending more than she made just visiting the places she was supposed to be writing about. By December she was living in La Planta, were she roomed with a local family. At Martha Lisa and Juan Carlo’s home Dyani says she felt like part of the family, sharing meals, birthdays and afternoon chats about life. She was part of a community where sharing was a valued commodity amongst neighbors, even if they had little to share. She wanted to give back to the family that took her in when she had nothing. “I felt a strong desire to share something with them,” she remembers. “While I didn’t have any money to give, there was one thing I did have that could benefit them: English.”

What began as a simple idea to teach her new family and neighbors English, soon grew into something much bigger, and almost one year ago, The Barrio la Planta Project became a non-profit organization that not only provides free English education but also art classes, healthy recreational activities and and all of San Juan.

Through donations Dyani was also able to expand her staff in order to teach new classes and reach more kids. The school has grown from 5 to almost 200 students. Six remarkable teachers are now enhancing the education of the barrio kids, as well as giving free evening English classes to local adults. Using unconventional methods, such as learning through traveling, and giving positive reinforcements, like field trips for perfect attendance, they help the kids overcome some of the challenges that poverty has left them with, while fostering a culture of teamwork, confidence and community.

The sub-director of the program, Yaoska Jimenez, 28, was born and raised in Nicaragua and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in company administration and marketing with a minor in art and photography from the University of Central America in Managua. She strongly believes art is a way of discovering your passions, which is the essence of what the project is about: helping the students discover what they are the best at by exposing them to different stimuli. “You know, it is not the same to give them what they need, better to show them how to obtain it themselves,” she says.

Together Dyani and Yaoska have been working hard, spreading the word about the project, including organizing fundraisers in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, as well as applying for grants to reward their best students. They have also created summer workshops taught by volunteers knowledgeable on specific subjects. For instance, last year they had a theatrical workshop and this year ideas such as a creative writing class in Spanish have been mentioned.

The response and enthusiasm from the community, both local and international, has been inspiring. The city and the mayor of San Juan donated an old recreation building so the kids can have a proper school, as well as a center for activities. Amayo, an international company that produces wind energy in Nicaragua, has also taken an interest in the project and donated money to the restoration of the classrooms. While on a smaller, but no less important scale, artists Ruben Gadhimi and Emily Reed have helped bring the school life with their colorful murals on the classroom walls, the teams from Nicaragua Surf Report (NSR) and San Juan Surf have volunteered time to give the kids free surf lessons and local restaurants like Bamboo Beach Club have helped sponsor many events.

The progress the students have made is evident in their behavior. Thanks to the Barrio La Planta Project, some of the troubles that accompany poverty do not seem like such an obstacle anymore and many in the community have been given a new sense of pride as they see what great things they are capable of. It has been rewarding for the teachers as well. Emily Colder, academics director for the school, who had previously taught in the States expressed her unconditional gratitude to the endeavor, “In the States, I would teach hundreds of students and only touch the lives of two or three, here I feel I reach every single one of my students every single day.”

The motto of the school is “Help a child grow” and that is exactly what this project is about. Creating a supportive, healthy environment where children who don’t have much can grow within themselves and persevere. The project is growing to help more children, but they still need a lot of assistance to ensure that all services remain free. Help, in the form of donations or volunteering, is badly needed and all tax-deductable donations go directly to the school. Help the children of Barrio Planta beat the cycle of poverty. Help a child grow.

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