Tag Archives: Children


I was asked recently about my most memorable encounter in Nicaragua.  I didn’t really have to think very long about the question, despite the fact that I have traveled there several times each year since 2006 and had experienced an earlier introduction to the country in 1990.  I have had many wonderful, frustrating, inspiring, motivating and sad moments during those visits.  But there is one that stays with me like no other.   It’s a moment from my earliest visit that will be in my heart and mind forever, one of those transforming moments that further shapes who I am.  I relate it frequently when I speak on behalf of the Foundation and I share it here for your consideration:

The back end of the pickup truck was absolutely filled with kids.  They sat scrunched and huddled there, seemingly glad to be done with the outdoor church service we had just attended, and eager as could be to learn something, anything, about the North American visitors who had come to their community.  Not many of us had come to this part of Nicaragua, perhaps.  For some of the littlest ones- maybe three or four years old- perhaps we were the first gringos they had seen.  But they hung on every word we spoke through rough translation and pounced on every question we asked as if it belonged to each of them alone.  

I had connected with one young boy in a special way.  We had greeted one another earlier in the day, in a location very distant from where we now stood.  Yet, when I climbed off the bus which had brought us to join this neighborhood church service, suddenly there he was, hand extended again, a friend from an earlier hour.  I had no idea how he came to be at this place.

Fernando was maybe ten, but certainly more shrewd than his years.  We talked and joked in gestures.  And seated in the back of that pickup truck among so many other little faces, Fernando finally asked me if I had any children of my own.  With great pride I pulled my wallet and flipped to the pictures of katie and our kids.  The entire truck sagged to the back end as the children strained to see the pictures.  They laughed in delight.  But Fernando sat back, his face serious in thought.  Amidst the laughter, I wondered what was on his mind.

He leaned forward after a bit and put his fingers to his eyes, as if to appear Asian.  It had not escaped his notice that all four of my children are Korean-born.  He puzzled over it because Katie’s picture clearly showed that she is not Korean.

I explained, as best I could, that my four children were  akk adopted from Korea, but my children nonetheless.  He asked if I loved them.  I said, with all my heart.

Then, he pierced my heart.  He asked whether I would adopt him.  That his mother and father would not mind, as long as he was going to a better life.  That he was a good kid.  And that he was sure that I could love him.  He didn’t know the half of it.  Looking into the dark eyes and faces of those children, I could have been seeing the beautiful, dark features of my own kids.  I was chilled to think of them in this impoverished environment.  Perhaps as Fernando’s own parents were.  The idea that Fernando believed his parents would be accepting of his adoption in order to find “a better life” has haunted me for twenty-four years.

A fellow adoptive parent once said about our kids, “Well, you know, they are not really your children.  They are universal children, belonging to all of us.  As all children are.”  In one very real sense, he was absolutely correct.  We- you, me, all of us- are responsible for the lives and the well-being of our kids.  And I came to truly know the truth of it in the face of a little boy called Fernando….




The Boy On A Bus

Nicaragua is a country full of wonders for travelers.  The natural beauty is never-ending, no matter how many times one might have the pleasure of taking it in.  The history is both enchanting and haunting; it is a past of great cultural beauty, spirituality and perseverance.  But the real asset of the country is its people, of course, and I feel remarkably blessed in having opportunities to come to know many Nicaraguans.  I wish that I could know more of them.  Especially the kids.  As an adoptive parent myself, I have little difficulty envisioning any of the beautiful Nicaraguan children as my own.

So maybe it wasn’t that unusual for me to think long and hard about a boy I saw during my travels in January.  I saw him, literally, on top of a bus.  We were traveling along a road under construction, one that desperately needed the makeover.  The depths of some ruts and holes of this road might have been more easily measured in feet rather than inches, and traveling it was a slow process even without the construction work.  The bus wended its way directly in front of us, tossing its passengers up and down with each bounce from the road, stopping suddenly with each construction interruption, likely desperate in its search for a flat terrain.  And standing atop the lurching yellow bus was this boy.

Whenever the construction traffic controller would halt us with red flag, the boy scampered down the back of the bus in order to chat with construction workers or others watching the process of road-building.  It seemed as though he knew everyone along the route.  Laughing and engaging in horseplay with apparently anyone who would reciprocate, he seemed the embodiment of that ebullient mixture of energy and exuberance that so often identifies 16 year-olds.  As soon as the bus would start on its journey again, the boy would scamper back onto the back end and climb back up to the top, like a cowboy astride some mammoth, rocking bull.  Rarely did he sit or even kneel.  Nor hold on to anything to steady his ride.  His message to all who could see was that he had conquered the bus to ride it his own way.  With each new bounce from the road, I expected him to be catapulted off the top and onto the dirt below.  But the ride never bested him, a fact which perhaps added to the width of his smile as we navigated the construction zone.  Mark and I both commented on his risk, his perceived invulnerability, the danger of such an adrenalin rush as this, and we might even have added a shake of the head or two.  It was dangerous, foolhardy and exciting to watch, all at the same time.

At the time, I wondered to myself whether the boy might represent a sort of Nicaraguan “everyman” of youth.  I mean, here he was, clearly a youngster, deep in the countryside, headed who-knows-where on the bus, seemingly carefree and maybe even responsibility-free, out of school, perhaps with little or no work to demand his attention.  I thought to myself that, whether my attributions were correct or not, here could be a profile of many boys of Nicaragua: someone full of life and liveliness,  with untold and untapped potential, a kid who might conceivably hold the key to unlock decades of impoverishment and economic hurt, or perhaps discover the cure for some deadly disease.  Watching him cavort on top of that bus, I imagined that he might well have possessed the courage and the vision to withstand bumpy rides of an important sort.  But I also recognized that he would likely have few chances in his life to realize those possibilities, that like so many other uneducated or undereducated boys of Nicaragua, the potential would have few opportunities to bloom.  Riding atop the bus could be the most exciting and notable event of an entire life. I mused this way for the better part of an hour, and long after we had bypassed the bus with the boy on top.

My impression of that boy has returned to my consciousness several times since January.  Always, I begin by recalling his air of immortality, his utter belief in his ability to withstand each and every jolt that the bus encountered.  Then I invariably reflect on the wasted potential which he embodies.  But over time, I have shifted my understanding of what he represents to me, to that of someone more deeply representative of not only underprivileged Nicaraguan youth from the countryside, but of a broader base of humanity.  I’ve come to see myself on top of that bus, along with every other person on the face of this earth.  It turns out that we are all riding along that bumpy road, trying to maintain our balance in the face of ruts and holes while showing our contempt for its consequences.  We live as though we can be immortal, never-ending, and in that mindset we miss the opportunities that are absolutely within our power to embrace.  The missed opportunities of a young life are no different in content or importance than the ineffective stewardship of our own lives.

When we’re not careful, not thoughtful enough, myopic visions can lead us time and again to condescending conclusions about people we never even knew, while blinding us to the reality of our own condition.  I find myself tickled at the memory of the boy on the bus, also hopeful that his destination is reached in safety and with full purpose.  And it’s the same fervent hope and vision I have for all the rest of us, who sometimes aren’t even aware that the bus has left the station….


By Instinct

I heard a news report the other day about a Good Samaritan who had stopped at an accident scene to help one of the victims to safety.  The story was an interesting and moving one, the kind of “everyman” story which tends to fill us with hope that, confronted with the same circumstances, maybe we could act heroically, too.  Better yet, the story had a happy outcome, as the accident victim survived in part due to the rescuer’s efforts.  When he was interviewed after the rescue, the man was asked what had motivated him to intervene and thus endanger himself in the process.  He replied that he had acted “by instinct,” and that it was something that anyone might have done.

I’ve thought about those comments quite a lot since I heard them, because I’m not sure that I understand them.  Never having faced such dire circumstances before, I can’t really say for certain what my instinctive reactions would be.  I’d like to think that they would be brave and selfless, but I can’t know that they would be.  None of us can.  It made me wonder about where such instinct comes from, and what that may say about us (or raise questions about us) as a species.

If imminent danger triggers some sort of selfless response in us, then there must be some intrinsic force within our psyches that testifies to the importance, the sanctity, of human life.  That force might come from a religious source in some, but certainly not all heroes are religious people.  So there is some other inherent belief that we hold which affirms the idea that a human life is worth the ultimate risk of our own lives, some standard of importance that drives our behaviors.  Psychologists can likely expound upon the sources for such human altruism; I’m just glad and amazed that it’s apparently somewhere deep within us.

My acceptance of altruism as a motive posed another, perhaps more difficult question: if such motives come from somewhere deep within us, why do some circumstances lead us to act and others do not?  The quick actions of the man in the news story likely saved a life.  Yet I’d be shocked to learn that he has spent his life performing such acts of rescue, or even that he had experienced one other such feat of heroism.  Since the world is filled with cultures and peoples who exist at the very precipice of their demise, it begs the question as to why  most of us are dulled to action when it might matter so deeply and to so many.  Perhaps it’s the distance between us, the fact that we are in the one instance “on the scene” and in the other case so seemingly removed from the victims’ predicament.  Next door versus Nicaragua or Bangladesh.  Yet, our assistance is available in both cases.  What is there within us that ignites us to action for the one but fails to charge the adrenaline for the other?  More perplexing, what is there in some of us which denies any feelings of empathy  or respect for life?  Our instincts would appear to be uneven, inconsistent.

Social scientists can explain all of this readily, I’m sure.  But for the everyday man or woman who confronts life in all of its mysteries and inconsistencies each day, the puzzle is a confounding one.  We are driven by motives that are often conflicting and indiscernible.  We are incredibly bold and loving, while cold and detached.  We appear to be willing to risk our very lives to rush a burning building for the sake of a child trapped there, but rather indifferent at the plight of literally millions of children trapped in the consuming flames of poverty, injustice and disease.  I wonder how it is that we are able to draw the psychological line between the necessity of the former and the optionality of the latter.  How do you?

If it’s true, as the news story rescuer suggests, that we often operate by instinct when it comes to life and death decisions, I need to know for myself which instinct I’m most likely to hear when circumstances come calling….




Getting Schooled

I mentioned here a while back that a portion of my recent visit in Nicaragua had been focused on the education initiative which Winds of Peace started last year.  Our agenda for the week permitted a lengthy visit to Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino, a 1400 student house of joy.  The school is one operated by Fe y Alegria, one of WPF’s partners in working on the education initiative.  By the end of our tour and conversations, it was very clear that the students weren’t the only ones getting schooled that day.  My own education became elevated that day in ways that I had not expected.

If I tell you that Nicaragua’s statistics on education reflect poor progress, that the average student only receives about five years of classroom participation, that a third of students don’t make it out of primary school, that the country dedicates only 3% of GDP to education funding (when 10% is considered the minimum necessary), that of the kids who start first grade only half will reach grade five, then you might reach the reasonable conclusion that Nica schools leave a lot to be desired.  But you’d only be partially correct, because the presence of Roberto Clemente School belies the truth of an educational system in dire need.

My education on tour day included the expected elements:  accompaniment by Leslie Gomez from Fe y Alegria, meeting Berta Vasquez, Director General ofthe school who seemed to know the name of every child there, a walk-around of the premises, peeking into classrooms, observing kids between classes, in a few instances actually visiting with some of the students, and generally being conspicuous amidst a sea of uniformed scholars.  It’s an experience that I’ve had previously, in U.S. schools, so I thought that I knew what to expect in terms of the pupils’ behaviors, demeanors, sounds and interactions with me.  It turns out that I was quite wrong.

First, I noted the sounds of the school.  An open courtyard surrounded by classrooms may have amplified what I heard, but there was no mistaking the nature of the noise: I can only characterize it as joyful, vibrant, excited.

And I’m not talking about the pre-school classrooms, where one might expect little kids to be having fun because they don’t yet recognize what they may eventually come to regard as the drudgery of school.  I’m including the classrooms of the middle and upper-age students, high schoolers whose Western peers frequently exude sardonic sarcasm and languid disaffection about their

time in the academy.  Here, though, only pride and school “ownership” were on display.  Everywhere we went, in each of the classrooms, the buzzing of true, energetic fun sounded all around the building; it is not a sound that can easily be faked, and the attentive faces behind the sounds attested to its reality.

Then there was the look and content of the classrooms themselves.  The uniforms which the students wear created a sense of organization in each class, uniformity that suggested the responsibility that each young person owed to the others; no visual outliers, no fashion statements here.  The walls reflected the learning being done, with bright colors and lessons and children’s names to be seen everywhere, tangible statements of “I can.”  Absent were the trappings of technology and modern distraction.  What mattered on these walls and in these rooms were the outputs of the kids.  The computers and the electronics were all housed elsewhere, and for another time of the day.

Despite what might be viewed as regimentation at the school, there is a large waiting list of families desiring for their children to attend; kids really want to be at this school.  There is also a cost for attending, as students have to cover the cost of their uniforms and some materials consumed.  Many families simply cannot afford the 80 Cordobas ($3.43) per month that is required for attending.   I was pleased to learn that the financial assistance provided by Winds of Peace via Fe y Alegria had covered scholarships for 68 students.  Wow!

When we dared to interrupt and enter several of the classrooms, the reactions were consistently stirring. Each time, the several dozen students rose to attention beside their desks, as if on cue, and the smiles directed at their visitors unequivocally affirmed the sounds and the sights described above.  I know the energy and vitality that young kids breathe into life (I’ve raised four of my own!), yet the impact of the collective energyand enthusiasm in these studentsstruck me in a way quite different from other school visits I’ve  had.  At one classroom stop we were privileged to meet William, the president of the school student body.  The conversation was eye-to-eye anddirect; he displayed great self-confidence in describing his responsibilities and his charge of leadership and role modeling.  As I stood transfixed by this young man’s bearing, the vice-president of the student body, Debora, emerged from the classroom to introduce herself and respond to more of our questions.

During the whole of our discussion, not once did I see a dropped gaze or a self-conscious stare at the ground.  By the time the third member of this student leadership trio, Danny, joined our impromptu lesson on student government, I had become completely disarmed by the poise and self-assurance being cultivated among the members of this school.  And as if to accentuate the fact thatour interaction had not been only for show, each of the three took my own notebook and entered their respective e-mail addresses and Facebook connections as a means for continued conversation.  I was as impressed and impacted as I could possibly have been.

As if this entire excursion had not amazed me beyond my expectations for the morning, as I approached the truck to depart I had the lovely encounter with little Yareli, described in my blog here of May 5.  Her sweet “blessing” was icing on a cake of immense meaning and proportion, and a treat that will stay with me, likely, forever.

If the state of education in Nicaragua is truly needy (and it is), such need is not comprised of youth who are without motivation or inherent capacities.  A short visit to Roberto Clemente School will quickly disabuse any skeptic of that notion.  Rather, the deficit is one caused by a lack of priority and discipline in facing the future needs of an entire nation.  In short, it’s the adults who are failing in the classrooms, in favor of other perceived primacies that are shorter-term and supported by louder lobbies.  As a result, the beautiful music of students having the opportunity to embrace the ownership of their own futures plays much too infrequently and softly.

Leaving the school grounds, students waved at us.  I remember mentally thanking Louise Nielsen for her special concern for kids and their education and for the work that we now do in this field in her name….


There are certain moments in our experiences that become a sort of “freeze frame” of reference, an event or an exchange that transcends the moment and suddenly represents something bigger, more meaningful.  I’ve been privileged to experience more than my share of such moments in Nicaragua over the past seven years, but none were more sudden, more memorable than the encounter last week with an angel.

Mark Lester and I were given the opportunity to visit the Roberto Clemente School in Ciudad Sandino, operated by the education entity Fe y Alegria.  Through its Louise V. Nielsen initiative, Winds of Peace has provided funding for a number of key education organizations in Nicaragua, one of which is this organization founded by Father Fernando Cardenal, himself an education force in Nicaragua’s history.  This particular school serves some 1400 students, from pre-school scholars through high school.  (I’ll have more to report about that visit in upcoming blog entries.)  Suffice it to say that the hour and-a-half visit was exciting, energizing, motivating, moving and hopeful. In short, everything one might hope to experience amidst a large group of youth.

When the tour of the school was finished and the conversations with several student leaders had been done, time had come for Mark and me to take to the road again, on our way north to Esteli.  We made our way across campus, accompanied by Leslie Gomez, Director of Programs and Projects for Fe y Alegria and our liaison for the visit.  By the time we approached the truck, my head was already filled with recollections, of bright classrooms and joyful sounds (that’s right, I said joyful!), of faces evident with curiosity and welcome, of teachers beaming with pride to present their classrooms to visitors.  Lost in such visions, as I grabbed for the door of the truck I felt a tug on the back of my shirt.

When I turned around, I needed to adjust my gaze down, way down, to look at the tiny person standing before me.  She could not have been more than six years old.  The shy smile on her face gave her an angelic look that instantly touched my heart.  And she offered up her two hands pressed together, as if in a prayer, seeking some reciprocation from me that I could not immediately discern.  All I could do was to look at her and smile.

“It’s a type of greeting, or blessing,” explained Leslie, “just put your hands together over hers to return the good wishes.”  My own hands engulfed the fragile hands before me and I gratefully embraced her tiny offering.  My response brought an enormous smile to Yareli who seemed to want nothing more than to create an indelible moment in my day.  I might even go so far as to suggest that her gift created a lasting moment in my life.  Such was the surge of affection that I felt for this little jewel who had come out of nowhere to shine a bright light on my day.  She granted me one quick photo and then she wandered off, likely in search of another unsuspecting subject to bless and entrance.  Do angels actually come among us in that size?  I asked her for her name and she replied, “Yareli.”

Well, there’s nothing else to say about the episode.  Like an apparition, Yareli came to me and disappeared within the span of minutes.  By the time I was back in the truck, I actually wondered whether the encounter had really happened, so fast and so touching was the connection.   But that adorable face was fortunately captured forever in my camera; I looked back at the picture on several occasions during the balance of my week, just to bring a smile back to my feelings.  Sharing it with you here is a pleasure I offer with this one additional reflection:

Children are born of biological parents and step into a line of genealogy which, in part, helps to define who they are and where they come from.  Sometimes the continuum also shapes where they are headed and who they will become.  But in a major way, children are also universal beings who belong to us all. We may not have biological connections to every one of them, but we do share emotional ties and responsibilities to each.  We do have an impact on others, whether intended or not.  Yareli reached out and affirmed that feeling in me, just as 22 years ago a young Nicaraguan boy named Fernando did when he asked me whether I would adopt him, whether I could love him, and whether I thought he was a good kid.  They are moments and faces never to be forgotten because they awaken in us the truth of our shared love and responsibility for children everywhere.  It doesn’t matter that eventually those beautiful children grow up to become adults who speak a different language or live in a land foreign to us.  Small hands can still be held out for friendship and blessing if we’re receptive.

It was a huge affirmation from a very little messenger….