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31
Dec-2015

Volunteering in Nicaragua: When volunteering meets tourism, great things can happen

  • Communidad Connect: What We Do

  • Communidad Connect: Who We Are

Communidad Connect blends volunteer work with leisure travel in Nicaragua to change the lives of people all over the country.

 

Voluntourism, the combination of volunteer work and leisure travel, is a popular way to volunteer in Nicaragua and one of the fastest growing niches in the travel industry. It is also one of the most controversial, with questions surrounding the beneficial nature of the volunteering activities, distribution of revenue within the volunteering operation and tour operator and overall long-term positive and negative impacts on host communities.

But, that’s a discussion for another post. Right now, I want to talk about an organization that is doing things right. Breaking away from the term “voluntourism” to help pioneer the concept of “service travel”, Communidad Connect is proving that tourism can be used to promote long-term benefits to community development while offering a fulfilling – and fun! – experience for the volunteers.

Communidad Connect is a non-profit based out of San Juan del Sur that, Communidad Connect volunteer in Nicaraguaalong with Nicaraguan sister organization Sociedad Civil Communidad Connect, aims to aid community and economic development in Nicaragua through bottom-up development work. Founded in 2007 by Jon Thompson and Roman Yavich, over the past 8 years, the organization has worked with local communities, public institutions and the private sector to complete several projects such as the San Juan del Sur Sports Park and the municipality’s first recycling program, a rural clinic in Los Robles and a successful water filtration project, Nica Agua.

However, unlike many NGOs that simply provide resources or services to the communities, Communidad Connect promotes community involvement and empowerment by requiring local households to complete a specified amount of volunteer hours in order to be eligible for the various services the organization provides. These services can include concrete floors to keep problematic mites from polluting the air in rural family homes, mosquito-repellant paint that prevents the spread of dangerous diseases such as Dengue, Malaria and Chikungunya and reusable water filters.

Sixteen hours of community service will earn them a water filter, and 25 hours will make them eligible for a concrete floor. The volunteer work can be anything from manual labor in the community for younger men and women to an older woman visiting an elderly neighbor who lives alone. The idea is to encourage them to better the lives of their families and their communities through volunteer opportunities accessible to all members of the community regardless of skill, age, physical ability, etc.

Over the years, Communidad Connect has found that when people have earned what they’ve been given, they take better care of it. Instead of receiving handouts, the people in these rural communities are proud to have earned these various tools to better the lives of their families. This pride and sense of ownership has blossomed into a spirit of community service adopted throughout the community, many taking initiative to give back even when there are no projects currently underway.

 

 

It’s for this reason that the list of achievements on Communidad Connect’s website doesn’t focus on how much they’ve given but on how much the community has earned; not on how much the organization has helped these rural families but how much they have helped themselves:

“Local residents in Los Robles have invested over 7,000 hours in the construction of a medical clinic for their community.”

 

Nica Agua

 

In addition to this model of community service, Communidad Connect’s success lies in its use of tourism to solve one of the biggest problems plaguing non-profits worldwide: revenue.

A quick browse through their financials (made readily available on their website) shows that the large majority of their operating budget is supplied by revenue from their voluntourism initiative Cultural Connections. Cultural Connections gives groups of students or volunteers the option to work with, yes WITH, rural communities to increase their quality of life.

 

Volunteer Cultural Connections

 

The itineraries are tailor-made to suit the goals of the volunteers, but they must also address the needs of the host community.

I was lucky enough to catch Princeton in Latin America Fellow, Theresa Bailey, on one of her visits to Communidad Connect’s head office in San Juan del Sur. Theresa is based in the northern Nicaraguan community of Los Robles, where she oversees the day-to-day operation of the Communidad Connect clinic. Though her main focus is on the clinic, she has close contact with many of the Cultural Connections volunteer groups that visit the area.

She stressed to me that while they work hard to ensure an amazing and educational experience for the volunteer groups, Communidad Connect’s clients are the communities that it serves. And, never do they allow the needs of the volunteer groups to supersede that of the community. To the organization, both groups are equally important, and they work hard to ensure that each trip is mutually beneficial.

 

Volunteer in Nicaragua

 

A typical 8-day itinerary could include 3-4 days of volunteer work, like building concrete floors, painting walls, building efficient and well-ventilated stoves or working with the children through art, reading and sport participation. As Theresa put it,

As a volunteer, I want to see tangibly what I’ve done today.

With this in mind, volunteer activities allow participants to take part in short-term activities involving community participation that allow both volunteer and host family to see the immediate results of their work. Skilled local workers such as masons, electricians, homestay hosts, etc. are paid for their participation, providing them with valuable extra income.

In addition to participating in micro projects to better the lives of the members of their host communities, volunteers also get the chance to see Communidad Connect’s larger initiatives – such as the clinic, sports park and water filter system – in action. The projects themselves are run by qualified members of the community and the Sociedad Civil, which means they don’t rely on inexperienced short-term volunteers to complete complicated long-term projects; another common problem among NGOs.

The rest of the trip could be spent hiking up volcanoes, learning to surf, touring a coffee farm, visiting a colonial city or a variety of other activities. But, they also include visits to other organizations that use tourism to promote community development throughout the country – such as Hotel Con Corazon or Café de las Sonrisas. They make sure that each volunteer group leaves with ideas of ways they can use responsible tourism to help the communities in the area’s they visit in the future and continue to pay it forward even after their trip is over.

Cultural Connection benefits the host communities as a whole by providing funding for Communidad Connect’s projects, the individual families through its small-scale volunteer-driven initiatives and the volunteers themselves by allowing them to help a local family, learn about community development and responsible travel and have an unforgettable vacation in one of the world’s most beautiful countries.

If you are a school or university, religious organization, medical organization looking to volunteer in Nicaragua – or just a group of friends looking to give back during your next vacation – you can find out more about Communidad Connect and Cultural Connections here: www.communidadconnect.org

All Images and Video Courtesy of Communidad Connect

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