By Lorna Pierno
When I travel back to Nicaragua, the phrase “Welcome to the Jungle” means more than the iconic Guns & Roses song.
Here, “Welcome to the Jungle” means waking up to the sounds of roosters crowing, birds chirping, and the leaves on the palm trees swaying to alert us of a pending storm. It means returning to the jungle of my childhood and the vivid memories that live here, like when I laid the first brick of what would later become the family farmhouse I sit in now, looking out at the trees that my brother and I climbed when we were kids.
In the blink of an eye, over 30 years have passed since I climbed those trees. While much of the coffee farm remains the same, there is one big, new addition that fills me with hope for the future of the country. Across the way, in what used to be an open cement field where we dried coffee beans and I learned how to ride a bike, there is now a schoolhouse.
In 2012, my father, Omar Perez Leclair, built the schoolhouse for the kids of the farm workers who harvest coffee here. Prior to the schoolhouse, parents struggled to keep their kids in school. Unable to afford cars, the only way for kids to get to school was “on foot,” and since the nearest schools were five to ten miles away, the kids’ shoes would quickly wear out. Without money to spend on new shoes, parents would sometimes just take their kids out of school. By building a school on the farm, we hoped to save not only kids’ shoes, but their dreams.
Francis, a 7-year-old girl, who enjoys playing hide-n-seek with her friends, told me she wants to become a doctor so she can take care of anyone who gets sick.
Francis’s family has worked in Finca Zaragoza for many, many years. My mother taught her grandfather, Don Julio, now retired, to read and write. He will never forget it and tells me this same story every time he sees me. For me, the joy he got from learning to read and write reinforces the importance of investing in Nicaragua’s future by making sure that essential resources (such as accredited teachers, desks, notebooks, pencils, a chalkboard, etc.) are in place to educate the kids.
Despite the efforts of people like my father, many kids here will not make it past the 6th grade. Their parents will force them to start working in the city, the streets, or in other farms so that they can help contribute towards food and clothing to support the rest of the family – including younger brothers/sisters and grandparents. Without school, many won’t have a shot at fulfilling their dreams.
I need only look at my own path to see how important school was in building the life I lead in Los Angeles. In 1983, my family and I fled to the United States. I was in 2nd grade, enrolled in “El Americano” School and learning how to speak English, when fighting between the Sandinistas and the US-supported Contras grew severe, causing Nicaragua’s economic and civil rights conditions to worsen. My family and I settled in the San Fernando Valley in California, and I enrolled in the 3rd grade with American kids. I quickly learned how to read and write in English, and by the end of the school year, I was helping my American classmates with their homework. I admit, I was kind of a nerd, but I just LOVED going to school and I never missed a day – I looked forward to winning “perfect attendance” awards at the end of the year. When I got chicken pox in 4th grade, I was crushed that I had to miss a full week.
I went on to attend Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills, CA, and then CSUN (California State University Northridge), where I graduated with a bachelor’s in Business Administration. After graduating, I ventured into the world of marketing at several fast-paced telecommunications companies.
Today, I am thankful for all the events that have led me to this point, and feel that the school is an expression of our gratitude and hope for the parents and children in Finca Zaragoza. Yet for as many as we’ve helped, there are millions more across Nicaragua who are forgotten. Spreading quality education to a whole country of children is a huge task, one requiring big ideas, hard work, and the coordinated efforts of dedicated people. It’s more than my family and I can do alone.
Then, one day, on Facebook, I saw a video about the Finding Corte Magore Project. But, it was this personal video from Tonia, about Finding Corte Magore, that got my attention the most because it tells the story on how her personal journey to Corte Magore began and how that relates to my own experiences, growing-up Nicaraguan.
I’d known Tonia Allen Gould, the project’s founder/CEO, for several years after we’d worked together in Los Angeles and became friends on social media. I learned that Tonia had published a children’s book, Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore, and now was turning the book’s fictional island of Corte Magore into a real island in Nicaragua to help kids stay in school. I knew I wanted to learn more, be a part of it, and help Nicaraguan students fulfill their dreams by helping Tonia fulfill hers. When Tonia approached me about visiting kids in Nicaragua, I welcomed her with open arms.
One conversation led to another and six weeks after our initial conversation, we were at the schoolhouse in Finca Zaragoza watching the kids’ faces glow as most of them received coloring paper and crayons for the very first time. They also received an English lesson from Tonia for the very first time as she taught them to say “Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore.”
Ultimately, I understood that The Finding Corte Magore Project’s mission was to bring awareness to education in a country that desperately needs it. This trip to the schoolhouse was a starting point for a grand initiative, a vision and a project that started out as a dream in the pages of a children’s book but was going to leap off the pages into reality.
So with great hope and excitement, I invite Tonia, the island, and the Finding Corte Magore Project to Nicaragua by saying: Welcome to the Jungle.
About the Finding Corte Magore Project: Our goal is to crowdfund a “social good” island in Nicaragua to raise awareness to the children who may drop out of school before reaching the sixth grade. In an effort to promote dreaming amongst children at home and abroad, our goal is to rebrand the 29-acre island of Hog Cay, to Corte Magore, after the fictional island in the children’s picture book, Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore, authored by Tonia Allen Gould. The main character in this story had to overcome a lot of challenges to accomplish his goal of building a life for himself. We believe, with a little help from students and teachers in the US, crowdfunders, and the Finding Corte Magore Project, that the children in Nicaragua too can create a better life for themselves as well.