One woman is facing the uncertainty of retirement, while the other faces the unfamiliarity of life after school. And yet Sandi Berry and Lara Spohr have both found fulfillment and friendship during the past few months as volunteers in Nicaragua.
There might be an age difference of 40 years between them, but Berry and Spohr have become firm friends. They have worked together as volunteers with La Esperanza Granada in a rural school.
For Berry, of Canada, the desire to come to Nicaragua to help less fortunate people came with the realization that this would be her first post-retirement experience after years of working as a teacher in Victoria, British Columbia. Having just turned 60, she arrived in Granada in early September, armed with only a limited grasp of Spanish and just a little fear of the unknown.
Spohr, from outside Frankfurt, Germany, was also facing an uncertain future and decided to take a year off before starting university in her home country. She found La Esperanza Granada through a German volunteer website and decided to come for six months, without having been to Latin America before.
Berry and Spohr started their volunteer program on the same day in early September at the La Epifania school, just six kilometers outside Granada. They travel to school together by bus every day for one-on-one tutorials with the children.
Though they come from different parts of the world and different generations, the two women found themselves at a similar crossroads in life – one entering life after retirement, the other life after the childhood comforts of high school.
“This is my first year to be retired,” said Berry. “I am always off work in the summer, but I was a little bit concerned about what it would be like for me in the fall, when everyone else was going back to school.”
She stumbled across the La Esperanza office during a holiday in Granada in 2009, saw that they were looking for teachers, and vowed to return one day as a volunteer.
Spohr, meanwhile, sees the volunteer post as an opportunity to learn Spanish and the skills for a future career working with special-needs children.
“I wanted to learn Spanish, and I really enjoyed working with children as a volunteer in my home town in Germany,” she said. “I studied Spanish before, but at a very low level and I wanted to improve. Teaching disabled children is also what I want to do full-time in the long-term.”
La Esperanza Granada usually has between 30 and 40 volunteers in Granada at a time. Spohr felt a need to help out rather than just travel during her “gap year” between high school and university.
“I felt I wanted to learn something different,” she said. “La Esperanza demands a two month commitment, and I’ve decided to stay for six months. That means that you get to know the children really well, you get to talk to them every day.”
Spohr said she feels it is important to spend six months here to build a close bond and trust with the children.
“If you miss one day because you are sick or something, they ask for you. It is sad to leave them and I am very happy I am staying so long,” she said.
The volunteers’ work involves organizing tutorials with a handful of children who have been identified as needing a little extra help by the teachers. Though Berry has years of teaching experience back in Canada, she has found a new set of challenges here.
“I didn’t expect it to be such hard work!” she said. “I think I’ve found it tough due to the heat and humidity. Plus, I’m used to classes in Canada, where the children sit down and are quiet.”
Berry said that she would recommend volunteering in Nicaragua to other retired teachers, but with the caveat that they should have a good command of Spanish.
“I have really wished that my Spanish was better,” she said. “I also would not recommend volunteering here to a delicate person who might be easily disturbed. Both working and living conditions can be challenging, and volunteers have to be able to adapt to these situations. But the rewards far outweigh the hardships.”
Berry said it is also important for volunteers – even those with years of teaching experience – to respect the work of the Nicaraguan teachers, and not to lecture them during their time here.
She said many foreign volunteers are often surprised by how laid-back Nicaraguan schools are, with seemingly no sense of competition among the children.
“I work with eight children all the time,” said Berry. “For me, my favorite thing here is the same thing that I enjoyed as a teacher at home: seeing the light that comes on in someone’s eyes when you can tell that they are excited about learning something new. That’s the biggest satisfaction.”
Spohr, meanwhile, says she loves being able to give personal attention to children from big families, who might not be used to working or playing one-on-one with an adult.
She said she has treasured watching the confidence of one of her students develop over time and she has learned a lot about acceptance from the Nicaraguans.
Both women claim the experience of volunteering here is singular.
Though they came to teach, both Berry and Spohr say they’ve learned a lot about Nicaragua from working with the kids, and a lot about the world from working and living with the other international volunteers.
“By volunteering with people from a whole lot of countries, you learn a lot about other people and other countries,” Spohr said. “And I have had a lot of time to think about my life, while enjoying the experience of working with these lovely children.”