My father-in-law likes to say that many of the people we meet in Nicaragua need the two j’s… Jesus and jobs. This week, I got to see just how life-changing the combination of those two can be.
As you might recall from my previous blog post, some missionaries come to Nicaragua to help start churches. But instead of leading these churches, they train Nicaraguan pastors to lead and minister to their own people, with the missionaries coaching and supporting them from the sidelines in whatever way possible. These churches often become the heartbeat of their communities… providing hope, fellowship, encouragement, and even sharing food and housing. But what do they lack? Unfortunately, when your congregation is mostly unemployed, there are precious little funds to hire staff, build structures, or purchase resources. We have seen church buildings that were literally pieced together — brick by brick — over the course of several years… with church members bring (and placing!) a few bricks each week as they came to a service.
One of those missionaries (Cari) has had a dream of starting a vocational school, where church members could learn how to make a business out of God-given talents, to support their families, their churches, and their communities. Well, after nine months of steady preparation, the first two sets of classes were held this past week! A team of six women from Knoxville, Tennessee came to help out (we couldn’t have done it without them!). Over the course of six days, we taught 21 Nicaraguan women classes in sewing, business management, and design. (All the women came from churches run by the Nicaraguan pastors that our friends trained, so these ladies already had the first of those two j’s my father-in-law spoke about, but just need some help with the second one.)
It was hot. No really. HOT. (Seriously… this week was the absolute hottest of my entire life. Imagine standing in a pool of your own sweat after it dripped down your pant legs, and you have an idea just how hot it was.) Put a whole lot of talkative women, plus a bunch of sewing machines, in a 95° room and what do you get? A literal sweat shop (without all the illegal stuff ;-))!
Aside from being hot, it. was. awesome! I knew we were trying to give them a way to support themselves, but I had no idea just how amazing that would be. Growing up in the U.S., the daughter of a mom who had lots of small businesses to help make ends meet (selling Avon, decorating cakes, babysitting, etc.) and a dad who made a living in sales, I knew about business from a very early age. I never realized how much I took that knowledge for granted until I saw these ladies hanging on every word in our micronegocio classes.
I watched my mom separate my dad’s paycheck into various envelopes to budget money for the electric bill, groceries, and so on. I just knew that was how it worked, since that was how we did it. But these women haven’t had that privilege. They’ve never had bank accounts, and never considered what it meant to budget or save money perhaps just because they never knew how. Heck, one of them sleeps on a hammock outside a friend’s house (and by house, I mean shack) every night.
So when our awesome small business owner/former high school Spanish teacher gave them a set of envelopes and showed them how to create a household budget, they were like kids in a candy store who’d been given a fistful of cash to spend. When she showed them how to create a ledger to manage their new business’s income and expenses, they peppered her with questions until they felt confident enough to try it on their own. She spent a lot of time talking about the importance of reinvesting in your business, by stressing how you can’t eat the chicken if your business is selling eggs, for example. It was an analogy that made a ton of sense to the women, even though it was something many (if not all) had done in the past. In fact, that phrase — no voy a comer la gallina — became the week’s mantra, with the women holding up signs saying “I will not eat the chicken” as we drove away at the end of the second set of classes.
And when she explained God’s plan to financially support the church through the tithes of its members, they thanked her for showing them how to give back of the blessings they’ve received.
One woman shared honestly, “I have been in the church for many years, but never understood what it meant to tithe. This class has made me realize I can’t wait anymore and must start today.”
Over and over, we saw women who had new hope for a better future for their families and their communities. They cried. We all cried. (And not just because it was so hot.)
At the end of each three-day session, we met with the women individually, to talk about their talents, businesses, and futures. Each student had created at least four iPhone pockets during the session, and we took this time to review the quality of their products. We ended up purchasing those that were of the highest quality, and giving them five more packets (each one contains the materials, already cut to size, for a single iPhone pocket) to work on at home. The team from Tennessee will now try to sell the purchased products back in the States. When a particular student’s product sells, we will put an additional amount of money toward a new sewing machine, which is earned after we sell 50 of her phone pockets. (Currently they must borrow a machine or hand stitch.)
You know how the folks who audition for American Idol must walk to the “judges table” before they find out if they make it into the final round that gets to sing for America? You know how nervous they always are in the elevator? These ladies were no different when they came to meet with us! You’d have thought we were offering them a chance to earn a million dollars, the way they worried and prayed as they approached our table (a few even had to be coaxed out of the hallway). And when we praised their work and offered to buy their products, tears were common.
It was then that I realized just how important this work is.
Sure, American Idol offers to fulfill dreams of fame and fortune to those precious few who make it all the way. But what about those who just dream of putting food in their kids’ bellies and a roof over their heads? It’s programs like these that offer some moms and dads in countries like Nicaragua the chance to fulfill those dreams and even to create new dreams of owning their own business and being able to invest in their churches and communities.
We’ve been planning and praying for months (for Cari, it’s been years!), and I can’t even truly express to you what it means to see it all finally happen. And it’s only just begun! We gave each of the women five more phone pockets to sew on their own at home (or wherever they can find a machine). One of our friends visited a student in her home, yesterday, and she was super excited to share the work she’s already completed. As soon as the ladies are finished, Cari and I will visit them to buy any products that are perfectly sewn. Then, we’ll work to sell them to folks like you!
After that, the next step is to talk with other churches about sending more teams to help us run more classes. We’ve spent a lot of money to get this first set of classes off the ground, and need to run a few more set of classes before we can make the program self-sustaining.
Anyone want to help? Here’s how:
- Bring a team. The ideal size is six people: 3-4 people to teach sewing classes, 1-2 to teach the small business classes, and another person to teach the design classes, but we’re open to suggestions as well. You’d stay for about a week, preparing for two to three days, teaching for another three, plus a day for tourist activities. You’d bring the fabric and other supplies, pay for your own expenses, and fund the cost of running the classes for about 20 Nicaraguan women.
- Buy some phone pockets. We’re selling them for $10 each. Perhaps you could buy a bunch to sell to your those in your community? Or, buy them for $10, then sell them for $15 to support your youth group’s next mission trip? (Our biggest sales need, at this point, is for people to buy them in bulk (at least five or ten at a time) and sell them in their communities, since shipping back to the States can be challenging.)
- Donate. Until the next team comes, we’ll need money to purchase additional materials to keep the women sewing. We also have basic ministry expenses like communication and transportation costs, as we travel to the various communities to meet with the students who have completed products to sell us. Donate here. (IMPORTANT: Use account number #013246, with a sub-account #025 for Cottage Industries Nicaragua.)