Stitching Together a Future for Families in Nicaragua

Story and photos by LIZ QUIRIN
Messenger editor

The sewing machines sing a song of industry in the town of Muy Muy in central Nicaragua as six women work on material to be turned into linen sets for families.

If the women weren’t laughing and talking as they sewed, the scene might resemble a maquiladora or sweat shop where people work long hours for little or no money.

Instead, these women, whose children are sponsored through Hope for a Family, a program created by Christian Foundation for Children and Aging non-profit organization headquartered in Kansas City, Kan., are developing their talents and skills as seamstresses.

Right now, these mothers are making bed sets for sponsored families, but they have their eyes on the future: They want to expand their business beyond their CFCA customers and begin making clothing — especially children’s clothing — to sell to everyone.

CFCA concentrates their efforts on women because they run their households; they are the primary caregivers for their children; and they bear the brunt of the responsibilities for making sure their families have a roof over their heads and food on the table. They know what their children need. It’s that simple.

In the past, CFCA would have a list of benefits they gave to families of sponsored children or elderly. Now, they work with the mothers to determine what benefits fill critical needs and are most important. Then they concentrate on those benefits, which include educational, medical and nutritional assistance among others.

Marlena, one of the women in the group of seamstresses, said her child was sponsored through high school and now is in college.

“Sponsorship helps the whole family,” she said. Now she has returned to school herself.

This sewing project began in March 2011, and the women began “marketing” their New Image line of linens in May.
So far, they have saved 10,000 cordobas or $440 after paying for their teacher and for the material.
“We wouldn’t have had the confidence or the ideas without CFCA,” the ladies said.

Project coordinator Juan Davida gives the women credit for “lots of enthusiasm. They feel part of something important, and they have the spirit of CFCA,” he said.

In that spirit, people are joined together in a “community of compassion,” Marlena said, referring to the compassion and humility of Bob Hentzen, one of CFCA’s founders.

Hentzen finished an 8,000-mile walk in June of 2011 from Guatemala to Chile, visiting all of the CFCA projects in countries along the way to show the people in each place that they were cared for, loved and respected by CFCA and all of the people who work with them.

Some, like Marlena, had never met Hentzen but knew of him because of the opportunities her family was given through sponsorship.

“I am very grateful,” Marlena said. Marlena and the other women in the sewing group are part of what Davida calls “a larger community” of women whose children are sponsored.

Davida has encouraged them to organize, to cooperate and to strengthen their relationship because it gives them a strong sense of community, especially at difficult times in their lives.

People in the Diocese of Belleville also belong to a special community of sponsors through CFCA.

Across the diocese, 77 people sponsor 82 Nicaraguan children and aged, but those numbers only tell part of the story.

In all, 2,590 children and aged are sponsored through this diocese.

Msgr. Vincent Haselhorst, who has been a CFCA spokesperson in the diocese and across the United States for 11 years and recently finished his second four-year term on CFCA’s board in Kansas City, also sponsors 13 people in different countries around the world.

Why so many? “In a sense I’m giving back for all the opportunities I’ve had with CFCA,” Msgr. Vince said. “I know of the need first hand. I can see how sponsorship affects people’s lives; it gives them more dignity and independence.”
His sister, Catherine Heap, sponsors Alejandra, someone she described as an elderly woman also in Muy Muy, Nicaragua. On a recent visit to Nicaragua, Father Vince visited Alejandra, and a young man he sponsors outside the capital city of Managua.

Catherine said at this stage of her life, she considered dropping her sponsorship because of the expense. However, after her brother told her what the sponsorship means to Alejandra, Catherine changed her mind and decided she would continue to sponsor Alejandra as long as she can.

What her brother found humorous was Catherine’s description of Alejandra as an older woman. “Catherine is 89, 10 years older than Alejandra,” he said.

Returning to Managua, CFCA workers took Msgr. Vince to visit the young man he sponsors, Domingo Martinez. Negotiating a steep, dirt-packed hill, even in a four-wheel-drive truck, was difficult.

However, the family was so happy to meet their son’s sponsor. Because Msgr. Vince speaks fluent Spanish — he spent six years serving a parish in Guatemala — it was easy for him to speak directly to the young man and his family.

Their home was fairly typical: a one- or two-room structure served as living and sleeping quarters for the parents, two teenage boys, a special needs child and two younger girls, and an adult daughter who would be having a child of her own within a few months.

A second one-room structure served as the kitchen with a raised platform in one corner with three stones set in a semicircle for a stove/oven.

Their home had running water when the pipe was operational, and it was brought into the kitchen via a garden hose. However, on the day Father Vince visited, water was not available at the home.

None of this seemed to matter as the family sat outside and visited with Msgr. Vince. Domingo talked about his hopes and dreams, what he would like to do with his life when he finished school.

“I will help you with your schooling as long as I am able,” Msgr. Vince said.

While sponsors are encouraged to visit those whose lives are changed by their generosity, many never meet the young people or the elderly they help.

Paul and Jeanne Mertens, who belong to Queen of Peace Parish in Belleville, have been sponsoring a girl in Managua since she was 15 years old.

They decided to sponsor someone after Father Vince spoke about the program at their parish in 2007.
“We wanted to give back to someone (because of our good fortune),” Paul Mertens said. “This was a good way to do it.”

The Mertens wanted their children to see that “not everybody has everything they have,” they said.

Ruth, now 19, wants to go to nursing school, they said. The Mertens said they will continue to help her.

At Immaculate Conception Parish in Columbia, religious education director, Janet Janson, continues to encourage her students and teachers to help young people finish their education through CFCA.

They contact CFCA to find out about young people whose sponsors could no longer continue to support them. So far, they have helped young people finish their education and continue to help four each year.

The sponsors are “empowering” families in Nicaragua and the other 21 countries around the world where CFCA works, changing lives, building relationships, making a difference for all of those who become part of the CFCA family.
While the women are stitching a future for their families through their work as seamstresses, CFCA is weaving together relationships that cross the barriers of culture and language to bring hope to many families.

“It’s the idea of a worldwide community of compassion,” Msgr. Vince said, and it’s one of the core values of the organization.

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