Despite living in a city which borders a major lake, and only a 15 minute bus ride to Laguna Apoyo, which is a natural treasure of Nicaragua, most children, particularly those that live in the “barrio” which is serviced by EI, cannot swim. This is unlike my own childhood in Canada where swimming lessons were mandatory at public schools as part of the Grade 4 physical education program; there is no such program in Nicaragua.
My husband and I have been visiting Nicaragua for vacations for 9 years or so now, and actually “found” Empowerment International, the charity founded by Kathy Adams back in 2003 on our second trip. Over time we sponsored first one child, until ultimately we came to sponsor four. We have always enjoyed the open atmosphere at EI, and have been invited to birthday celebrations, graduations and Christmas parties over the years.
Understanding that Saturdays at the education centre became a bit of a community drop-in space for the kids, we have participated in many Saturday art classes over the years. I have always thoroughly enjoyed doing so, as their excitement to do something fun and creative can’t help but bring a smile to your face.
This past year, tourism in Nicaragua was understandably affected by Covid. There are very few tourists in Granada, a city which always seemed to be full of international travellers enjoying the sights and weather. Many of the hotels we passed, some that we had stayed at on previous trips were either closed, or even worse, completely shuttered and listed for sale. In a city where employment is heavily reliant on tourism, the negative economic and employment impact on the community EI services is profound.
We had discussed previously with friends how nice it would be if there was a swimming program for the kids, and so, after discussing with Country Director Marcia Miranda, we were determined to make it happen. Marcia called around to those hotels that were still open, and we were able to locate one that was more than accommodating with a large pool. Hotel Cordoba, and its owner, Gerardo Gomez Lacayo had seen the last of their guests leave shortly after the Christmas holiday season. As the children were out of school for the month of January – he was graciously agreeable to permitting the use of this pool so that we could do a trial run - teach two classes of students, 5 boys and then 5 girls, the ‘basics of swimming’.
With the assistance of EI staff, some translation to assist with my limited ability to communicate in Spanish - and five enthusiastic boys, we began our first class. It could not have gone better. The children firstly, were thrilled to be in such a grand pool. Secondly, they were committed to attempting every lesson we asked of them. Blowing bubbles through the nose while your face is submerged, dunking yourself completely underwater, attempted to use a flutter board and kick from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end and to close out the class, jumping from the side of the pool into the water to be caught and assisted to the pool stairs. These kids were excited to be learning, hesitating at times with the inherent nervousness any non-swimmer has, but trying their best over and over again until mastering a new skill. Next up was the girls group, and I have to admit, their enthusiasm and dedication to learning the lessons was even more intense if that was even possible.
That evening, I was reminded that I was 51 years old these days, not 21. That two hours of doing innumerable laps of the pool, assisting with balance on the flutter board and catching children jumping into the pool - though enjoyable as their excitement was infectious, it was also rather exhausting. I may have gone to bed that night at 6:30pm.
Day two of lessons, any apprehension was gone. The children were 100% in. They didn’t hesitate at any of the new lessons we asked them to attempt. Floating on their back, pedaling feet in an effort to tread water, dead mans float, dunking 10 times in a row taking a breath between each, more confidence on the flutter board/laps. The first time I swam alongside one of my “swimmers” and I showed them that I was not supporting the flutter board at all, or that I had completely removed the supporting hands during their attempts at floating, the beaming smile in return was confirmation enough that this was all worth it.
The rest of the week, we reinforced all our skills, built up confidence and of course, had a cannonball contest to see who could create the largest splash. Within of each group of 5 students, 3 had mastered everything we had taught them, with only two per class who would have benefited greatly from a second week. Unfortunately for us, our time in Nicaragua was winding down and we had a return flight to Canada the following week.
The experience however illustrated that a swimming program for our kids at EI is not only going to teach them a valuable life skill, it is going to be embraced by the kids. Who doesn’t enjoy the pleasure it brings us as adults to make a child happy. We are now hoping to implement a swimming program at EI, funded by the Canadian donors to continue the lessons. We do not know when we will next be able to travel to Granada; but know with the determination and perseverance we have seen demonstrated by the EI staff, they will make things happen.
I would strongly encourage any donor to reach out to EI and volunteer in whatever capacity you can, especially if you are lucky enough to be in Nicaragua again.
Mary Ann Hopkins