My heart broke a little when I kissed Jasmina goodbye, following the pinata party that celebrated completion of a community "lavandero" for the villagers of Las Pencas, Nicaragua. This basic laundry and bathing facility was constructed by 12 of us from the Rotary Club of Bakersfield, working alongside village residents. Over the course of five days, we learned skills, worked hard and enjoyed getting to know one another and the wonderful people there.
Language barriers were easily overcome by smiles, laughter and shared labor, which included moving rocks, sifting sand, mixing cement, molding rebar, stacking and mortaring bricks. We created "bucket brigades" to pass heavy materials down the sloping trail to the worksite.
The club's decision to volunteer on an international work trip was inspired by our friendship with late Rotarian Wendy Wayne, who dedicated her life to helping others. The work project was coordinated by "El Porvenir: Clean Water for Nicaragua," which is dedicated to sustainable development in that country. UNICEF estimates that 53 percent of rural Nicaraguans lack access to clean drinking water or sanitary facilities. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 48 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Rural residents obtain their drinking water from streams, uncovered wells and open springs, which have no protection from human or animal contamination.
El Porvenir and the villagers had constructed a well before our group's arrival. Our task was to build an adjacent wash station, where women would be able to do laundry in the shade, without standing in the mud of a polluted river, or hauling water over long distances. The lavandero included a bathing stall, where people can take a "bucket bath" in privacy.
Once completed, the people in the community take full responsibility for maintenance of the lavandero. (Before construction of the well, the villagers completed an application process to have a water project approved for their area. Each family paid a fee to invest in the project.) Our work was overseen by El Porvenir staff member Angel and his foreman, Armando.
Las Pencas is located 5 kilometers from the municipality of Camoapa. The 506 inhabitants of the village are subsistence farmers, who grow basic grains such as maize, millet and beans. Their homes are very humble, built of adobe, wood slats and plastic sheeting, with dirt floors and roofs of tile or zinc.
The children, in blue and white uniforms, walk 5 kilometers to and from school each day. The 149 families live on an average income of $49 per month.
Bakersfield Rotary Club president Steve Sanders led our group, which included DeAnne Sanders, Bob and Patti Burdette, Jim Cordle, Jeff Green, Jeff Johnson, Justin Leland, Dave Plivelich, Ray W. Watson and Cindy Chernow, Wendy's sister, who lives in Woodland Hills. From arrival through departure eight days later, we were superbly cared for and directed by El Porvenir staffers Tania and Jose.
In a poem she composed and read at our last dinner together, Cindy wrote, "There is not a moment of this trip Wendy would not have loved or enjoyed being a part; she would have engaged with the children, their families and every aspect of this project from the very start ... Thank you for letting Wendy's memory of giving back to the world become a gift we could all share; the many teachable moments for everyone involved, both Rotary and the families of the village, demonstrated what it means to care."
As we walked down the trail on our last morning at the work site, I saw that Armando and Angel had mounted on the wash station wall the plaque we had brought with us. In English and Spanish, it read:
Peace Corps Volunteer, Nurse, Children's Advocate
Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Sister, Friend
Wendy lived a life of service in Bakersfield and across the globe, promoting health and education in Kenya, Mexico, India, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda and Nicaragua. Her goal in life was to make the world a better place for families and children.
This community lavandero built by her fellow Rotarians is dedicated to her memory.
Her dream lives on.