The Power of Cien Amigos

So often we want to do something, to give back, but become frozen due to the array of choices and the desire for our resources to have the greatest impact. For years I had given to nonprofits ranging from the Red Cross to the local ballet, cancer research to immigrant youth, never knowing exactly if my contribution mattered, if what I gave got us any closer to the noble goals espoused.

As often happens in life, the opportunity was right in front of me. In a meeting with a prospective client, I learned of his “other job” — building schools in the most remote and often ignored regions of Nicaragua. (See Casually he mentioned that it cost $35,000 to build a village school, immediately impacting 40 plus children and serving more that 1,000 over the life of the school. With a goal of facilitating the education of rural community inhabitants, the hope was to shift the flight into the cities and the lives of extreme poverty, sickness and crime. Villages had an average 10% literacy, with children dropping out of school by third grade to work with their subsistence farmer families. A teacher, school uniforms, desks and minimal books are supplied by the government. But without a functional, weather-proof school, it is still hard to learn.

While I was not in a position to donate $35,000, it seemed reasonable to raise it. Especially when you think that with only 100 people donating $350 each, we could build a school. (Project Schoolhouse’s administrative costs are a low 2% of budget and much of the labor for the building comes from each family in the village, so we knew our money was directly benefitting the kids.) Some friends were so excited about the idea they donated $3,500 so they could have a “10% share”. Others thanked me, for allowing them to feel like they had made a tangible difference, commenting how rare it was to know you made a measurable and lasting impact.

We broke ground on the school, named Escuela Cien Amigos, in May 2011, as soon as the extreme rains ended. Each day mules hauled bags of concrete up the mountain three miles from town to our village. (No roads exist.) From dawn to dusk men moved wheelbarrows of rocks, dug trenches to form the foundation, twisted wire to connect rebar. Women rotated bringing food and water to the workers. And after school, the community children would race up the hillside to look on.

If you can imagine, forty kids ranging in age from 4 to 14, learned together in one small room. No electricity. No windows. Light came only through the doorway and the holes in the roof. And water from the rains often entered the classroom in the same way, often delaying class for hours or days. “Tenemos un lápiz por año. Es triste cuando cae en el lodo,” explained 8-year old Olbin.

Being able to use your pencil. Enough light to read by. A book of your own. Often overlooked in our own lives, treasures for children hungry to learn and explore and grow. Our lives may differ drastically — sleeping in hammocks, cooking over fires, living with only the most basic necessities — yet the desire to learn, and for our children to have a better life the we did — is universal.

Escuela Cien Amigos, located in Martillo, Nicaragua, has graduated 15 kids in the last two years and seven of those have chosen to travel several hours each weekend to town to attend high school. The school has become the “town square” for the village, with adult learning in the evenings, weekend celebrations and community gardens. It is the most important building in the village. “Nuestra escuela es la mejor, porque aprender es lo más importante,” Celina, a recent graduate explained.

At that moment I knew, the school had taught us all so much already.


Alicia Smith Kriese is the President of Perspectives, an international brand strategy firm, specializing in the retail arena.