Beth Merrill’s extraordinary journey began more than 30 years ago when she was a U-32 high-school student studying Spanish. “I found that I loved learning languages,” she says with a reminiscent smile. “When I went on a service trip to Mexico, I could talk to kids my own age in their language. I could communicate with them and really connect with their culture.”
In the fall of 1992, while attending Hamilton College, Merrill was accepted as an educational intern through the Institute for Central American Development Studies and set off for Nicaragua, 3,976 miles from home. She headed to La Chispa, a neighborhood in the city of Matagalpa. Soon after Merrill arrived, the 19-year-old found herself drafted as a temporary first-grade teacher when a staff member went on maternity leave.
“It was the most difficult and rewarding time of my life,” she said. “I could speak Spanish, but not with a Nicaraguan accent. At first, they couldn’t understand me and I had trouble understanding them.”
Books were a luxury to Merrill’s students in La Chispa. Her students tended to come from homes with no picture books or reading material at all. Even the classrooms didn’t have much in the way of reading material. There were no printers or copy machines, not even an old-fashioned mimeograph. Everything had to be copied from a blackboard by children who had little experience with reading or writing.
Merrill remembers, “I kept thinking of all that our Vermont kids had and the seed was planted. How could we pull resources from the U.S. to Nicaragua?”
When she returned to college, Merrill had a dream and a determination to act on it. In 2001 she went back to La Chispa and was welcomed by the community, especially her former host family. She polled the children, asking them what they felt was most needed. They told her they wanted a library.
Once back in Vermont, Merrill reached out to others and created a nonprofit that would eventually be called Planting Hope. With donations, construction could begin. Planting Hope hired an architect, a contractor, and local builders. Volunteers worked alongside paid workers. In 2002, with the library completed, Merrill filled her 13-year-old Volkswagen with picture books and books for young adults, all in Spanish, and drove from Vermont to Nicaragua.
Since that first project, Planting Hope has donated books and school supplies; supported preschools; purchased computers; established a Planting Hope Mobile Library; worked with grassroots organizations; added a second story to the library; and created scholarships for Nicaraguan teenagers. Although the focus of Planting Hope will always be literacy, they’ve branched out into supporting other initiatives designed to improve nutrition and to develop job skills in Nicaragua. The funds that support all of these activities have come almost exclusively from Vermonters and Vermont organizations.
Perhaps, the centerpiece of the nonprofit has been its cultural exchange trips. Nicaraguan visitors have come north to share their culture and language with Vermonters. In return, nearly 1,000 Vermont students and adults have traveled south, cramming their suitcases with books, markers, and crayons. Mail service in Nicaragua is unreliable and the much needed school supplies had to be carried with them. Once they arrived, the Vermonters would help with local projects, assist in the schools, play games with the children, and get to know the community. Cindy Gauthier, a former teacher at Berlin Elementary School, remembers her first visit to La Chispa.
“Each morning I was awakened by roosters announcing dawn and the sounds of children doing their homework and preparing for school. After a breakfast complete with sweet black coffee, we piled into the Planting Hope Mobile Library to go to rural schools, where we were greeted by children. Some were screaming with excitement. Others were timidly watching from doorways.”
In 2018, things began to change. Political unrest in Nicaragua made travel to and from the country problematic, and COVID-19 dealt the nonprofit a blow. The cultural exchanges had to be halted, but the work goes on. Planting Hope is still able to fund technological programs, which are crucial in the time of COVID, and to pay the salaries of its Nicaraguan staff.
Merrill now hopes for a future in which local teenagers and adventurous adults will once again be pulling their heavy suitcases onto planes and traveling to a country, which, for many Vermonters, doesn’t really seem so far away.
For more information, go to plantinghope.org.