Interview by Erin Daniel
Jon Thompson is Nicaragua Country Director for HOI. He is responsible for managing HOI’s community development efforts in Nicaragua and facilitating the work of HOI’s Nicaragua mission trip volunteers. He is married with a five-year-old son and lives in Los Robles, Nicaragua.
Erin Daniel: You’re originally from Atlanta; how long have you been in Nicaragua?
Jon Thompson: I’ve been living there full time since 2005, but it’s been my second home since 1998. That’s when I first started traveling there.
ED: What caused you to travel to Nicaragua? What kept you coming back?
JT: I graduated college in 1997, and in 1998 I went on a road trip with two friends from California through Mexico, Guatemala, and found ourselves in Nicaragua. I stayed, and they went on. It was a surf trip, so I was learning how to surf. We stayed a couple of months in Guatemala to do a language immersion program, but other than that, it was pretty much just live in the sand, pitch a tent, surf, and be a bum for a couple of months. And it changed my life. Not being a bum, but seeing Central America and getting to know its people, seeing the differences between the different countries. When I got to Nicaragua, the quality of people, the openness, how friendly they were, how little they had but how happy they were – that just blew me away. I thought that that was something I needed to be reminded of. I came back to Atlanta and started teaching English as a second language to immigrants and refugees, and I would save up money to travel on winter and summer breaks to Nicaragua. In 1999 I met my wife and from then on that was the big reason that I traveled there.
I moved there in 2005 with my wife. I got my masters in social work in 2002 from Georgia State University and began working at United Way doing economic development. Knowing that Nicaragua was changing a lot at that time – foreign investment was up, there was a lot of real estate development going on – I figured, I could do community development work in Atlanta or I could do it in Nicaragua. We didn’t have a child at the time, so we could travel, and we decided to go down there and see how it worked out. I founded a nonprofit there in 2007 and have worked a number of different jobs, but always along the lines of community development work. History continues to write itself for me.
ED: What are some of the things you and other North American travelers have most enjoyed about Nicaragua?
JT: Most people say it’s the people that stand out to them the most. The best parts of their experiences are reflected in their interactions with the Nicaraguan people. Complimentary to that is this beautiful country; it’s the land of lakes and volcanoes. It has some of the best waves in the world, some of the most beautiful coastline in all of Central America on the Pacific side and on the Atlantic side. We’ve got the largest freshwater lake, active volcanoes, dormant volcanoes, and tourism really hasn’t made inroads like it has in Costa Rica. It offers a great opportunity for people like us to be able to have a real, fresh experience. People don’t see us [North Americans] as a dollar sign. We still have that essence of “I want to meet you and know your name and know about your family,” not “I want to sell you something.” That will probably change down the road, but in Los Robles [HOI’s home base in Nicaragua] there’s really no tourism. Nicaragua offers a very unique and very rare opportunity to meet a country through its people that I feel is really what makes it special. It’s quite amazing.
ED: How do you see the role of North American volunteers in making a positive impact in these communities?
JT: Our approach is that we see each group as being unique, with people of various talents, interests, and so forth, but we also see each group as a continuation of those groups that have come before. We don’t just create an itinerary and send a group to do something; it all has meaning and a specific place in our strategy of community development. We know that a volunteer is going to be much more affected by their trip than a community will be affected. That’s not to say that the community isn’t going to be affected, but these are life-changing experiences for people. Sometimes it’s the first time out of their state or their country, and it’s the same thing that happened to me when I went on that road trip. We know that they’re going to be affected in many more ways than the typical counterpart in the community.
The family might get a latrine or the kids might get a new schoolroom, and that’s true impact. But we also know that the American volunteer is going to be impacted in many ways. What their role is is to understand that, embrace it, and to know that it’s okay. You’re not going to change the world from three days working in the community. That may change your life or your perspective, and that’s a valuable aspect of the work we do. However, because there have been hundreds of volunteers before them, their role is to carry the spirit of what all the other groups have done to lay the groundwork before them so that they too can be an agent for change. Our [HOI’s] role is to provide that opportunity so that people who speak different languages and come from completely different worlds can be together and work together.
ED: How do faith and community development intersect through this work in Nicaragua?
JT: For many Nicaraguans, faith plays a profound role in their lives. And when we are presented with the opportunity to join them in work meant to improve the quality of life of their families, we must do what we can to live up to that moment. We meet them in their struggle and join in the work, which creates moments where fellowship can prosper. All the while remembering one of my favorite passages from the Bible, Mathew 25:40, which reads, “In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Our work in Nicaragua seeks to inspire an inclusive perspective on community development, driven by local priorities and strengthened by our common faith.
ED: What are some of the biggest challenges you see faced by communities in the Jinotega and Los Robles area?
JT: There’s a huge lack of resources in the public sector. What few resources there are are usually poorly managed. Those that are invested are usually invested along the lines of favoritism. So one of the big challenges in my mind is local leadership, not on the community level because we have good community leaders, but on the regional level there’s often much to be desired. In that regard jobs are given to family members or someone who’s owed a favor. Challenges exist in funding for environmental and conservation efforts, and the resources for health and local clinics like the ones we’re building in Los Robles. There are communities all over the place that need clinics. There is a lot of good infrastructure around education. There aren’t a lot of resources for teachers like training or books in the classroom, but education has the buildings. In health they don’t. In Los Robles the residents have to walk seven kilometers to the nearest clinic, and that clinic serves 10,000 people. It’s understaffed, it’s overworked, and after walking seven kilometers sick, chances are that you’re not going to be seen.
That’s why we’ve identified health as one of the highest priorities for us. In Nicaragua there are needs around every corner, but what we don’t always find is local leadership, interest, and willingness to participate. When I enter a new community I know there are going to be needs. But where we decide to work is where needs are met with local leadership and a common interest to improve the quality of life for everybody. The needs and the leadership create an opportunity, and that’s where we want the magic to happen. We can bring our resources, human and financial and intellectual, to meet a need leveraging the local leadership in a sustainable way for long-term community development.