Experiencing Community Development in Nicaragua

by Annalise Mecham, Development Director

As the incoming Development Director at Trees, Water & People, my job is to raise the funds that will keep the organization running. Even before taking this position, I knew that to do my job successfully I would need to visit the places where we work, shake hands with our partners, smell a kitchen with a clean cookstove, and touch the soil where we are growing our trees.

This opportunity came in the middle of January when I got to travel to Nicaragua for a week-long stay with Gemara Gifford, TWP’s International Director, and Paul Thayer, a TWP board member. Shortly after arriving at the Managua airport, Paul, Gemara and our fabulous tour guide (and partner of past International Director, Lucas Wolf), Valentina, drove directly to Gaia Estate. The Estate is a Certified Bird-friendly coffee farm outside the town of Diriamba and is owned by long-time TWP friend Jefferson Shriver. Jefferson greeted us with a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation about Nicaragua. He stressed the importance of promoting farming systems that integrate overstory trees (i.e. agroforestry), and high-value and environmentally-friendly products like vanilla and turmeric. After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to the smell of fresh coffee brewing, beans that had been picked and harvested from his farm just days before.

We spent the next day with Proleña visiting Tierra Verde, our newly opened climate change education center in La Paz Centro. Since TWP’s last visit, the first floor of the dormitory has been built and 600 trees have been planted on the property (25 different species in all) as well as infrastructure for the site including roadways and electricity. Having seen Tierra Verde in many photographs, it was essential to see the property and hear about the exciting events planned for 2018.

Tierra Verde
Conducting a strategy session at Tierra Verde with Proleña’s Executive Director, Marlyng Buitrago (second from the right) and Technical Director, Leonardo Mayorga (far right). Photo by Annalise Mecham.

Although more construction will be taking place this year, the vision for the center is starting to take shape. We talked in detail about the workshops that we have planned, including bringing in local farmers to talk about agroforestry, university students to discuss climate change, and TWP Tour participants to visit the center. We discussed plans to complete the tree nursery with at least 50,000 trees in the first year, as well as demonstration sites for clean cookstoves, and adding a greenhouse for growing and genetically testing trees.

After our visit to Tierra Verde, we toured Proleña’s workshop in Managua and visited local urban cookstove beneficiaries. I have always been aware of the impact of clean cookstoves, but it was a completely different experience to see and smell the difference. The women we visited graciously welcomed us into their kitchen and explained the changes in their lives and their health after the clean cookstove had been installed. Although my Spanish is limited, it didn’t take me long to realize how these women felt about their clean cookstoves. They would pat gently on their chests and touch their eyes, implying that they could breathe easier and their eyes were less irritated.

Doña Thelma
Doña Thelma (center) and her family in her home. She is one of the beneficiaries of a clean cookstove and sells 300 tortillas a day to customers.

The last day was one of the most profound for me as we visited the rural communities surrounding the northern town of Jinotega, in particular, the remote village of La Cal. To get there, we had a few hours’ drive on an impossibly steep and windy dirt road with a one hour walk up a steep rocky path. The village was tucked away in a mountain valley and one of the most remote communities I have ever visited.

Upon our arrival, we were introduced to the only teacher in the community, a young man who gave us a tour including the one-room schoolhouse and various family homes. The families we visited we welcoming, kind, and joyful. We interviewed many women about the impacts of their clean cookstoves, played with the kids, saw how much time it takes to gather wood, and the challenges of living in rural Nicaragua. As we drove back that evening to Managua, the feeling I had wasn’t sadness at the rural living conditions, but a sense of awe at their resilience.

long cornhouse
A house with corn hanging from the roof in the remote village of La Cal.

On the plane ride home, I was thinking about my biggest take away from the trip. What was I going to bring back to the TWP community of donors and supporters? Without a doubt, it was the unique community-based approach that Trees, Water & People uses when working in Central America and U.S. Tribal Lands.

TWP’s approach is based on the philosophy that communities have the best judgment of how their lives and livelihoods can be improved, and if given access to the right resources, they should make decisions that will be most impactful for them. I believe that this community-based development is the most effective way to create change. Change does not come easy for anyone. Changing the way someone cooks their food can seem impossibly difficult. But, TWP’s approach to involve the community and a local nonprofit (in the case of Proleña in Nicaragua) allows for the change to be approached on an intimate, community level.

This type of grassroots change is not the easiest route. It is complicated and complex and takes years to actualize. Luckily for TWP, we have been planting seeds this way for 20 years and will continue to for many, many more!

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Welcome to Our New Development Director, Annalise Mecham!

by Annalise Mecham, Development Director

IMG_7505I come to Trees, Water & People as an East coast transplant, having spent a majority of my life living in Virginia and all over New England. After living on Cape Cod for the past 12 years, my husband and I were ready for a bigger town, more opportunities, and better winters! After extensive research, we decided to relocate to Fort Collins and a few weeks ago packed up our two young boys, put our house on the market, and drove cross country (U-Haul and all!). So far, it has been one of the best decisions of my life.

One of the most exciting parts of this move has been my new job as Development Director at Trees, Water & People. I discovered TWP a year ago when I was researching nonprofits in the Fort Collins area. I was immediately intrigued by its mission of improving communities through the care and management of their natural resources. My grandparents were supporters and actively involved with the American Indian College Fund, so I was happy to see TWP’s work with Tribal communities. I was beyond excited to see their job posting this fall for a Development Director. I think I was the first to apply!

I have been working in nonprofit development for the past eight years, receiving my M.S. from Boston University in nonprofit management in 2011. I received my undergraduate degree in Environmental Education and had the honor of taking a year to explore the United States with the Expedition Education Institute, a traveling college that teaches ecological leadership through experiential experiences. It was a year that changed my life and the way I approach people, communities and the environment. I have a strong belief that the health of a community is directly affected by how they protect and preserve their local ecosystem.

While in New England, I worked at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA where I became hooked on the idea that a well-organized nonprofit can have a direct influence on improving individual lives. From there, I moved into the Development Director role at Calmer Choice, a nonprofit that taught social-emotional learning to students in the Cape Cod public schools, many of whom were underserved. It was here that I discovered my passion for serving marginalized communities and seeing first-hand the change that happens when committed people work together.

TWP’s mission is a perfect combination of my passions for environmental education, community empowerment, and nonprofit management. I am excited to start my journey as the Development Director at TWP. I look forward to creating and developing relationships with TWP’s partners, supporters, donors, volunteers, board members, and staff. Please feel free to reach out and introduce yourself! I would love to hear from you.

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