Last fall, a group of eight local residents volunteered to be part of a team to distribute over 840 wheelchairs in the Central America country of Nicaragua. A country said to be second only to Haiti as the poorest in the Western hemisphere according to the United Nations. Of the some 5 million people in Nicaragua, nearly half live in poverty with an estimated 19% of the population living in extreme poverty without access to the most basic of health care services.
"It really started with one Rotarian's idea here in Soldotna, Gary Hinkle, and through the network of Rotary, where they truly put service above self, we were able to raise enough funds to fill 3 shipping containers with quality wheelchairs provided at special prices through a partnership with the California Rotary Club to ship to Nicaragua," said Project Hope director Chuck Cook. Once the wheelchairs arrived and had cleared customs, the Soldotna Rotary team traveled at their own expense to assist the Rotary Club of Masaya, Nicaragua with the chair distribution. "Because of the recent civil wars and lack of proper medical facilities, it's estimated that ten percent of the overall population is physically handicapped. So you can imagine the demand and appreciation for these wheel chairs when we arrived," Cook told the Dispatch. When Harry Cotler and his wife Lisa, of the Foot Flare & Ware store in Soldotna heard about the trip, they donated 120 pair of new shoes to the team to take with them to give to the people of Nicaragua. "When we asked the Rotarians of Masaya the best place to distribute these shoes, they took us to a school. The school is located right across the street and down wind from where a new power plant was built, that is now spewing pollution into the air. The kids were beautiful and were so excited to get new shoes; one of the little girls exclaimed 'My very own shoes that I don't have to share with my brother!' Most of children there go to school half days and share their uniforms with a sibling for the other half day," said Cook.
According to Cook, the school is a two room adobe building that had been serving local children long before the power plant was constructed. "The pollution is pretty severe. We could actually feel it from the time we arrived. Our eyes burned, some of the kids and the teachers had visible skin rashes, and the local Masaya Rotarians agreed that something needed to be done to move the school away from the power plant," said Leonor Fraser of Soldotna who was one of the group's translators.
As soon as the team returned to Alaska, efforts got underway to once again partner with the Masaya Club and Rotary International, to build a new school. A 2.5 acre parcel of land at a pollution-free site has already been donated, and local Rotarians are responding to fund raising efforts. "It's a large project, but we're taking it one step at a time. We are well on our way and hopefully this fall, we'll be recruiting construction teams from our community to go to Nicaragua and help them build a new school for the children there. We'll recycle some of the material from the old school and rebuild in a new location a couple of miles away. They need the power plant, which was built in partnership with Venezuela, but many of the kids have dropped out of school due to illness, so we are excited about being able to help," said Cook. Kelly Keating of Blazy Construction has already designed the building and Joe Kashi Sqr. and Leonor Fraser are working on a matching Rotary International grant, according to Cook. "I do not have it all together, but together we have it all," said Fraser, "The faces of the children have been our inspiration and the Rotary Motto of 'Service above Self' will see the project to completion," she added. For more information about the Nicaragua school project contact Chuck Cook, at Soldotna Mini-Storage at 262-9666.
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