What can be done to help kids and communities who face chronic poverty, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? Our answer is to Empower Nicaragua! This is a new program started by a local physician from León and two unsuspecting women from Atlanta, Georgia. The difference between Empower and many other charitable initiatives in Nicaragua is that this one “empowers” teenagers to make changes in their communities by educating their peers.
The idea for Empower was initiated by Dr. Alonso Medina from the neighborhood of Rubén Dario, a barrio outside of León, where his patient load is close to 8,000. Robin and I were visiting with my church mission in 2011 when Dr. Medina told us that the problem of teen pregnancies and STDs were of concern to him. He wanted to figure out a way to educate young people on these issues in a systematic and long-term manner—not a spot mission, but something sustainable.
As God would have it, Robin and I were inspired writers working on another project in our spare time. We enthusiastically switched gears and devoted all our free time to creating a curriculum that would address the issues concerning this community and others just like it.
The program is specifically designed for teenagers to teach small group sessions to their peers. The session topics include: 1) Introduction and Building Relationships: where the mentors begin to facilitate a team and accountability group that will be loyal and supportive of one another beyond the six session course; 2) Sex in the Media: which explores the myths about sexuality portrayed in the media and how it affects our own self image; 3) Self Esteem: addressing the critical importance of holding yourself in high regard in order to make healthy choices; 4) Goal Setting: information on how to set specific short and long term goals; how to take action, as well as what to avoid in order to meet those goals; 5) Consequences of Sex: exploring the most common STDs and long term effects of unplanned pregnancy outside of marriage; and ends with 6) God’s Plan for Marriage and Sexuality. After teaching these five sessions, the students themselves have the opportunity to train to become mentors for Empower, thereby multiplying the movement.
After just one and a half years from the seed of an idea, Empower Nicaragua has grown to include not only the physician (Dr. Medina), the program coordinator (Mario Rivas), and the mentor trainer (Silvia Mercedes Matus), but also a psychologist (Sophia) and a community leader to liaise with the parents and teenagers (Parillas). Currently, Empower has 12 devoted teen mentors.
The group members have all been trained extensively on the Empower curriculum. They have also been taught how to present in front of a group, make eye contact, and command their audience. Our incredible mentor’s trainer is Silvia Mercedes Matus. As a bachelor’s student in communications, she is the ideal person for this role. She supports the mentors in their studies and guides and directs their group activities with the Empower program. Two mentors are paired to teach small groups of 4-8 young teens. They meet weekly at the home of the mentor, or at the local health clinic or church. Each new student is provided with a Bible that they can reference through the course. The mentors spend about two hours discussing the curriculum, and building relationships with one another that will extend beyond the group meetings and encourage accountability in decision making as well as encourage members to continue their education. From the group of new students, the mentors are charges with identifying natural leaders among their own groups that will be valuable, and committed to becoming a mentor for Empower.
The current mentor leaders have expressed to us how Empower has changed their lives. Lester, a 17-year old young man says that before he got involved with the Empower program he had no plans for furthering his education. He says that now he plans to go on to university to study engineering. Blanca, a 14-year old young lady, says that before Empower she had very low self esteem. She realized through the self esteem lesson, that she was valuable to God and to others. Now this is her favorite session to teach.
Cynthia and Benita say that they feel that they can really change the lives of their generation with this information. Heidi expressed that she never realized that God had a plan for her life, and that she likes the topic of self esteem and respect. Katherine struggled with family relationships. Her outlook was negative and it was obvious in the way she carried herself and interacted with everyone. About half way through the initial training course she began to open up and express herself. She sought support from the adults and began working on her relationships and her own issues. She has stayed involved in Empower as a testament to other students of the power of a support network, and believing in yourself.
Robin and I spent one-on-one time with each mentor just finding out what it was that made them willing to commit so much of their free time to this program. Every mentor has a story to tell and all seem overwhelmingly inspired by the potential change this information can have. We were most impressed with how close they had all become with one another, and how they literally beam when they talk about being a part of Empower.
Empower is a movement, not merely an educational program. We want this to be a way of life for these kids, and we want them to be empowered to change their world. There is a long way to go to make this happen, but with God all things are possible, and He has certainly not let us down in the past!
For more information on our program, our mentors, or to get involved please visit www.empowernica.org or LIKE our facebook page Empower Nicaragua.
Jill and Robin Browder are sisters and live in Atlanta with their families. They have been writing together for 3 years on a variety of projects. They have always shared a passion for missions, and have found blessings in the relationships formed in Nicaragua as a result of this project.