“So, you’re a teacher and a principal. Anything else?” I asked Patricia Shronce, who, in February 2013, founded the Hope Bilingual Academy in La Concepción, Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the second most impoverished country in the Americas, but there are incredible people, like Patricia, who are eradicating poverty through education.
“I’m also a mother, a grandma, a sign language teacher, a school psychologist, and a speech pathologist,” replied Patricia.
I met Patricia because one of my Peace Corps colleagues, Corey Haynes (who is pursuing a master’s in education and is a cancer research advocate), invited me on a press trip to the school. Since I visited in February, I haven’t stopped thinking about the amazing things the school does to educate the community, but also about its uncertain future.
Patricia was born in Nicaragua and emigrated to Texas as a child. She hated having to learn English and adapting to life the States, so it’s ironic that she came back to start a bilingual academy at age 49. Patricia is an incredible philanthropist because she founded the school with her retirement money from teaching in public schools. Now, her retirement money is gone, and she relies purely on private donations and her husband’s income from odd jobs, like bartending.
Hope, as the school is known by some, is home to 60 students from the area, and it is free for them to attend. Patricia has even housed some of the students who feel safer staying with her than at home. Hope is more than a halfway house; it’s a place where students with special needs can be supported safely. Some parents walk 40 minutes from the other side of the mountain to bring their kids, like Emily, to school. Emily needed more support than the average student.
When Patricia met Emily, the six-year-old was shy and would often skip school. Patricia recognized autistic characteristics in Emily’s behavior, like carrying a blanket with her wherever she went, laughing like a bird, and shaking her hands in routine ways. Her parents had no idea that Emily could be autistic. Emily couldn’t even talk until she was five, so Patricia strategized ways to help her write. “I began to draw pictures from letters. For example, I had Emily make the letter “O” and draw an eye out of it (“Eye” in Spanish is ojo). I’d sit her on my lap, as if I were her grandma, and we’d work together.”
The other students noticed that drawing pictures helped Emily learn best, so they also began drawing pictures from letters in order to learn and to help Emily. Patricia and the students would praise Emily with “Un aplauso para Emily!” (An applause for Emily!), which the girl loved hearing. Her confidence shot up.
Since it’s difficult for Emily to express herself sometimes, Patricia has also taught her how to say things like “I love you” in sign language. Patricia is training Hope’s seven teachers (yes, only seven) to use sign language in order to help the students express themselves when English or Spanish aren’t enough.
Patricia has made a difference in her student’s lives as well as in their parent’s lives.
“Once Emily’s grandmother joked that if for some reason Emily could no longer come to school, that they would find a way to sneak in through the back!” said Patricia. “That made me laugh, but we would never do that to Emily.”
It hasn’t always been an easy process working with the parents. “I’ve coached the parents on how to talk to their kids. I’ve told them not to scream at Emily. because that just makes her shut down. I’ve also told parents whose children have ADHD that they shouldn’t be drinking coffee at such a young age.” In Nicaragua, it’s pretty normal for children to drink coffee, but the stimulant only further exacerbates the effects of the students’ attention deficit disorder.
Anywhere from about 10-15 percent of Hope’s students have cognitive and learning disabilities. That’s only as far as Patricia can see, though. In addition to being a teacher and the school’s principal, she has the overwhelming task of accommodating her students’ learning styles. There is a huge need not only for sponsors to keep the school afloat, but also a need for more trained professionals to support her students.
Finally, Patricia needs help supporting her LGBTQ students. While Nicaragua decriminalized homosexuality in 2008, homophobia in the area still pushes people to commit suicide and violence against LGBT individuals happens. One of her students came out of the closet. His sister committed suicide before, and Patricia is afraid that he will harm himself because society’s lack of acceptance. “I don’t see skin color or orientation, any of that. I love him and I want to know how to support him.”
As a queer teacher, I gave her advice on handling the situation. Once Patricia told me this, I realized how much psychological and pedagogical support she gives her students, but one woman for 60 students is not enough.
Non-profits, like Courts for Kids, have brought university students to build a multi-purpose sports court in an empty plot of land. Volunteers have come to build stoves, teach classes, and give teacher trainings.
Patricia never gives up on her kids. She works tirelessly to empower her students to help each other in sustainable ways. Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed, though, because this month, the GoAbroad Foundation has selected her as our Philanthropist of the Month. Though she doesn’t do anything for recognition, she is more than deserving of this honor.
So, how can you help? Like Hope’s Facebook page, spread the word, and take the pledge this month!
This blog was written by Char Stoever:
Char is a Mexican-born traveler and LGBT rights advocate. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in French and Women’s Studies. She has lived in the United States and France and has worked as a social media specialist, diversity trainer and TEFL teacher trainer for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. Her blog is titled The Vulnerable Traveler and she writes about mental health and diversity issues for GoAbroad and Travel Latina.