On a road trip through Central America, 23-year-old Jon Thompson asked his friends to go on without him. He had found an ideal town on the beach with little tourism, and something he felt was missing from most of the other countries he had seen: an open and welcoming people with multi-generational families that worked and lived together. He returned to the states and started teaching ESL, traveling back to Nicaragua once a year, until he finally decided to pursue philanthropy full-time. What started as a connection with a foreign people and a decision to teach English to immigrants in Atlanta had slowly become a passion. Jon says, “I realized that teaching English was only part of the puzzle and that there were folks like them who were both Latino or immigrant or even low-income Americans that really needed the support of family, friends, and community that I had taken for granted for so long.” He decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work, focusing on community development, and his family was thrilled.
Community. This one word guides every program Jon manages. He grew up as a minority in the Atlanta public school system and witnessed first-hand the effect of good community programs. Though his neighborhood was a mid- to low-income community, they came together to build a credit union, a co-op grocery store, a radio station, a newspaper, a homeless shelter for men (the first in Atlanta), and carried out many similar programs. “None of that really hit me until I was an adult, but those were the most significant influences on my decision,” he says. He pursued his passion, obtained his degree, and worked in Atlanta for three years before packing his bags and moving full-time to Nicaragua, in the ideal coastal town of San Juan del Sur.
Nicaragua is a land of opportunity to Jon, because he chooses to focus on the strengths of the people and the possibility of improvement. This country and it’s people are the victims of a fresh and terrible history, including an oppressive dictatorship for 43 years under the Somoza family, a massive earthquake in ’73 that left over 250,000 people homeless, a violent revolution in ’79 by the Sandinistas to overthrow the Somozas, an American-funded counter-revolutionary guerrilla war through the early ’90’s, and a hurricane in ’98 that left 500 to 800 thousand more people homeless as a result of massive mudslides. “It takes time for wounds to heal, and some countries did better than others. I think what happened in Nicaragua [was] there were some natural disasters that just really wiped out the people . . . [they] just became exhausted. [They] said, ‘You know what, we just can’t do it anymore. We just don’t have it in us.’” Nicaragua’s communal family structure and Jon’s community development expertise have come together to produce impressive results.
Today, if you go to San Juan del Sur, which is now a popular surfing destination, you’ll walk down the street and have a sense that you’re safe, that everyone knows each other, and that the population is happy and hopeful for the future. That isn’t an accident and one of the major players behind core programs has been Jon and the organization he co-founded: Comunidad Connect.
Comunidad Connect has been involved in an impressive variety of programs, from sports programs for youth, recycling, water purification, financial literacy programs, business workshops, police-assistance movements, sustainable tourism, and even an organic coffee farm. Their scope is broad, but every one of these programs share the same governing principle: asset-based development.
An asset is anything that has value. It can be an intangible—knowledge—or it can be anything you can see, such as a truck or a community center. Whatever form it takes, the asset keeps giving long after Comunidad Connect leaves, brings local people together, and becomes a part of the fabric of their community. The best and most obvious example of this is the San Juan del Sur sportsplex. “We put in some money in the infrastructure, get it going and then the community takes off with it . . . now it’s something that the community can take on and enjoy for many, many years to come so that’s kind of a good example of what we try to do when we approach our community development and our philanthropy.” What started as a simple concrete, outdoor complex in 2006 has become something of a city-center for youth. They brought in some of the best graffiti artists in Nicaragua and had them make it their own, started some leagues, and the rest is history. They now have over 1,200 kids per year involved in leagues ranging from basketball, arena soccer, boxing, volleyball, and many others, have created over 40 temporary jobs for concessions, referees, cleaners, etc, and have helped make a very tangible impact on the community.
One of the biggest problems tourist-heavy areas face is the crime it attracts – the influx of money, especially a much more valuable currency like the US dollar, attracts not-so-attractive criminals from other parts of the country who take advantage of the system. I was barely in San Juan del Sur for more than 30 minutes when a young kid came up to me and asked, “Te gustan las chicas Nicas?” (do you like Nicaraguan girls?) The impact on local families is difficult, and is something Comunidad Connect was conscious of when designing their sportsplex.
We provided lights, provided full-time program development leadership, and [now] we have these 1,200 kids that are now involved in our sports that, if say they were still playing soccer in the street, or if they didn’t have a place to play, they would probably venture in more and more down towards the areas where the drugs and prostitution are. And it’s hard to measure the impact we’ve had, but it is quite significant to see how many young people and their families and their members are at the sports park at night, celebrating this safe place for kids and youth and even adults to play. . . . It goes beyond a youth development initiative and becomes a tool for community development.
With as many programs and approaches as Comunidad Connect uses, some are bound to work better than others, and since Jon’s programs all rely on local support, some don’t end up working at all, but Jon isn’t disheartened. “The ones that have failed are often the ones that teach us the most. You know, this work is like learning how to play chess – you don’t get better unless you lose . . . Oftentimes those that succeed the most are the ones that failed the most in the beginning.”
One of the main lessons Jon learned came from their municipal recycling program. This program was established to deal with one of the biggest problems in developing nations – economic growth at the expense of the environment. In Nicaragua, trash is hauled to the local dump where everything burnable soon rises as ash and smoke, even plastic and other toxic materials. This causes obvious problems when done year-round, so Jon worked with the Mayor to develop a recycling initiative. The local government was to provide the truck and the labor, while Comunidad Connect encouraged the community to change their habits and start separating their trash to recycle plastic. It took a long time to get people to start recycling consistently, but once the program was running in full they were diverting more than two tons of plastic from the dumps each month. Everything was going as planned, and then a new Mayor was elected, and the truck just stopped showing up. Jon tried to get the new mayor to buy-in to the program again and again, and even sent his own truck around for a while, but eventually had to end the program due to budget limitations. “That really hurt because we had put in 2 1/2 years’ worth of really hard work to get people to start recycling and they did it.”
With one program dying out, Jon came back with three more, each pursuing a vision of keeping Nicaragua clean and beautiful. On their website you’ll find these grouped together in a program called Campo Verde (“Green Countryside”). This includes support for Nica Agua, a program that helps rural communities have access to clean water; El Teson, a beach clean-up and awareness initiative; and a reusable bag campaign.
Another lesson came at the heels of an initiative called “Amigos de la Policia.” In response to a crime wave that hit San Juan in 2008, the town came together to demand change. Because of the work Comunidad Connect had already done in the community, locals looked to them again to help lead this effort to curb crime rates, and Jon accepted the call to action and put a year’s worth of hard work into it before finally deciding to cut the program off. They had raised enough funds, but the locals moved on and forgotten – awareness of the crime wave fizzled after six months. Though it was difficult to see public support diminish over time, Jon learned the need to get leadership from the people themselves if he wanted ongoing support. “When someone takes the lead, everyone else will follow, and in that type of situation what we needed not just us to take the lead, but for everyone else to take the lead as well and for us to be co-leaders of this initiative and that just didn’t happen.”
So Comunidad Connect moves forward confidently with their next main initiative, Nica Agua, and seeks to apply all past lessons to make sure their impact endures. Nica Agua is a cooperative non-profit organization supported by Comunidad Connect and others that is based on a simple human need to have clean water, and the impacts are far-reaching. Unclean drinking water is one of the biggest problems in developing countries (most often because of human waste and E. Coli getting into the water supply). The two most common sicknesses that result are kidney infection and diarrhea. Even missing one day of work to go to a local health clinic causes a lot of problems for families. “There’s a tremendous economic impact for families that can’t go to work or go to school . . . [and] the whole thing is these are all preventable. These are both some of the two most common cases that are seen in health clinics and are preventable, and it’s just as simple as clean drinking water.” If we can help address this simple problem, workers would be able to work more often, kids would be able to go to school, and under-funded health clinics would be able to focus more resources on non-preventable illnesses.
So we have the problem and the opportunity to help: bad drinking water. How do we go about this in a way that will be effective, inexpensive, and easy to continue long-term? Remember community-asset development and how an asset can become a tool to strengthen and build better communities? It’s simple – a ceramic water-filter costs $30, and can lasts from four to ten years and support a family of up to five people. Rather than show up in a truck and divvy out filters to whoever they see first, Jon and the rest of the volunteers at Nica Agua have each family take leadership and “buy” their own filter by giving 16 hours of community service: repairing roads, cleaning up trash, planting gardens at the schools to help students have a more complete diet, or whatever else the family would like to do. They then attend a workshop that teaches them how to use and maintain the filter, and voila! They have their own filter right there in their home. The program is tied in closely with local health authorities who already go around to each community every week. They have agreed to check in on the filters each month for the first six months after a family “purchases” one, and then at a year as well.
We’re talking about changing habits, being able to improve the cultural mindset or paradigm of public health, and if we can provide these very technologically appropriate cost-effective solutions like the Nica Agua filter that can provide clean drinking water for a family of five for from 4-5 years at least . . . we’re on the right path. Then we can start working towards walking groups, exercise for middle-aged and the elderly, because hypertension, diabetes, obesity… these are also things that are plagues on Nicaraguan society, and they’re all preventable. So we can alleviate half or even more than half the caseloads of these local health clinics, then the medicine goes farther [and] the team of medical experts at the clinics can do more proactive preventive medicine. They can get out in the community more often because they’re not dealing with 80 people per day that are coming with these preventable ailments.
That’s the vision of Nica Agua, and supporting them is simple. Click here to sponsor a family with a direct contribution. I drank from some of these ceramic filters while in Nicaragua – it is extremely reassuring to know the water you’re drinking is clean, and any traveler who doesn’t make sure to purify their water is likely going to come home with some fun stomach problems their co-workers will enjoy witnessing for a week or two. These simple water filters have proven to be effective, decreasing cases of diarrhea in rural Nicaragua by as much as 90%.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Comunidad Connect is that they are self-sustaining – they don’t require donations to operate. They have a revenue-generating branch of their program called Sustainable Tourism. Each year individuals and groups come to them to be given a guided experience in volunteering, seeing the country, and enjoying the culture. Volunteers spend their nights in a home-stay, a local Nicaraguan family that offers a room and three meals a day for $15, and have the opportunity of seeing central Nicaraguan rural areas like I experienced on my trip, speaking with local business owners, learning to surf, teaching English, and so much more. The great thing about this program is that it is affordable. Unfortunately, my competition for guided volun-tourism can undercut me be quite a bit because of the low cost of living in Nicarauga: you’d have to pay me about $1,500 a week plus play for my plane tickets and food, but Comunidad Connect’s program offers a one-week program for a total of $355, including all meals and lodging, and there are discounts for groups and longer stays. You can still hire me if you’d like, but if you want a less expensive trip – Comunidad Connect has you covered, and you’ll know the fee you pay is going directly to funding these other great community initiatives as well.
Thanks for reading – I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about they community asset-building model? Do you have questions for Jon? Ask them in the comment section below and he’ll respond in two weeks in a new post under my Ask the Philanthropist section! Also, if you’d like see how me, Comunidad Connect, and all you who donated partnered to give to Juan Cabrera, a well-deserving local, click here. Much thanks to all the other great employees and volunteers I had the chance to work with while in San Juan del Sur, and to the other leaders that helped these programs be what they are today.
Born and raised in Atlanta, GA, Jon graduated from Centre College in Danville, KY in 1997 with a B.A. in History. He first visited Nicaragua in 1998 and returned every year thereafter. In 2002, Jon obtained his Masters of Social Work with a concentration in Community Development from Georgia State University. He began his social work career at Travelers Aid and United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, where he created and managed asset development programs focusing on small business development, first time homeownership and financial education for low-income households. Jon and his Nicaraguan wife moved to live in San Juan del Sur full time in 2005, where Jon met Roman Yavich and founded Comunidad Connect in 2006. After working as volunteer Executive Director for 5 years, Jon has recently moved on to serve as Board President. He also currently manages the organic coffee farm Finca El Peten in Jinotega, Nicaragua and is Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Guacalito de la Isla in Tola, Nicaragua.