CHAPTER 2: SUSTAINING AN ORGANIZATION

By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Co-founder & Executive Director

       This is part 3 of a 4 part series

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LESSON #3 – LISTEN (even when it’s not what you want to hear)

In 2006, I was finishing up my two year teaching commitment in North Philadelphia with Teach for America and I was thinking of moving down to Waslala for a longer period of time. I had been working there already for a few years and was generally going once or twice a year for a month at a time. I shared my idea with a friend and colleague, Junior Gasparini, and he responded: “of course, if you want to move down here, you can live with us in the priest house and we can help get you a job in the education organization since your interest is education.”

Then he continued (the pro and con of close friends)… “But, we are pretty much fine here and can do whatever you would do. What I can’t do it get a seat at a board table in the US to share our message. You can.”

Now, this is not the role I wanted to or hoped to play. I am much more comfortable sleeping in a hammock in a rural village with no running water or electricity than I am sitting at any board table. I wanted my contribution to be “en el terreno” (on the ground)…not focused on funding and strategic partnerships in the US. But, here I am 10 years later, having assumed US operations (funding, outreach, and strategic partnerships) and I still work with Junior as my partner who runs the Nicaraguan operations.

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

2015 – Waslala team (left to right) – Miguel, Virginia, Junior G. Junior M., Wilfredo, Taleno, and me

LESSON #4 – I WILL ALWAYS BE AN OUTSIDER

In 2002, I was certainly an outsider when I arrived in Waslala on a two week trip, speaking limited Spanish, meeting every person for the first time and having limited understanding of the history or current context of Nicaragua/ Waslala and the U.S. role in that history.

Now, fourteen years later, I am bilingual, have immersed myself in learning about the history and current context in Nicaragua and Waslala, and have travelled to Waslala more times than I can count. Some of my closest friends live in Waslala – when I arrive for a visit and pop my head into the window of their house, I hear shrieks of “Nora!” as children come running to the door to greet me with a bear hug. I have seen these children grow up.

2011 - Phillies t-shirt for Junior’s daughter, Yaiza

2011 – Phillies t-shirt for Junior’s daughter, Yaiza

I will never truly be an insider or native Waslalan because of my citizenship, race, language and other social identifiers that are linked to power and history in many ways. This is not good or bad….it’s just reality. To me, the important thing is to never lose sight of this and intentionally pursue humility knowing that I am always missing something as I think about a situation or decision for the organization.

 

LESSON #5 – SHOW UP 

In December 2011, an abrupt change happened in La Parroquia and, by extension, in Waslala. The bishop on the Atlantic Coast (responsible for Waslala) began putting pressure on La Parroquia to redirect time and attention on evangelism and communion and away from their work in social programs – education, health care, water, etc. During a period of time, there were many heated discussions, disagreements, and even protests in Waslala. This fundamental disagreement about where La Parroquia should direct its work resulted in the Brazilian priests being called back to Brazil and a Nicaraguan priest from another region installed as the head priest in La Parroquia. This transition resulted in closing or ending the work of most of the ministries created by La Parroquia over the years – education, health, vulnerable children, etc.

This transition not only stopped work on education, health care, etc., but also undermined years of work La Parroquia spent building relationships and trust in rural villages in a post-civil war context. I spent weeks in Waslala shortly after this abrupt parish transition. Through my time there, I had numerous people – from organization representatives to residents – come up to me in the street and ask whether WfW would, in fact, continue working in Waslala. I had never felt the impact of my physical presence in such palpable ways. After the parish transition, many if not most of the international organizations and individuals who had worked with and supported Waslala for years and years, had now pulled out since the ties with the La Parroquia, and therefore Waslala, had been abruptly cut. During my time in Waslala, one community organization representative commented about the importance of physical presence for trust and relationships especially during such an uncertain time,

I don’t think I realized how important it was for people to see you guys here, physically and, yes, there is a parish but it’s a different parish and you’re still here and you’re still spending time in your communities because I think the fear was that everyone would leave . . . all the international partners.

 

LESSON #6 – IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE!

People (myself included) are inspiring, frustrating, confusing, motivating….I could go on and on. My husband, Wil, leads a large (100+ employees), internet marketing, for profit business based in the U.S. I have been leading a small, grassroots, non-profit organization based in rural Nicaragua. When we spend time at dinner discussing our days, we find that our challenges (what keeps us up at night) and our successes (what makes you feel most excited and proud of the organization) are very similar. Everything is really about people!

As I reflect back on 14 years of the WfW journey, it is really all about the people…both on an organizational level and on a personal level. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most solid and inspiring people I know through WfW. This has truly been a collective effort!

First, there is something about Waslala (and maybe WfW) that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go!

In addition to our board of directors, just a few of the many, many examples…

  • Avi Loewenstein – former board member who visited Waslala in 2012 and even tried his hand at digging trench line in the Yaro Central community…years later served as a thought partner and pro-bono legal counsel through the entire acquisition process!
  • Justin Knabb – technically left the WfW board about 4 years ago, but has continued to handle all accounting, finance, taxes, etc. behind the scenes through today!
  • Meag Gruber, our first US team member in Waslala technically has not worked with WfW since about 2009….and still immediately jumps in any time a Nica question pops up or she can support work in Waslala in any way!
  • Iain Hunt technically stopped working for WfW in 2013, but continues to provide significant support in engineering design questions, partnership conversations, as an adviser, etc.
  • Brian Bozzo first travelled to Waslala in 2005 as a Villanova engineering student…not only has he stayed involved, but he convinced one of his best friends, PJ McAward to co-found Knots Apparel with him as a strategic way to contribute to Water for Waslala!

Second, we have “grown up” together!

Because WfW represents 14 years of my life, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with, know, & collaborate with folks in Waslala over a long period of time. Here is a perfect “people” example:

(Denis) Taleno started working with WfW is 2005 and continues to this day…To be clear, he is not an “employee”…he built this organization! Those in the US may not know or have the opportunity to meet and see Taleno’s impact on WfW firsthand, but anyone who has ever traveled to Waslala (many, many Villanova folks, etc.) have seen his impact very clearly!

A glimpse at Taleno and I “growing up” (or maybe growing old) together.

 

TOP - 2006 - Taleno and I put boots back on after walking through the river; BOTTOM - 2016 – hanging on top of a recently completed water tank

TOP – 2006 – Taleno and I put boots back on after walking through the river; BOTTOM – 2016 – hanging on top of a recently completed water tank

Hanging out with Taleno’s son, Jordan (named after WfW Board member Jordan Ermilio) in 2006 (top) & 2016 (bottom)

Hanging out with Taleno’s son, Jordan (named after WfW Board member Jordan Ermilio) in 2006 (top) & 2016 (bottom)

Taleno with his sons, Hervin and Jordan, and wife, Gloria – 2006; Hanging with Taleno and his son, Hervin – 2016

Taleno with his sons, Hervin and Jordan, and wife, Gloria – 2006; Hanging with Taleno and his son, Erwin – 2016

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