Springfield group helps poor Nicaraguans

Sunday, September 2, 2001

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- When catastrophe struck the Nicaraguan mountains of Matagalpa, the Rainbow Network had to re-evaluate its priorities.

The nondenominational Christian organization is not an emergency relief network, said founder Keith Jaspers. Normally, the Springfield-based ministry helps poor, rural residents of Nicaragua become self-sufficient, he said.

But people in Matagalpa were starving, so the Rainbow Network, which is operated solely on donations, sent food and volunteers.

"We know that there are people who are suffering terribly ... dying. We have the ability to act. That means we have the responsibility to act," Jaspers said.

The work Rainbow Network has done from its four offices in western Nicaragua was meant to help people in those rural communities avoid the kind of hunger and helplessness that volunteers found 120 miles away in Matagalpa. The organization normally provides help with health care, housing, education and economic development.

Rainbow Network works with people in rural communities through a "community bank," providing seed money for entrepreneurs. In a country where the average annual family income doesn't exceed $400, families within Rainbow Network can double their income by raising and selling vegetables, sewing clothing, raising farm animals or setting up small shops or businesses, Jaspers said.

A combination of things

The catastrophe in Matagalpa is the result of a combination of things, starting with long-term poverty in a country with more than 70 percent unemployment. A drought throughout Central America has contributed to the failure of many of the coffee plantations in the mountain region of Matagalpa, already hurt by falling coffee prices.

The peasants of Matagalpa depend on the plantations for work, barely earning enough to feed their families. There is little field work now, and with no land or marketable skills, the peasants are left to beg for food.

Ruth Ann Blase, one of 26 volunteers from Missouri who distributed food to 988 families in Matagalpa in mid-August, had never been to Nicaragua before and she had never seen starvation.

Recalling the time she spent in Nicaragua brings tears to her eyes.

"It was the very first man. I handed him the food and I hugged him," she said. "He was so grateful. I wanted that on my heart."

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