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from the barrio to the classroom...Tenacity and grit

By Katy Sawyer

As we passed by Perla’s house, she gregariously invited us in with a kind smile. Those of us she had never met were greeted like old friends. A welcoming hostess, she set out the three chairs she had so that we visitors could take a seat, while she remained standing, in her well swept and clean courtyard. Perla is warm and chatty; she exudes happiness. And, as you listen to her tell the very challenging circumstances of her life, you can’t help but be moved by her humility, ambition, and optimism.

Perla’s story is particularly unique. A single mother of five children: Ericka (16), Alexandra (15), Reyna (11), Jose (10), and Jerison (8), she is also an Empowerment International (EI) tutoring recipient. At the age of 22, 13 years ago, she made the decision to go back to school. A challenging feat for any parent juggling child-rearing, working and caring for a home. But for Perla, who began living on the streets at age 10, going back to school meant starting from where she left off: beginning in grade 3.

Growing up, Perla received much physical and emotional abuse from her mother. Fed up, she ran away from her mother’s home to live with her father only to discover he was an alcoholic. “It was better to be with him because at least I did not receive physical abuse.” However, at 11 years old she decided to leave her father’s house to live on the streets.

“I spent all my youth living on the streets. There are no words to describe the harsh reality of living on the streets.” She slept outside, was often hungry, cold and wet from the heavy rains during Nicaragua’s rainy season. She would go to the “Mercado” (Nicaraguan street market) to beg for money for food. She drank and used drugs. At 19, she became pregnant with her first child. The baby’s father, a vendor of respados (a Nicaraguan treat similar to snow cones), made just enough money to support them. He was also abusive. Despite this, Perla moved into his mother’s house to give her the stable home she needed to change her life. She stopped drinking, quit drugs, and found work washing and ironing clothes for people in the neighborhood. Perla and the baby’s father separated but Perla, serendipitously, inherited her mother’s house thus keeping her and the baby off the streets.

Returning to her old neighborhood was hard. The neighbors criticized her and spoke ill of her for her former life on the streets and her drug and alcohol use. Their words weighed on her but, luckily, she discovered EI. “EI’s support has been life-changing for me.”

Perla credits EI as the motivation for her to grow. At 22, when she went back to school, she didn’t know how to read or write. Currently, Perla is in the 11th grade of secondary school (the final year of high school) and is determined to complete her secondary education successfully. This is not the stopping point for her though, due to her history of mistreatment, and physical-psychological abuse, as she plans to graduate from high school this year, she is preparing herself for university admission. Her goal is to become a psychologist, and in this way not only will she be able to continue her self-improvement, as a mother and professional but, also with her life experience, will be able to counsel women and children who are in situations similar to her own. She’s an integral member of her church and she speaks to alcoholics and drug addicts to offer her support that they, too, can turn their lives around.

She says EI has always been there for her, “even in my hardest moments.” She speaks about a significant period of depression she suffered, during which EI intervened and sent her to a psychologist. She was overwhelmed: caring for the kids, working, studying, and taking care of the house had taken its toll and she felt it would never get better. The psychologist taught her how to manage her negative emotions and also helped Perla organize her time and determine where to put her energy. Perla indicates that this experience revolutionized her energy levels and made her realize she could achieve her dreams.

Perla now has a permanent position with the city public works. Despite the fact that it requires her to get an earlier start her day, it allows her to finish early, and be able to support her children with their homework, and care. Some days work begins at 4 AM, she takes her tools to go out to clean the streets of Granada and returns home at 1 PM to have lunch with her children and enjoy the afternoon with them, alternate weeks Perla rises at 5.30 AM readies the children for school, and herself for work at 11 AM, returning home between 6 and 7 PM. She is happy with this job because she has a fixed salary and benefits and no longer worries about whether she will make enough sales during the day as a vendor.

Perla greatly appreciates the work that is done at EI not only from the area of tutoring but also the work that is done in-home visits and schools for parents, “In the parenting schools I have learned to be a better mother, neighbor, and person, I have learned a lot about how to improve the relationship and treatment for my children as well as how to protect them from situations and people that can hurt them. Thanks to Empowerment International who has fought for so many years with me and my family, today my children are good students and I have decided to improve myself to have a better life”.


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