This year, the Bainbridge-Ometepe Sister Island Association is celebrating its 35th anniversary, reflecting on the years of its humanitarian efforts for the people of Ometepe in Nicaragua through its sister-ship with the island.
Throughout the organization’s history, BOSIA has helped the people of Ometepe construct schools and water systems together, learned each others’ languages and customs, and have visited each other on a regular basis where many friendships have been formed. Its motto is “We tend the relationships; the projects we do are secondary to the friendships we build.”
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of when BOSIA began to import coffee from the farmers of Ometepe to Bainbridge, which is now called Cafe Oro, a product that is sold at many places on the island. All coffee proceeds go back to Ometepe to help improve their quality of life.
Most recently, five deaf students graduated from high school on Ometepe with the support of Bainbridge families, and thanks to board member Holy McIver they now have a sister-school relationship between Wilkes Elementary and the Ruben Dario school in Altagracia.
BOSIA director Carol Carley recently talked with The Review about the many positive impacts it has helped make for the people of Ometepe.
BIR: How did this sister-island partnership originate? Who’s credited with the idea?
CC: The sister island relationship originated back in 1986 when Kim Esterberg was compelled to find a sister island for Bainbridge in Nicaragua. This was during the Contra War and many Bainbridge Islanders were frustrated by the U.S. government’s backing of the war. Esterberg envisioned a relationship based on mutual friendship and respect that went beyond governments and borders. Ninety Bainbridge Islanders attended a potluck dinner to raise funds for his trip. He left on Nov. 26 carrying with him two proclamations. One signed by all 90 people at the potluck and the other that the Nicaraguans were asked to sign and return.
BIR: What kind of services and projects do you provide for the people of Ometepe? What have you improved for them over the years?
CC: Through profits from coffee sales and money from fundraisers such as the sale of the “Kids Can Make a Difference” calendar and student auctions, as well as community outreach and support from many individuals, BOSIA has been able to fund a weekend ambulance service, sign language work-shops for the deaf, furnish school supplies and books to children, provide scholarships to hundreds of students to attend Nicaraguan universities, support our office staff on Ometepe and much more. All of our projects are mutually agreed upon and some are carried out together when we have delegations (especially our students) travel to Ometepe. The people on Ometepe submit a proposal for a project that is beneficial to their community. They are responsible for raising some of the funds, and BOSIA provides additional costs. Examples of projects we have done include building water systems, the building and repairing of schools and roads, improvements to health facilities and more. But to be fair, the people of Ometepe have also improved our lives. I think everyone who has traveled to Ometepe has felt their lives have been enriched because of the friendships they have made.
BIR: Do you visit them every year and do they visit you?
CC: We try to have at least one delegation travel to Ometepe to work together on projects every year or two. We also have a student delegation that travels down each year, however, due to the civil unrest in 2019 and COVID in 2020-21, we have not been able to send a student delegation down the past three years. We have a couple of the founders, Kim and Ella Esterberg, as well as David Mitchell and Lisa Giles who live on Ometepe for a few months out of the year. We also have a couple members who are married to Ometepians who travel down to stay with their families over the holidays. We also host delegates here on Bainbridge from Ometepe about every five years. It means a lot to the people of Ometepe to come to Bainbridge, share in our lives, meet the people here and get to learn first-hand about our culture.
BIR: Talk about prioritizing the relationships over the projects.
CC: Many organizations travel to do projects and work in other developing countries, which is great, but after the projects are complete they move on. That is not what BOSIA is about. That is not what Esterberg envisioned. It is about the friendships we make and how we tend them over time so that they deepen. An excellent example is the Carroll family. Their kids made the calenders when they were young. Two of the kids, Colleen and Russell, went to Ometepe as student delegates in high school and after graduating from college, each went to live on Ometepe for a year as our office volunteer (a position we try to fill each year with a college graduate or someone of that age or older who is fluent in Spanish). Since then, Colleen has traveled down on many delegations and served on the board. For the past several years both parents, Paul and Betsy, have served on the board, have welcomed delegates into their home and have been welcomed into the homes of many people on Ometepe who have become family to them.
BIR: How has the coffee partnership grown?
CC: The coffee story is a unique one. It began when a medical delegation from Bainbridge traveled to Ometepe to provide medical services and bring down needed medical supplies. The suitcases that carried down the supplies returned to Bainbridge full of green coffee beans after the delegates heard from farmers that they may lose their land if they could not find a market for their coffee. The beans were roasted here at Pegasus and sold to friends who then gave small loans to the farmers. The coffee partnership has grown substantially since then. We have hired an agronomist from Ometepe who oversees the coffee farming and works with the farmers to ensure they produce a bountiful crop each year. Today we import on average 12,000 pounds of green beans per year, of that BOSIA takes about 8,000 pounds and two other organizations split the remainder. We continue to send 100% of profits from coffee sales back down to Ometepe, and that in turn has improved the lives of those on Ometepe in many ways.
BIR: Why did you get involved with BOSIA?
CC: I got involved in 2013 when my daughter Christy traveled down as a student delegate with 23 other students from Bainbridge. I have to say my husband and I were a bit nervous about Christy traveling to Nicaragua but when she returned with stories of her experiences sharing in the lives of her host family as well as others on Ometepe, it made a huge difference in how I saw Nicaragua and the people there. It did for me exactly what Esterberg had intended it to do. After that, I wanted to get more involved.
BIR: Any one memorable experience that you can share?
CC: One personal story for me would be on my last trip in 2018. Myself and two fellow BOSIA board members, Betsy and Stella, after being delayed for 48 hours in two airports, finally arrived on Ometepe. The next morning we were up early to start our work. Betsy and Stella went off with our Ometepe office staff to meet and interview potential scholarship students while I left in a van with eight others from a Special Needs delegation to travel around the island picking up children from the deaf community for a workshop on photography. We were packed in pretty tight and sometimes had to get out and walk when we came to a road the van couldn’t quite make it up. About eight hours in I started to feel unwell. I assumed it was from the lack of sleep the past 48 hours. I asked the van driver to let me off at the isthmus that connects the two volcanoes that make up Ometepe. There was a bus stop there, and my friends told me to wait at the bus stop and text the other group to pick me up on their way past. When I reached the bus stop I realized my phone was dead so I began to walk the three miles back to the hotel. After walking for several minutes a car pulled over next to me and a woman rolled down the window, smiled at me and very excitedly said “Bainbridge Island”. I said yes. I tried to explain in my limited Spanish that I was not feeling well and was walking to my hotel. She told me to get in the car and she drove me to the hotel. It turns out she was married to the man who was driving our van. After that Betsy, Stella and I went to stay with Dora Gutierrez, our office manager on Ometepe, who took care of me and made me all her wonderful special remedies, one of which was a coffee mug full of Nicaraguan rum! I will never forget how these kind people took such good care of me.
BIR: Is it rewarding to see their lives improved because of the work you are doing?
CC: Absolutely! This past December I was fortunate to be in on a Zoom meeting with the first five deaf students ever to graduate high school on Ometepe. Seeing their excitement and the look on their faces as they held up their diplomas was one of the few highlights of 2020 for all of us on that Zoom call. It was due as a direct result of Dale Spoor, one of BOSIA’s trustees, bringing a sign language workshop to Ometepe about 12 years ago. Before that, the deaf community on Ometepe had no language. And then another Bainbridge family sponsored a sign language interpreter so these kids could attend school. The Nicaraguan government does not have any programs to support special needs kids in school.
BIR: How appreciative are the Nicaraugians for what you have done for them the past 35 years?
CC: Francisco Hernandez, who is completely blind, works in our office on Ometepe. Francisco was able to attend college and graduate with a degree in Diplomacy and Political Science due to a scholarship provided by a Bainbridge family. He had an opportunity to come to Bainbridge as part of our 30-year anniversary delegation in 2016, however, the trip coincided with his college graduation, which was a very big deal for Francisco and his family. Francisco chose to come to Bainbridge Island instead of attending his graduation. He felt it was more of an honor to be here with his scholarship family and all his friends from BOSIA. We all felt the honor was ours to have Francisco make the trip to Bainbridge. This is just one story of many. One of our past office volunteers on Ometepe, Amanda Witt, let us know that whenever you ask someone on Ometepe, “What is the most famous city in the United States?”, the answer is always “Bainbridge Island.”
BIR: What does your work prove about countries working together?
CC: So much can be accomplished. So many bridges can be built and so much can be learned and shared. I believe connecting to other countries in meaningful ways, being open, and having a desire to learn about other cultures and other ways of life can both shape our world-view and inspire activism within us both at home and abroad.
BIR: What’s next for BOSIA?
CC: We hope to travel down to Ometepe to celebrate our 35th year anniversary sometime in the winter of 2022, and we plan to have a student delegation that summer. Mostly we will continue to tend our relationships with our friends on Ometepe and continue to create new friendships between our two islands.