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Teen, dad build therapy room for Nicaraguan child

SALEM – A 5-year-old Nicaraguan girl may learn how to walk because a Salem pre-teen cared.

Jake Johnson, who is almost 13, and his dad, Mark, went to Nicaragua to build a 12-by-12-foot therapy room that doubled the size of the tiny house where Naling and her mother live.

Twelve-year-old Jake Johnson helps put up supports for a roof in Nicaragua where he and his dad built a therapy room for a little girl. Mark Johnson photo

They went because Jake convinced his dad they should do something to help the disabled little girl their missionary cousin told them about. She doesn’t talk or walk yet, but she and her mother smile a lot more since the Johnsons visited.

At a family reunion in Cumberland, Jake learned from cousin Jeff Frazer’s daughter Haley, who is 14, how her family builds houses for residents of Chariza, a poor suburb of Esteli, Nicaragua, where houses have dirt floors and walls open to the air. Most houses the residents build are cobbled together from cardboard, plastic, corrugated metal and whatever they can find.

Jake was determined to do something. The Andrew Lewis Middle School seventh-grader remembered saying, “We should do that, go down there and help build a house.”

“When your 12-year-old has an ‘aha moment,’ like that it gets our juices flowing,” added his dad, who is chief operation officer for the YMCA Roanoke Valley and has his office at the Salem Family Y.

Jake sent out a fundraising letter to relatives to raise money for the trip. They left Salem Oct. 27 and returned Nov. 3.

On site, Jake “carried buckets of rocks and dirt and helped mix cement. It was my first time. I never knew how to mix cement before,” he said. The Johnsons and their cousins, plus local residents Johnny, who is 15, and Orling, who is 18, did most of the building by hand.

Young people in Nicaragua are used to working hard, the Johnsons said. Two 12-year-old neighborhood girls for whose family Frazer had built a house earlier took on the chores of mixing up meals and feeding everybody. “We were feeding the poor children in Chariza,” explained Jake. “Jeff called the mixture ‘soy slop.’

“Johnny and I had a contest shoveling rocks and dumping them in the whole to build the foundation,” said Jake.

“One of the wonderful things is if you show the Nicaraguans how to do something, they learn and do it,” Mark said.

Naling and her mother’s house is on a slope, and there are no building inspectors to make sure housing is safe. The city runs electricity to the squatter neighborhoods. People climb up the poles and string their own wires, Mark Johnson said.

The room Jake and his dad, cousins and the young men built has a brightly colored padded floor where Naling can learn to crawl. The padding was a $40 package of interlocking floor from The Home Depot, Mark said, that they carried in Jake’s check-in baggage.

Doctors believe Naling may be able to walk with a walker at some point, Mark Johnson said. Although most of the houses are open air, the Johnsons built a 2-foot-high plywood wall to keep Naling from accidentally rolling onto any foundation rough areas – and painted it purple. And they had a local welder make parallel bars “so once she gets braces, she can hold herself up and learn to walk.”

They bought her a baby doll to try to get her to reach for it, Mark said, “and a little table and chair.”

Those things, the colored floor and purple wall were the amazement of the neighborhood where people are accustomed to doing with so little, Mark said.

The volunteers also put in tall, free-standing sink in the yard with a washboard made on one side, and dug a basin for the wash water runoff. The sink is for Naling’s mother to do the laundry she takes in to support them, and also make it easier for her to give Naling a bath.

They put up a clothes line and bought her clothes pins. “Before now, she was hanging the clothes on a barbed wire fence,” Mark said. “You could tell she was really happy.”

On the last day, Naling’s mother said through one of the fellows who was translating for them that she was thankful God had put this on our heart,” Mark said.

“They have so little, spiritual life is so important to them” he said.

“When a hymn came on, they were singing and dancing,” Jake added.

Volunteers also poured steps and put bars on the window for security. Nicaragua is not a safe place, they learned. One of the photographs Mark took shows a mother and her two small children carrying flowers for the their father’s grave. He had taken a political stand other people didn’t agree with, Mark explained, and a small mob hanged him.

Jake learned a little Spanish before the trip, using Rosetta Stone. He found that was formal Spanish, though, but he and his dad and the local fellows figured out how to communicate with each other as they worked.

What Jake learned on the trip is “We are more fortunate here and we should be trying to figure out how to help other people who are less fortunate. They were very thankful.”

He added, “We’re really spoiled compared to them. We’re hugely rich. They have to do back-cracking work every day to make half of what we would would.”

They stayed with the cousins in a room over a pharmacy in Estili, slept on the floor, ate what their hosts cooked for them, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. “They have the opportunity to eat healthier than we

And they “showered with the dirty water. There were livestock just running around everywhere,” Mark said.

When they came home, they left half their clothes and work gloves for the boys that helped them. Just about the only souvenirs they brought home besides memories were some coffee beans, they said.

Jake even liked the coffee. “Pastora, the wife of the pastor who runs the pharmacy, put the scoops of sugar on top of the grounds in the filter to make the coffee,” Mark said.

The Johnsons plan on going back to Nicaragua again in a year, probably in early November.

“Maybe we could build a Y down there and do a camp,” Jake said, still high on enthusiasm about the trip.

“I would like to do a camp,” Mark said. “That’s the Y person in me.”

When they return, they plan to take all of their family this time: Mark’s wife Jaime, and daughters Payton, who is 14 and a Salem High School student, and Macy, a second grader at South Salem Elementary School.

“I would have taken them this time but wanted to judge the safety of it,” Mark said.

His cousin and best friend growing up, Jeff Frayser, and his wife, Jenny, are missionaries with Second Chance Ministries of Nicaragua.

They spend up to 90 days a year in Nicaragua, coming back to the United States in between. They don’t own a house nor a car, and stay with relatives while home in Virginia, Mark added.

Anyone who wants to help with the Nicaraguan project can contact Mark Johnson at mjohnson@ymcaroanoke.org.


About the author

Meg Hibbert

Meg Hibbert held the position of editor of the Salem Times-Register and The New Castle Record from July 1999 - July 2014. She won more than two dozen awards from the Virginia Press Association for feature writing, columns, business articles, health and environmental writing and education coverage. She and her husband, Bill, live in Salem and are avid University of Georgia Bulldogs.

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