Mario always wants to help. Nearly everything he has to share when asked about his role as an Outreach International field operative in Nicaragua circles back to his inherent desire to help people. He speaks about his work with a gentle tone that hints at his seemingly boundless optimism, but first, he listens to what others have to say.
“When we visit families, we bring a plan— it has to be flexible,” he says. “We can’t have in mind that our objective is just to achieve this exact plan, we also have to be open to the feelings, thoughts, and concerns of people. We have to listen.” When Mario speaks, he leans back, and gestures frequently with his hands; fingers splayed, palms upwards, as if ready to provide a soft landing for anything tossed his way.
There are best practices for field staff upon first entering a community, but since Outreach’s mission is entirely contingent on the authentic participation of those with whom it works, it’s crucial that staff have a light touch to allow solutions to form among partners organically. “What most motivates me is when we’re in the integration phase, and my connection with people is direct and sincere,” he says, before elaborating.
“Two things from my time working in communities have ‘marked me,'” Mario says, looking at his open hands for a moment, before pointing to his ear. “When visiting a family in La Prusia, Nicaragua, I met a little girl who had a really serious ear infection— bad enough that pus was coming out. I noticed, and was really affected because I have problems with my own ears, as well.” His gaze drops momentarily.
“My immediate response was to want to help them using my own money. As a facilitator, I can’t do that, of course. It was really hard. Instead of giving them money for a doctor visit right then, I asked her mom, ‘How does [your daughter] feel?’
“Her mother wasn’t sensitive to her daughter’s pain, and didn’t seem to realize there was even a problem. So I asked how long her daughter had been sick, if she’d received any treatment or medication, if they’d been to a hospital, and the mother hadn’t done anything at all.
“I asked her, ‘How will you feel when your daughter grows up and can’t hear?’ The next day, I went by their house in the morning, and the family was at the hospital, getting treatment for the little girl.” His eyes remain fixed on his hands while he speaks, his voice growing softer.
Mario’s empathy for children in impoverished communities comes up in many of his stories, seemingly without him intending for it to be a common thread. Later, when speaking about how he became involved with Outreach, he mentions the main motivator behind his own self-improvement: “Before I worked for Alcance [Outreach International’s Nicaraguan arm], I was in construction, which is extremely physical and exhausting work. I remember one day, I was working on a project and cut my wrist badly. I started to cry, not because of the pain, but because I was so, so tired.
“Every Saturday, my wife and daughter used to pass by my job site on their way to market. One day, they came by as usual, and I started to pray, asking God to help me find a better job, a job my daughter could be proud of. A little while later, I found this job.” His hands come together quietly, as if closing a book at a satisfactory stopping place.
“Another experience I had with [another facilitator], Luz Dania, in El Tunel, Nicaragua was when the two of us visited a woman named Miriam, a single mother with six children. We were still in the integration phase of facilitation, so we were at her house, having an easygoing, open conversation.
“I asked her, ‘When you’re resting after finishing your work for the day, what worries you?’ She was quiet for a moment as she thought about it, then she started to cry. When we saw her crying, it touched us both. Her daughter, who was just about to graduate high school as one of the top students in her class, couldn’t continue her studies at university because it was too expensive.
“That had a big impact on me. What can we do to give people like Miriam hope? Anything? I thought a lot about that.” Mario is quiet for a moment, his hands still.
His tone is tempered in his retelling, but his words reveal an enthusiasm and dedication uncommon in most professional settings (other Outreach field team members notwithstanding). “Personally, I find myself starting to use PHDP [Outreach’s process for engaging a given community] in my own home. My wife tells me, ‘Quit it, you’re home,'” he laughs. “Sometimes, I’ll be watching TV, trying to relax, and I keep thinking about situations from work, wondering, how can we solve this or that?”
“It used to be that I’d learn first, then act. Now I’m learning as I’m working— our jobs don’t really have a standard recipe; there’s no sequence that unfolds in the same way every time. People are different— you show up in the morning, and people aren’t doing what they did the day before, so you have to stay flexible. My experience in the communities in which I’ve worked so far has allowed me to learn and reflect on those lessons, which better prepare me to enter new communities— to strengthen my weaknesses, to ask for help from coworkers and friends.”
“Personally, as a facilitator who’s been working for 12 years in one community, I still feel excited,” he says. “I’m excited to move forward & to enter a new community is to change my history; not to repeat what I’ve done in the past, but to move forward onto new things.”
Mario’s time in the field has led to a strong connection to the community members with whom he works, and their shared successes have inspired a restlessness to approach ever-larger, more complicated systemic problems. “I’m studying to become a lawyer— it’s my biggest dream, personally and professionally. When I finish my studies, I’d like to help community groups establish governmental policies [to which they adhere]. With legal training, I’ll be able to help legitimize community groups that currently aren’t recognized as having a legal status in the country. Right now, a lot of those places, since they aren’t viewed as ‘official,’ can’t easily acquire resources. They aren’t protected or organized or credible enough in the eyes of the government to receive funds and resources.”
Having just expanded his scope to the widest angle, Mario again doubles back, careful to include those other parties in the room who might not have the courage or experience to speak up, but who are always nearby, always listening. “Our work mainly focuses on adults; if we work on school issues, we work with parents. One thing I’d like to focus on in the future is, how can I work with children?”
Mario is unfailingly modest and humble, and when he allows an expression of pride, he’s careful to disperse it equitably among his professional peers. “You can feel the appreciation people have for the work we’re able to do together. You start to feel like you’re part of the community— their problems become our problems, their achievements become our successes,” he says.
Then, finally, his hands disappear under the table, coming to rest in his lap. “When you’re in the office after being in the field, and you’re sharing stories and the rest of the staff is listening, it’s like everyone is making mental checkmarks that you’re doing good. It’s really satisfying to know that others appreciate the work I’m doing.”