By Micki Babcock
Next time you’re enjoying a rich Ometepe latte at one of our local coffeehouses, go ahead and raise your cup to Kim Esterberg. He’s the man who, back in 1986, encouraged other Bainbridge Islanders to embark on a sisterhood with the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe. That sisterhood sparked the creation of the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association, or BOSIA.
The most visible program of BOSIA is the coffee partnership, making available to local markets coffee beans grown on Ometepe and roasted on Bainbridge by Pegasus. The program creates financial security for Ometepe coffee farmers and generates money to fund libraries, classrooms, health centers and programs for children with special needs on Ometepe.However, the initiative that may have the most impact on the future of the Nicaraguan island is the scholarship program. The program was conceived when a high school teacher from Altagracia, a municipality on Ometepe, requested aid for many students with promising academic potential who could not afford college tuition.
A goal established by both Ometepe scholarship administrators and their Bainbridge counterparts was that students who earned advanced degrees would return to Ometepe to work in their respective fields. Over the past 25 years, 124 graduates have received scholarships. In 1990, Keith and Jane Wentworth were the first Bainbridge sponsors to fund a college scholarship, and Karla Varela was the first student chosen. As Varela wanted to continue with graduate studies, the Wentworths were joined by Nancy and Dana Quitslund to help her obtain a master’s degree in psychology. Varela, now a practicing psychologist, has a two-year grant of $10,000 from Grace Episcopal Church to conduct workshops in two Ometepe communities to counsel women and girls who have experienced domestic abuse.
Since the scholarship program began, Bainbridge individuals, families, businesses and organizations have enabled Ometepe graduates to return and establish careers in education, medicine, pharmacy, law, finance, hotel administration, systems engineering and electrical engineering. Sponsors are asked to commit to at least one year’s scholarship—about $1,000 per year, or half that amount for part-time students. It is especially helpful to support the student through the five years required for a bachelor’s degree, but any amount is welcome. Many sponsors have provided funding for multiple students for more than 10 years.
Another early scholarship student sponsored by the Quitslunds, Maria Estela Alvarez, received her teaching degree and now works in BOSIA’s Altagracia office as the scholarship coordinator. Alvarez interviews and evaluates three candidates from each local school, then passes on recommendations to Bainbridge Scholarship Committee members, who help make the final selections. Criteria for selecting scholarship candidates include financial need, outstanding academic achievement and commitment to community service.
One of BOSIA’s requirements for their endeavors on Ometepe is that projects are based on needs and requests from the local citizens. As a result, over time the fields of study funded by scholarship sponsorships have evolved. Currently help is needed to educate professionals in such fields as climate change, alternative energy, and local agricultural development of both food sources and the coffee that is an economic mainstay for the island.
Anielka Mena is among the latest generation of graduates who hope to establish new economic possibilities for Ometepe. She currently oversees the development of sustainable tourism for the town of Moyogalpa. In an interview with Bainbridge Islander Joe Duprey, who recently worked as an intern in the Altagracia office, Mena said she hoped to develop and organize tourism with individual families in rural communities.
“What’s most valuable about providing scholarships is making connections with students and their families,” noted the Wentworths, as indeed they have been able to do on the two visits that they have made to Ometepe, during which they stayed with the students’ families. “The scholarship program speaks directly to the original mission of BOSIA first established by founder Kim Esterberg, ‘We tend the relationships…the projects we do are secondary to the friendships we build.’”