Featured Changemaker: NANCY PRINTZ & BERET STRONG on Opportunity in Nicaragua
Nancy Printz and Beret Strong are co-founders of Opportunity Tree, a nonprofit based in Boulder, Colorado, that helps children and youth in Nicaragua improve their lives through education.
Nancy: Beret and I first visited Nicaragua with Philanthropiece, on an Advisory Board trip. Several of us were really moved by what we saw there. Afterward, Beret and I looked into projects that Philanthropiece could do in Nicaragua. We spent about a year researching education programs, because education was the priority we kept hearing about in our conversations with Nicaraguans. Philanthropiece decided it needed to focus on existing commitments in other countries, and Beret and I decided to continue our focus on Nicaragua.
Our favorite idea was a pilot program to provide scholarships for rural children to stay in school. We loved that this was a low-cost, high-impact program driven by the community, and that it was to be run by a respected, Nicaraguan NGO. Since this was a relatively small initial project, Beret and I thought, “We can raise the money for this and make it happen.” That’s where we started.
We raised the money largely through donations from ourselves, friends and family. For the first year, we didn’t really exist as an organization – we just made it happen. When we had some people ask us about future donations, we decided to go ahead and form a U.S. nonprofit – a 501(c)(3) — with a bit broader mission, so that’s how we founded the organization.
What is something exciting that you want to share about your organization?
Beret: We’re very proud of our scholarship program. We are especially excited about working with our community partner organization, Acción Médica. They have been in the region for quite a while and have wonderful local staff, a few of whom are Opportunity Tree scholarship students. Many of the students have lived through a lot of war and other trauma and hardship, so it’s exciting to see how they have turned that around and are now so committed to education and giving back to their communities.
Nancy: It’s really exciting to talk to some of the scholarship students and realize how hard they are working to be in school. They really believe in the power of education to change their own lives. One of the reasons we like working in Nicaragua is that a little bit of money goes so far. The students give back to their communities, empowered by their educations to make change, and there is that whole ripple effect.
Can you tell us about some of the relationships you’ve created with the community members in Nicaragua?
Beret: Santiago is an adult student, a community leader we met on our trip to explore education programs in Nicaragua. Right away we noticed that he was extremely articulate and thoughtful. He talked a lot about his community’s goals, how to meet them, and what they had already achieved. We didn’t know his back-story until much later through an essay contest we helped sponsor. Through his personal essay we learned that his childhood was spent taking care of his younger siblings and helping his mother earn a living. His father died in the war when he was five years old and his mother ended up committing suicide later. At age 18, after both of his parents were gone, he decided he wanted to go to school. So at age 19 he began the first grade! He learned to read and write. He is now a college student and an incredible leader. He did all of that over a really short period of time. He is studying community development in college now, with one of our scholarships. He farms, too, and now has two kids of his own. He is composed and articulate. He is an admirable leader and an example of a triumph over trauma story that you really see so much of in Nicaragua.
What is a dream that you have for Opportunity Tree?
Beret: Long may it thrive! I like to think of every single student as a universe that affects and supports other lives and may create opportunities for others. Each student is so valuable. I really like to work on the human level – because it’s about that voice, that story, that life – and I believe in the accident of birth. We all could have been born somewhere else, in some other situation. It’s not a level playing field in terms of socio-economic or environmental justice. So I see this kind of work as leveling the playing field a little bit because we got dealt too much, more than our share. The question is, “how can we share it better through partnership?”
Nancy: I love Beret’s phrasing of “long may it thrive.” I have approached this endeavor from the mindset that steady and small steps can make a significant difference over a long period of time. Rather than asking what the next huge thing is that we can do, let’s see what we can accomplish over the longer term with the resources we have.
What made you interested in “leveling the playing field?”
Nancy: I’ve had so many opportunities in my life and I feel lucky to have them. I have always wanted to help other people have opportunities, too. It’s taken a long time to figure out how to do that; at some point you just say, “I’m going to stop trying to find the perfect thing and give back in any way I can.” Nicaragua wasn’t part of any grand plan for me. I just realized I’d found this place with wonderful people and great need, where money goes a long way. It seemed like a good place to do something, even in a small way. We may not be changing the whole world, but we are changing the world for some of these students.
Beret: I grew up next to the Mexican border. We didn’t have a lot of money but I still had privilege in that I came from an educated family and I had opportunities. Something about the mix of my family’s values regarding social justice, my mom’s advocacy for people with disabilities, and the immigrant culture helped form my values. My grandmother was also strongly into service work. She would do anything that was beneficial to the world, mainly in medicine, without payment or credit. When the work showed up, she did it. She loved it too. I always looked up to her for that.
One event in my young adulthood that catalyzed my connection to service work occurred when I was working in San Francisco. I witnessed a suicide of somebody who was ill with AIDS. This was before there was life-sustaining treatment. I worked on the tenth floor of this big building and he lived somewhere up above. His body fell past my window pane and thumped against the building. I looked out just in time to see his baseball cap float past. Then the fire trucks came and there was blood in the gutter ten floors below us. When I found out that he basically died of despair, I knew I wanted to respond in some way. So I became a hospice volunteer at a public hospital because it was something I could do. I think being in that hospice was much more meaningful for me than for the patients. I loved these people.
What keeps you going to do the work needed for Opportunity Tree?
Beret: I love working with Nancy and I love working with Nicaraguans. They are special, generous, open-hearted people. Even though we don’t get to interact with the Opportunity Tree students face to face on a regular basis, since we’re here and they’re there, the work has to be done so we can honor commitments to our donors and students and do what we pledged to do. That’s not hard because one thing just follows another.
Nancy: There has always been a part of me that wants to do something positive for the community – the broader global community. I find it very personally gratifying to spend part of my time working on that. We are, even in a very small way, opening doors for people who otherwise probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to continue their educations. They are all such wonderful people. There is a big picture aspect of this that is really satisfying.