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Cumberland woman devotes herself to Nicaraguan community

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Cumberland woman devotes herself to Nicaraguan community

CUMBERLAND — In taking what she thought would be a vacation to a poor fishing village on the northwestern coast of Nicaragua, Stephany Guyot found a new and deeper sense of home.

The 1999 Greely High School graduate has spent most of the past few years in Jiquilillo, Nicaragua. For the past two months, though, she has been back in Cumberland, catching up with family and friends and looking for financial support to aid essential projects for the people of Jiquilillo, such as enhancing the village's educational system. She returns there this week.

Guyot followed her friend and fellow Greely graduate, Nathan Yue, to Jiquilillo in 2006. She began organizing Assist Jiquilillo the following year in order to extend the assistance being provided in the village.

Yue, who lived and worked in Nicaragua since 2000, had just opened a hostel when Guyot, looking for a vacation, arrived in the place that would change her life.

"I had just lost my job, I had no apartment, my lease was up, so I was like, ‘OK, a one-month vacation sounds good,'" Guyot said Monday, adding that once there she started working in a preschool with Yue, who eventually became her boyfriend.

"I didn't speak any Spanish. I mean I was pronouncing even ‘hola' wrong; I don't know if you can do that," Guyot recalled with a laugh.

Working with the students and teachers , she said that "all of a sudden there was like this void in my heart that was filled." One month turned into 10 months, and since then – aside from her annual trips back to Cumberland – Jiquilillo has been Guyot's home. She has lived there on a tourist visa, but is applying for a green-card type of residency.

Despite the significant cultural and economic differences, Guyot said she felt immediately welcome into her new environment by its people. A health promoter who Yue calls his "Nicaraguan mom" took Guyot under her wing and helped improve her Spanish skills.

"I got there and it was just like, ‘wow, I love this,'" Guyot said. "Everybody wears their heart on their sleeve. They're all really poor, and you can see they're really poor, but they're so happy. I like that. You don't get a lot of happiness here from people."

Projects that Assist Jiquilillo has completed so far include clothing distribution, the purchase and maintenance of a vehicle for medical emergencies and assistance with the construction of a community center. Among continuing and future projects are supplying of educational materials, potable water and dental hygiene supplies for the students; improvement and maintenance of the entire school property; expansion of the school library; sponsorship of students for the primary through university levels, and Christmas presents for the children.

Fundraising in Maine has been difficult this year, Guyot said. Her organization does not yet have non-profit status, although she is in the process of filing for it. Guyot has spoken with local Rotary clubs and churches about her cause, but her lack of non-profit status limits what groups can contribute.

"It's frustrating," Guyot said. "I have this great budget planned out for this year, and ... I only need $7,000. I've been able to raise only $2,000 since I've been home these two months, which isn't a lot. ... I just sold my car, so if I need to, I've got the money."

Still, the car money Guyot is willing to give is essential to her own living expenses.

Guyot continues to work closely with the village's preschool to sixth-grade school, and will be starting reading comprehension classes.

The hostel she runs with Yue, the Rancho Esperanza, houses about 40 people. A dormitory-style sleeping arrangement with bunk beds is $7 a person per night, and a private hut is $11 for one person and less for multiple people. Yue and Guyot also run an after-school program there.

Guyot said her experience in Jiquilillo has made her a stronger woman who is more firm in her beliefs and what she wants to accomplish. While she once drifted, Guyot said, she now has a path.

If she were to talk to the person she was before taking that one-month vacation to Jiquilillo, Guyot said, "I'd say keep drifting. Because it'll get you where you want to go."

For more information or to lend a hand, log onto www.jiquilillonews.blogspot.com, e-mail helpinginnicaragua@gmail.com or write Assist Jiquilillo, c/o Stephany Guyot, 284 Range Road, Cumberland, ME 04021.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.