Michael Marchensini, '07, a red-haired Seattle native, doesn't blend in among the tawny faces of the Nicaraguans.
El Recreo, Nicaragua, is a small slum within the capital city, Managua, where Marchensini resides. Poverty embodies its definition here along the rutted dirt roads flanked by visible sewage and malnourished children. Marchensini stands out a bit in this small town. But in a good way.
Marchensini serves as a micro-lending bank worker to empower the women of El Recreo and lift them out of the seemingly perpetual cycle of violence and poverty.
"These women are exceptionally impoverished and always teeter on the brink of health and economic crises. Many of the men in their lives either abandoned them with many children to care for, or they are still around but spend all the money on booze and are abusive to the women and their children," Marchensini said.
Marchensini stepped straight from Whitworth University into the volunteer position that would encompass the next two years of his life. He became a Jesuit Volunteer. He is not a Jesuit, but he is a volunteer with a B.A. in peace studies who has to take bucket showers on occasion.
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps works with the impoverished peoples of seven developing nations. Nicaragua, one of those nations, happens to be the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. Department of State. Over 90 percent of its population lives off about $1 a day, and over half of the country's population is underemployed. The Jesuit Volunteers recognize that El Recreo, as a poor town within this poor nation, needs help to end the cycle of poverty, illness and violence.
Proyecto Generando Vida "Project Generating Life" is the name of the community center that hosts many of the programs the Jesuit Volunteers do in El Recreo. The programs include free lunches for kids, after school tutoring, a library, an eye clinic, a pharmacy, and the micro-lending banks. Women and children are the primary recipients of the care provided at the center.
As a micro-lender, Marchensini and the Jesuit Volunteers give the women of El Recreo small loans to help them become more independent and empowered. The hope is that the women will be able to run a small business that creates enough income to pay back the loan, meet their basic needs, and maybe even put some money into savings. The women are given small loans, ranging from $100 to $350, and receive assistance to create their own businesses.
"The banks do not lift the women out of poverty or give them enough extra income to build a house, but the loans do help the women keep their small businesses afloat and provide them with enough income to keep their children clothed and fed," Marchensini said.
The banks that these loans originate from are called "bancos de confianza," or banks of trust. More than 180 women from El Recreo are in the micro-lending program, with each of the seven banks serving roughly 25 women. The women meet weekly for 16 weeks to make their payment and deposit what they are able to into savings.
These women are encouraged to share their success and hold out a helping hand to one another. Each new woman to receive a loan is recommended by another, and in turn becomes in a small way a responsibility of the recommender. The Jesuit Volunteers call this solidarity.
"If one woman in a bank cannot pay back her loan, the burden lies on the rest of the women to help her pay it. The sense of friendship and community that is built among the women is pretty impressive," Marchensini said.
Coming into Nicaragua with the intention of working for international justice, Marchensini quickly found his focus shrinking when faced with the depth of the poverty he witnessed.
"I knew from the beginning that as a 22-year-old gringo I would not change this country, city or neighborhood," Marchensini said.
His initial concern for Nicaragua as an impoverished nation shrank quickly to a concern for El Recreo, for each and every one of the women with whom he has worked and shared his life during that past two years.
Most of every day is spent working face to face with the bank women. As a micro-lending worker and an authority figure, he greatly impacts the lives of the bank women. These women are often abused by the men in their lives and have come to fear the power men wield.
Women come into the center with faces black and blue, plagued by nightmares of the abuse they and their children have received. Once the center started hosting workshops on violence, the women knew what they were experiencing wasn't just life and came to the volunteers to help them seek legal action.
"I am very grateful to be a male figure in the lives of these women that seeks to protect and empower them as opposed to violate and dehumanize them," Marchensini said.
Despite the rampant poverty these women face, they are always ready to meet Marchensini with hugs, juice and snacks they can't afford. No encounter is without friendly teasing and questions about family. Marchensini, as a micro-lender and a friend, encourages them, holds them accountable, and visits them in their places of business to cheer them up.
"My work has affected my life in ways that I don't think I'll realize for years down the road," Marchensini said