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Constructing community

How one photojournalist rallied Rochesterians and raised $5,300 to build a South American school

Maria José is learning to paint. Maybe she’ll be a teacher. ​

Rolandito wants to become Rolando, “the man.”

Tracing an outline around his hand with a blue pencil, Joselito just wants to play. Forever. It’s a fine dream to have at age four. But in another ten years, what will he want to do? Who will he become?


Every day, they come to the preschool to learn numbers and letters and to spark their creativity. Seven weeks earlier, their school didn’t exist. 

We built it—the farmers of the tiny mountain community of Las Minitas in Nicaragua and I—with the help of more than 200 people in the Greater Rochester area and beyond.

I have been going to Las Minitas and the larger community of El Sauce for six years to help residents develop eco-tourism, basket- making, and organic coffee cooperatives that highlight their traditional way of life. As a photojournalist, I share their story through my photos and writing. I am ever inspired by what they accomplish with few resources. Through my grassroots initiative, The Friends Project, I have collected contributions to help them complete several projects they feel will have long-lasting impact in their community. One of their biggest dreams was to open a preschool for their children, but they needed help: $4,500 in materials. It sounds like a lot of money, but the core belief of The Friends Project is that everyday people can have tremendous impact.We don’t have to be rich or powerful, we just need to go do it. We raised $5,300 in the Rochester area, enough to paint the school and load it up with books, a whiteboard, and other materials.

I lived in Nicaragua for nearly three months during that time. In Las Minitas, I worked beside two professional masons and volunteers from the community. We hauled sand and cement in a pick-up over three creeks on a road we sometimes shoveled free of rocks to pass.We sifted, mixed, and poured cement and handed off bricks. Raynaldo made the bricks. Bernardito cut trees on his farm to craft the doors. Alcides coordinated volunteers. Families cooked and delivered food. Kids and farmers came by on horseback, back from their fields, to see the progress and lend a hand. Just like raising the funds in Rochester, it was a true community effort.

At night, I ate rice and beans and coffee with my family and talked under a single light powered by a solar panel as the chickens waltzed in and out. What’s it like to fly in an airplane, the family asked.What does it sound like? There’s no running water. The sky full of stars stops you in your tracks on the way to the outhouse. Kids ride horses to school, and the chicken I eat for lunch was killed a few hours before. Not much has changed here in eighty years, and that’s what makes it special. But they are slowly transforming their community to provide opportunity and improvement while keeping their traditions.

Painting the school was our last task. When the white walls were finished, we brushed Joselito’s hands in blue paint and hoisted him up to leave his prints at the entrance. Here, they will welcome children for generations. It will represent the opportunity for their futures and the “amistad”—or unity— among our communities. More than sixty people celebrated the opening. My farmer friends played music, and, of course, we danced.

Because of such changes in the community, says Alcides, people think differently. Kids dream now of what they want to become.

My photos from the last six years are an intimate capture of rural life and do-it-yourself change that most people otherwise would not hear of. Chronicling the school construction and the impact it has in the future is a story I’m honored to share. My vision is for people to see what can be done and be inspired to make a difference in their own way. Our unity with the families in Las Minitas proves this tiny revolution is possible. 

Kris Dreessen is a photojournalist from Honeoye Falls. Her work highlights life in remote communities around the world and everyone’s power to make a difference—here or way out there. 

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