Nicaraguan intern returns to Camp St. CroixJuan Irias isn’t a typical intern. He’s 39 years old – not a college student getting his first work experience. And he’s a long way from home.
By: Randy Hanson, Hudson Star-Observer
Juan Irias isn’t a typical intern.
He’s 39 years old – not a college student getting his first work experience. And he’s a long way from home.
Irias left his native Nicaragua – and his wife and daughter - at the beginning of September to spend 16 months at YMCA Camp St. Croix learning to be a facility manager.
“It was a hard decision to make because of my wife and my kid,” Irias said during a recent interview in the camp’s maintenance shop.
Wearing blue jeans, an oxford shirt and a fleece Camp St. Croix vest, he looked the part of a camp staffer. The friendly and engaging Irias spoke earnestly and had a smile that made his brown eyes dance.
“This is an opportunity for me,” he said, explaining that although he’s a university graduate and a former government official and business manager, professionals in Nicaragua often aren’t paid well.
The Central American country’s economy remains among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. State Department. Underemployment is widespread and its nearly 5.9 million citizens have the second-lowest per capita income in the hemisphere.
The United Nations reported that Nicaragua had an annual per capita income of $980 in 2007. Close to half of the country’s population lives in poverty and 17 percent lives in extreme poverty, the U.N. said.
According to the U.N., about 40 percent of the population has no access to health services and five of the country’s 17 departments (states) have chronic malnutrition rates over 30 percent.
“Kids don’t go to school there because they don’t have a notebook, you know?” Irias said. “It’s that simple. It’s that bad. Their parents don’t have the money to buy it.”
He is working under the supervision Camp St. Croix Property Manager Dave Simpson to learn the nuts and bolts of keeping a facility in good repair and its systems operating.
Earlier in the morning, Irias had been mixing concrete for a small repair project. He’s acquiring construction skills and learning to do electrical and plumbing repairs.
Simpson said that when a cabin furnace goes out in the middle of the night, he knocks on Irias’ door, wakes him up and says, “Let’s go.”
The supervisor and intern both chuckled about it. Irias nodded his head, validating the veracity of the statement.
Besides the hands-on work, Irias is learning the administrative side of property management. He’s upgrading his computer skills, observing how Simpson oversees construction projects, and attends management and board meetings with his mentor.
“And I’m learning how to live and communicate with people around here – learning the way they work here,” he said.
The practice speaking English and taking care of the mechanical systems of a facility could help him find employment at a resort or hotel when he returns to Nicaragua, Irias said.
A return visit to Camp St. Croix
This isn’t Irias’ first stay at Camp St. Croix.
He first came to the camp in the summer of 1992 as a 22-year-old counselor through a Partners of the Americas program.
That experience came about after then Camp St. Croix Executive Director John Duntley attended a conference where he met Irias’ Nicaraguan mentor, Arturo Mantilla.
Mantilla had been a YMCA camp counselor when he was a young man, and he and Duntley talked about a young Nicaraguan coming to Camp St. Croix for the same experience.
Irais’ family is from small town outside of Ocotal, Nicaragua. He went to live with Mantilla in Ocotal when he was 15 so he could attend the U.S. equivalent of high school.
“Like most of the Latin people, we were a big and a poor family,” Irias said, explaining that his father, a small farmer, didn’t have money to send him to school.
His parents let him go to stay with Mantilla in Ocotal because they wanted him “be someone,” he said with a laugh.
Upon returning from the conference in the United States, Mantilla asked Irias if he wanted to go to Camp St. Croix, and Irias accepted the offer.
He returned to Camp St. Croix in 1993, also as an intern.
“It’s a big difference from the first time I was here, because I was young back then,” Irias said, comparing his current stay at Camp St. Croix to the previous ones. “I didn’t have any responsibilities back home. And now I do, so I’m trying to do my best here. I’m really thankful to Dave for bringing me here.”
Hudson’s Rotary clubs formed a sister city relationship with Ocotal following Irias’ earlier stays at Camp St. Croix.
In 1995, a group of Hudson Rotarians led by Steve Wilcox arranged to donate a used ambulance from Hudson to the city of Ocotal. The ambulance was shipped to Ocotal filled with sports equipment and medical supplies.
Irias has ridden in the ambulance back in Ocotal.
Simpson arranged for Irias’ current internship through an organization named Smaller Earth.
Asked whether his incentive was to offer help or get help, Simpson said, “Well, both.”
“The training program seems to be working both ways, except for the Spanish skills,” he said with a laugh.
Simpson, who has been the property manager at Camp St. Croix for 17 years, knew Irias from his earlier stays at the camp.
“So I knew it would be a good fit for both of us,” he said. “I’m very happy to have Juan here. He’s fun to be around, and you’ll hear that from anybody who meets him.”