OMETEPE, Nicaragua — Kim Esterberg was in search of a sister island.
In 1986, he left his hometown of Bainbridge Island, WA on a trip to Nicaragua funded by fellow islanders, looking for an island with which Bainbridge could form a long-term relationship. That friendship, he envisioned, would be based off of mutual respect and would deepen over time through different types of exchanges.
There, he found Ometepe: and after three visits, the friendship between the Sister Islands began.
These two islands- one surrounded by the Puget Sound and another in Lake Nicaragua- have formed a partnership over the past 25 years. Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association, or BOSIA, began with one individual’s visit to an island almost 30 years ago and from it, has built a bridge between two vastly different places with a strong connection between them.
From that first visit to Ometepe, an island formed by two volcanoes and approximately 100 square miles in area, Esterberg saw a potential for a positive, long-term friendship. He began to work with interested individuals to create a multi-faceted organization. While BOSIA has many functions, and has evolved from a small nonprofit to one which engages both islands, it has worked with the Ometepe community to improve education, the coffee industry, health, and opportunity on the Nicaraguan island.
More than anything, however, forming lasting relationships and understanding are BOSIA’s primary focuses. As the organization’s vision states, “we tend the relationships; the projects we do are secondary to the friendships we build.”
One of the main strategies behind these efforts is that all projects are generated by the Ometepe community. Instead of project requests coming from the BOSIA board on Bainbridge Island, WA or the office on Ometepe, ideas come from community members on Ometepe with the goal of helping their community.
In addition, BOSIA requires that communities who request funds contribute the counterpart to a given project. Though communities sometimes raise money to use as the counterpart, the counterpart can also be in the form of volunteers, materials, or technical expertise. Generally, the organization looks to have 75 percent of project funding coming from BOSIA, and 25 percent community counterpart per project.
“Not only are the projects generated by the community, but the community members have a direct share in the successful completion of the project,” said former BOSIA office volunteer and student delegate, Colleen Carroll. “I think it is this sense of shared responsibility and ownership that makes our projects so successful and well-received.”
Exposure to BOSIA and the relationship between the two islands begins at an early age on both islands, and this is how Carroll became exposed to the organization. When she was in third grade, Carroll’s class worked on a collaborative project called the Kids Can Make A Difference Calendar, which began years before as a field trip fundraiser and evolved into a yearly contribution for a variety of BOSIA projects.
From that age, Carroll gained an interest in BOSIA. In 2007 and 2008, she went on to travel to Ometepe as a high school student delegate, a program now in its 25th year. Students live with families and work in separate towns on collaborative projects with the community, such as building sidewalks, painting schools, and constructing buildings. While students bring down suitcases of school supplies donated by the Bainbridge Island community, the donations are not the focus of the program: forming relationships and exchanging cultural understanding is at the heart of the experience.
“As a high schooler I was struck by the incredible generosity and warmth of spirit in my host families and how fully they welcomed me into their lives,” said Carroll.
Following her experience as a delegate, Carroll became interested in serving as the BOSIA office volunteer on Ometepe, a year-long position that oversees the projects, distributes funding, logistics, and organization of BOSIA.
Caroll’s work varied day to day, ranging from answering emails and questions in the office to working with the cooperatives that run Café Oro, Ometee’s BOSIA supported coffee company. However, one of the most memorable parts of her time as office volunteer was deepening her relationship with her former host family.
“I was very close with my host family from 2008 and it was such a joy to get to share in a year of their lives while I lived in the office,” Carroll said. “When I returned and I was able to celebrate their birthdays with them, share in the family’s joys and sadnesses, be there for the birth of a baby in the family and celebrate his first birthday. And there are so many people from both islands that have similarly warm and close friendships–as I traveled around Ometepe for work people would tell me stories of their friends from Bainbridge.”
During her time there, Caroll oversaw many different BOSIA projects. Often times, she, along with other BOSIA representatives, would travel to visit a project and check on its progress, as well as visit schools around the island to deliver materials.
One such project is the Extra Edad, or overage program at the Altagracia primary school on Ometepe. Extra Edad allows kids who have missed one or more years of elementary school to complete their missed education. Most students in the program had dropped out of school because they couldn’t afford school supplies or needed to work to help support their families.
Typically, those who missed a year or more of school would be too old for their appropriate grade and unable to attend school, but the program condenses the six years of primary school into three. Extra Edad allows them to graduate and have better job opportunities.
In addition, BOSIA has been assisting young people with special needs since the 1990s, when they first received a request for Braille paper and typewriters. Since then, efforts have evolved into a series of sign language workshops in villages across Ometepe for deaf people and their families, as well as funding for deaf students for whom it is a good fit to attend a boarding school for handicapped children in Ciudad Dario, Nicargua.
BOSIA also has a successful scholarship program for students looking to enter university. One student from each of the graduating classes of the nine different high schools on Ometepe receives a scholarship good for five years, which is the amount of time required to earn most degrees in Nicaragua.
Each high school has between five and nine active scholarships per year, or students pursuing university degrees. Since the program began in 1990, the BOSIA Scholarship Program has had over 150 university graduates.
BOSIA’s reach and impact on Ometepe touches countless different aspects of life on the island, but builds off of the positive friendship and genuine understanding between the two islands. Rather than come in with a specific approach in mind, the Sister Islands Organization places relationships first and works to make change in conjunction with what the community needs.
“During my time in Nicaragua, I saw a lot of foreign-aid and development projects that had failed because the idea came from outside the country, with others deciding what the Nicaraguan people, or the people in a specific town, needed,” Carroll said. “I think the biggest differences between BOSIA and many non-profits are the importance placed on relationships and people-to-people connections, the direct community involvement, and the focus on projects that benefit an entire community.”
On Bainbridge Island, Pegasus Coffee House brews Ometepe beans. Countless individuals can be seen sporting the BOSIA logo, and donation boxes can be found year round in businesses, classrooms, at events. On Ometepe, locals care for delegates and visitors like long time friends, and even family members.
Over the past 25 years, BOSIA has created this enthusiasm between communities and a close-knit, supportive relationship between two islands. Perhaps this, a more intimate approach to the nonprofit model, can reach farther and deeper than others might be able to.
– Julia Thomas