Change in Nicaragua: Maria de Jesus Zepeda
Country Director Maria de Jesus Zepeda knows better than anyone the impact our work can have both as a citizen and a development professional.
A licensed psychologist and social worker who also holds a master’s degree in social policy, Maria first learned of FSD through a doctoral candidate and friend of founder Alicia Robb. Lania, the PhD student, was researching sexual health in Ciudad Sandino and was referred to Maria, who was then the head of social work at a major hospital. As she was directly employed by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, Maria was able to set up focus groups with local organizations, a connection that enabled Lania to facilitate her work. This led to a meeting with Alicia and Maria’s hiring as FSD’s first international staff member. Presently, Maria functions as the Program Director for Ciudad Sandino and supervises programs in the neighboring communities of Masaya, Jinotepe, and in the municipality of Tola.
After spearheading the legalization process of FSD as a Nicaraguan NGO, Maria laid the groundwork for what has become our longest-running program site. “In the first year, we had only one partner, an archaeological museum where we worked in educational outreach for children,” Maria says, “but that allowed me to facilitate expansion into new sectors and our work to come. I had relationships with many prospective partners here and was able to actively engage them for future projects.”
Maria still remembers one of the first interns, Joe Miller, who worked at Ciudad Sandino’s main hospital to prevent the spread of dengue fever. Maria and the now Dr. Miller have kept in touch, and she is proud to say that he now works in the treatment of dengue fever and malaria in Africa. “Many of my interns have gone on to careers in medicine, development, and other related fields,” she relates.
Growing with the Community
Since then, FSD in Nicaragua has expanded to a wide range of sectors and projects, notably in the fields of microfinance, women’s rights, and environmental issues. “Over the years, we have been able to better understand the role of community members and partners in development projects, which have led to better outcomes,” she says.
“Most of our relationship are ongoing ones. I see continual improvement in the sustainability of our partners’ projects. One example is Alternativa, a microfinance partner organization. At first, they had to borrow funds from private supporters, but now they’re fully sustainable. They have more beneficiaries and have been able to expand services and programs. We and they have grown hand in hand while building their capacity,” Maria says. “We grow as they grow.”
FundaciónFenix is another partner whose capabilities have grown over the years. “When we started, they were small in scope,” Maria says, “and they were mainly devoted to drug prevention. But they’ve grown exponentially, especially in the field of entrepreneurship for women. There is now a permanent mini store that sells products grown in their sustainable gardens; income from this store helps supplement the cost of development projects. One intern deployed a marketing campaign and taught the woman how to network. Today, many international organizations, including UC Berkeley, have purchased products directly from Fundación Fenix.” Maria, our interns, and partners have unfurled a wide variety of awareness campaigns, as well as a large-scale campaign on human trafficking that reached over 20,000 people, thanks to funds that derived from an FSD Giving Circle. So successful has this project become that it is now financially supported by the US Embassy in Managua.
Maria attributes the growth of FSD and our partners to the fact that we now have more organizational systems and policies which help to expand projects to reach their highest potential. In addition, FSD’s newest program, Community-Based Research Internships have had a definite and positive impact on the work that we do, and on the lives of community members across Nicaragua.
“I could write a book on the range of projects we’ve done,” Maria laughs. She points to another longtime partner, the Centro de Salud Monimbo in Masaya. Their work in awareness and detection of uterine cancer, the most prevalent form of this disease among Nicaraguan women, has directly led to lives being saved. Before our collective work began, Maria notes, “It could take as long as a year for women to get test results. Samples would get lost and would have to be retaken, labs didn’t have adequate staffing or equipment, and all the while women were dying of these cancers. We saw the need for a local testing lab, and an FSD intern helped set one up at a clinic in Masaya. Since then, over 150,000 women aged 10-49 have had access to tests for uterine cancer, and early detection has saved countless lives.”
What Lies Ahead
Maria foresees even more project success in the time to come. She admits that Nicaragua continues to lag behind more economically developed nations in many areas, but that an increasing number of community members and organizations are committed to studying and implementing development concepts so that the country may advance. “FSD interns have had and will have a significant impact on the growth of our country and health and prosperity of our citizens,” she notes, adding, “Local organizations want to work with us because our work is now respected and well-known. We offer follow-up on interns projects and know that these volunteers are coming to do something, not just travel for fun. Our partners are very supportive because they understand that interns will provide a development project that helps them, the community, and which self-sustains.”
In the future, Maria would like to see FSD continue to build the sustainability of partner organizations in Nicaragua through capacity-building, further advisory services, and intern projects, “Sometimes,” she says, “the work moves forward rapidly while an intern is working with a partner, then stalls after they leave, or progresses at a much slower rate. The interns help organizations make great strides in a short period of time and can move organizations forward. Hosting a greater number of interns here in Nicaragua is always a goal.”
Maria’s background in psychology and social work has proved an asset in many ways. She is able to guide FSD volunteers personally, as they transition to a new culture, and interpersonally, as they connect with our partners and the communities in which they work. Intern Michelle Tran noted that "I was grateful for the support I got from Maria during meetings with the director of my host organization at the beginning of the summer. She brought a sense of authority and wisdom from having worked with FSD for the past 15 years."
In fact, interns have found support in Maria's expertise year after year. Intern Dari Seo Seo says, "All I can say is that Maria was an amazing, well-prepared, wise, and caring supervisor. She kept in touch with me very frequently to discuss things regarding my experience, my needs, my goals, my health, as well as personal issues. She was very supportive and the best mentor and leader I could've asked for."
Speaking about supporting interns, Maria feels grateful for the chance she has to work with the next generation of leaders. “I feel I can emotionally support FSD students while they are here, as well as maintain a harmonious relationship between them, partners, and community members—to be a bridge when they need additional support,” Maria says. “I have a vested interest in these partners, because I have such deep and long-lasting relationships with them, and am happy to be able to help in any way I can to further their goals and our interns’ work.”
Maria is optimistic about the continued participation of FSD interns, and about the long-term results an asset-based community development orientation can help bring. “You can actually see the changes in Nicaragua before and after FSD started working here,” she says. “The organizations that we work with are the community, and we advance and grow as one.”