Changemaker Profile: María Isabel Torres, Fundación Fénix
Maria Isabel is one of the grassroots leaders whom FSD supports who is creating a big impact on the next generation of her community, Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, on the shores of Lake Managua just outside the capital city of Managua.
Back in the mid-1990s, Maria Isabel was a banker. She wasn’t wealthy, but she had a good, salaried, white-collar job—the kind that are out of reach even to this day for the vast majority of Nicaraguans. But Maria Isabel was troubled by what she saw in her community. She saw young people being lost every day to drug addiction, violence, and even human trafficking. Ciudad Sandino was kind-of a transient place back then. It was never meant to be a city at all. People fled first from floods and then from the devastation of the 1972 earthquake that leveled the center of Managua, and there they stayed as 2 decades of civil war and corruption prevented the capital from being rebuilt. And so, it became permanent. But, its history as a mushroom city that sprang up overnight meant that it had little infrastructure, few social services, and a weak social fabric of people who did not have deep roots in that place nor strong connections with others. Maria Isabel could see the strain this placed on young people who were not getting the support they needed. Instead, they turned to drugs and gangs.
Maria Isabel saw all this and decided to take action. She started small by taking anti-drug campaigns to all the local schools. But it was not enough. She knew she had to address the broken home situations that were pushing youth out into the streets where they encountered drug dealers and gangs. She knew that they need psychological support to break their addiction. She knew that she had to address the lack of hope and productive alternatives that they faced.
She left her job at the bank and founded Fundación Fénix—Phoenix, as in the bird who rose from the ashes. She built a drug addiction treatment program as well as a “Parents’ School”. She built an agribusiness vocational program teaching youth organic farming skills that would help them find employment and support their families—and give their lives purpose. She also started a mechanic vocational program—even giving them her car to learn on.
Bit by bit, the pieces fell into place. The farm led to the development of a supermarket, to the distribution of their produce in stores throughout the region and their own line of pickles and relishes. A few years ago, Rotary International provided loan funds for their youth microenterprise program and to fund microloans for single mothers as well.
Today, their programs are largely self-sustaining thanks to the revenues generated by the supermarket, the sale of produce and relishes, and the mechanics program. They are serving over 6,000 teens and their families and through their education campaigns are reaching as many as 12,000.
Throughout this 20 year journey, Maria Isabel was accompanied by another María--María de Jesus Zepeda—FSD’s Ciudad Sandino site director. In addition to moral support, which is invaluable to people striving to make a difference in their communities, María de Jesús has trained many interns and volunteers to work alongside María Isabel and her team at Fundación Fénix. At least 6 interns have worked with Fundación Fénix over the years and also a few professional groups, namely a group of volunteers from Deloitte consulting who helped them develop their supermarket and distribution plan among other things. Later, an intern helped design the packaging for their products. A small grant helped pay for the canning and labeling equipment, and so, bit by bit, the different components of FSD’s program accompanied Maria Isabel in building up Fundación Fénix.
Today, there is no doubt that Fundación Fénix, with deep roots in the community, a committed and capable leader, a holistic approach a tough problem, and a strong revenue stream is a high impact organization. It was recently recognized by the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua for its effective drug treatment and prevention programs. They have even become a resource to other FSD partners using their farming expertise to train them to train families in how to grow vegetables in container gardens to improve food security and nutrition. FSD is proud to support Maria Isabel and the thousands like her around the world.