The sight of a classroom of African children being taught to write with sticks for pencils and dirt for paper made an impact on Kamloops firefighter David Sakaki that has sent ripples worldwide.
The poverty Sakaki encountered while travelling through Africa inspired him and his Kamloops Fire Rescue colleagues to establish Operation Tanzania in 2007 that would see a shipping container filled with necessities brought to the village of Jambiana.
It was considered an ambitious plan when it was first conceived and it took 18 months to achieve, but it turns out it was just the tip of the iceberg.
Since then, the local community and cities across Western Canada and the U.S. have backed Kamloops Fire Rescue’s humanitarian operations in other impoverished regions of the world.
“This project has gotten much bigger than we ever thought it would be,” said co-ordinator Len Hrycan, Kamloops director of community and corporate affairs. “It’s taken on a life of its own in a sense that the community has really risen to the forefront with this tremendous amount of support.”
On Friday, Kamloops Fire Rescue was recognized for Operation Nicaragua with the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation’s (BCCIC) Global Cooperation Award.
BCCIC's intent with the awards is to reverse the sentiment that one small group of people can’t change the world, according to Kareen Wong, BCCIC special projects co-ordinator.
"Operation Nicaragua is a perfect example of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” said Wong. “You don't have to be a part of the United Nations or a national government to contribute to a global cause.
“If you match what you're passionate about, what you do, to the change you hope to create, the momentum it can produce is amazing."
Aid from Kamloops to Nicaragua began with Jiquilillo, a fishing village that was devastated by a tsunami in the 1980s and never really recovered.
The village has a Kamloops connection in the form of Don “Monty” Montgomery, a former teacher at John Peterson school who opened a surf lodge at the village and made Kamloops aware of its poverty.
The scope of the project grew to include Chinandega. In the years since the tsunami, the inland community 50 kilometres southeast evolved into a population living off a landfill.
"A lot of the people that were displaced, they actually moved them into the garbage dump for temporary housing and they're still there — families with kids who eat, sleep and play in the garbage dump," said Sakaki.
Through firefighters’ efforts and the generosity of Kamloops residents and businesses, volunteers spent six months in 2009 filling a shipping container with clothes, shoes, bicycles and firefighting equipment and travelled to Nicaragua on their own dime to help with distribution and other needs.
Once there, Kamloops firefighters fostered an alliance with the Chinadega bomberos (firefighters) with the help of their fire chief, Gerry Caceres.
“A lot of what we’ve been attempting to do is to assist and aid communities, but also to enable them and make it sustainable," said Hrycan.
With this partnership in place, Nicaraguan firefighters can conduct extensive surveys of communities in need and facilitate the delivery of items on a household level.
More than 7,700 families benefited from the initial push and more lives are improving every day.
“They make sure that (donations) get to the places where there’s need,” said Andy Philpot, Kamloops firefighter and Operation Nicaragua co-ordinator. “We take down gear, they make sure . . . it’s not going to disappear into the black market or something.
“By having somebody on the ground, they can also ensure that they empower other people throughout Nicaragua.”
Thanks to the successful aid mission, Operation Nicaragua has become a gathering point for donations from all over Western Canada and the U.S.
“It’s no longer a community of Kamloops project,” said Philpot.
The City of Calgary and Whitehorse have each donated a fire truck —the 10th and 11th trucks sent to the country servicing five Nicaraguan cities.
The Rotary club of Seattle reached out for help transporting an ambulance to Nicaragua. Burnaby and Surrey fire departments have donated gear and equipment. And the list goes on.
“The response has been so strong that we haven’t had a drop-off day now for two years,” said Philpot.
The aid has included enough medical equipment and supplies from Royal Inland Hospital and other facilities to service five hospitals throughout the country, water filtration units to hundreds and clothing thousands of disaster victims and others unable to purchase these items on their own.
The partnerships and volunteer efforts have enabled the construction of a community centre in El Limonal and a fire station in El Veijo.
A shipping container turned into a community centre. Equipped with household goods like sewing machines, it now serves the local women’s co-operative as an active hub for they and the village children.
Gearbulk Shipping and the Conconi Family Foundation are the other essential keys to the operation. The shipping company’s assistance has virtually eliminated the cost of moving donations from Canada to Nicaragua and the Conconi family has provided the financial means to bring several projects to fruition.
“Kamloops firefighters’ Operation Nicaragua is less of an organization and more of a collaboration of hundreds of caring individuals spanning and uniting our globe,” said Wong of BCCIC.
Hrycan said Operation Nicaragua co-ordinators are “pleasantly surprised and excited” by BCCIC’s recognition.
“It really validates the goals of what the project has been all about,” he said. “It’s a long process that requires an ongoing effort by both the bigger global community to provide aid, and also the local community to take some ownership and help create that change. And we’re really pleased we’ve got that kind of effort going on.”