This year Project Schoolhouse celebrates the 10th anniversary of its first school in Nicaragua: Kiwaska, a rural community of 30 families in the Matagalpa region. Nine schools, six water systems, hundreds of latrines, a pedestrian bridge, and dozens of life lessons later, we decided to revisit that first project.
In his own words, “It was a journey of all of us trying to figure things out.”
Leon Schatz grew up in Sheridan, Wyoming, and went to school with Project Schoolhouse Executive Director, Tab Barker. He studied theatre at the University of Wyoming, but dreamed of making movies ever since he was a kid.
By the time Barker began rounding up Sheridanites to travel to Nicaragua, Schatz was living in New York and making headway in the film industry. He had scored some reality shows and music videos with people you might recognize — Ashley Simpson, Bon Jovi. When Barker approached him about the project in Kiwaska, he hesitated.
“[Before the trip] I would never go to Nicaragua on my own. Tab, on the other hand, would go to such a foreign place and not only not be afraid, but also bring a gift.”
Schatz soon caught Barker’s spirit and agreed to film the journey. It would be his first big solo project. “Ultimately, I was in charge. If something went wrong, it was my fault,” Schatz recalls.
But what could possibly go wrong?
“So here’s a fun story — just getting there…My flight had a layover in Atlanta, but we got delayed due to weather. And there was only one flight per day to Managua. So I missed my connection. The group had gone ahead. Tab told me, ‘I’ll pay a taxi driver to pick you up at the airport.’ He gave me some Spanish phrases, and I thought, ‘Allllright, we’ll see what happens.’ Luckily, I had the foresight to put all my cameras in my carry-on.
You get the idea. For Schatz the adventure had begun, and his luggage was long gone. Or so he thought.
“Three days later, this guy shows up in town and has all my stuff, in a wheelbarrow. Always the unexpected!” (Barker corroborated this story, but recalls it was he who brought Schatz’s guitar in the wheelbarrow, both of which he had finagled across the river on a canoe.)
Schatz began to notice a theme: everyone was improvising, making the best of everything around them. The community, the children, the adults, even the director of the project, Tab Barker. And it worked.
“It was cool watching Tab figure things out. Just showing leadership skills. Part of being a good leader is even if you don’t know what to do in a situation, you gather information and make a decision.”
Schatz added, “And the kids — you see this powerful spirit in them. This kid is totally going to appreciate all the opportunities he’s going to have because of this school. It’s a community of people looking at options for how to be and live.”
For the next three weeks Leon Schatz would document the sweat, smiles, and determination of Nicaraguan families working hand-in-hand with Sheridan volunteers. Long-time supporters, Greg Nickerson and Ann Fuller, were in that first group. Together they would mix concrete, cast dozens of cinder blocks, build foundations and walls, and eventually add a roof, windows, and doors. With so much activity and no power outlets to charge his equipment, Schatz had to ration out the 20-odd camera batteries he had brought from the States.
Schatz remembers thinking, “With 5-6 days left, I’m definitely going to run out of power.”
Again, improvisation prevailed. Barker took a horse to a car to buy gasoline and other supplies. Then he found a preacher with a generator in a neighboring town, filled the gas tank, and charged the camera for a few hours. The filming would resume.
critical awakening in Project Schoolhouse’s mission: Kiwaska needed clean water.
Schatz recalls, “[The] water [aspect of Project Schoolhouse] started on that trip. We needed water for construction. Then we realized, oh, these people don’t have drinking water. Every day we were going to the river and pumping. Ultimately, we all got sick. Water has become a big piece of the puzzle, part of forging the trail.”
Ten years later, Kiwaska’s “Escuela el Ingeniero Thomas Langdon Barker” (named after Tab Barker’s late father) has become a prestigious escuela base — a “base school” for the Nicaraguan Department of Education. Eight other satellite schools are administered from this location. In addition to serving as Kiwaska’s primary school five days a week, this structure now provides Saturday high school classes (el sabatino) to fifty students from across the region. In many ways, the Kiwaska school represents Project Schoolhouse’s growth over the past ten years: it has evolved beyond its original intent by empowering Nicaraguans to direct and realize the needs of their own communities.
As Project Schoolhouse begins a new decade of school, water, and career-building projects, we would like to thank Leon Schatz, Wayward Films, and everyone from Sheridan who made our first school in Kiwaska a big success. Today the journey of “figuring things out” is shepherding hundreds of young Nicaraguans toward brighter futures.
Thank you for being a part of our journey.
To learn more about Project Schoolhouse’s current projects, please sign up for one of our ongoing “Crash Courses” in Sheridan, Wyoming or Austin, Texas: https://www.projectschoolhouse.org/get-involved/crash-course-events/
If you are a business and want to learn how you can partner with Project Schoolhouse, please contact Derek Hansen (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Leon Schatz and Wayward Films are based out of Sheridan, Wyoming. Schatz worked on the PBS documentary, “Drawn to Yellowstone”, and currently divides his time between producing promotional videos, writing a screenplay about Butch Cassidy’s final heist, and pursuing his other big passion: paragliding. To learn more, please visit: http://www.waywardvideo.com.