By SUZANNE MOORE
PLATTSBURGH — Children in two Nicaraguan orphanages can count on fuller bellies now.
North Country Mission of Hope's new pilot program, the Orphan's Hope Project, is on the job.
A brainchild of mission volunteer Barbara Dobilas, the program signs up sponsors for the children at El Crucero and Juan Pablo orphanages, ensuring they are provided with plentiful and healthy food, basic medical care and other necessities.
The nuns at El Crucero tuck in 35 children every night; there are seven orphans at sister facility Juan Pablo.
So far, 59 sponsors have assumed either the full or partial cost of providing for those children for a year. Full sponsorship is $300, or less than $1 a day.
Orphan's Hope doesn't limit its support to the here and now, however, but addresses the future of the youngsters, too.
Dobilas wants to introduce vocational programs — sewing, baking, database entry on computers "to help the orphanages become partly sustainable and so (the children) have a way to make a living one day."
Recently, an anonymous sponsor paid to ship boxes of fabric and a multitude of sewing supplies to El Crucero, where idle sewing machines can now be put to work.
Those machines aren't electric, but powered by pedal. On the other end of the technology spectrum, the facility has eight computers.
"But they need a secure, appropriate room for them," Dobilas said on a recent trip to Plattsburgh.
That will happen over the next few weeks, as the summer effort of Mission of Hope unfolds. A total 32 missioners will arrive in Nicaragua between Aug. 1 and 4, among other projects tackling facility improvements at El Crucero. Leaky and nonexistent roofs and extensive mold have deteriorated the buildings there to the point that some are uninhabitable. The sisters don't have the financial resources needed for upgrades — in fact, earlier this year they were forced to beg on the streets just to be able to provide food for the children and themselves.
Dobilas saw for herself how dire the situation was when she took part in the February mission.
"The poverty was so devastating to me," she said. "I just couldn't stand the thought that I couldn't do anything.
Dobilas, who lives in New Windsor in Orange County, had volunteered from a distance before that trip.
A friend had forwarded an edition of Executive Director Sister Debbie Blow's weekly News and Notes update in April 2009, and before long, she'd signed on as website manager.
Improvements to that site are in the works, but to those duties she has added directorship of the Orphan's Hope Project.
It's a passion to which she can bring her own skill set and the resources of her communications company, Dobilas Advisors.
She has launched The Orphan's Hope Project Sponsor Newsletter to keep those who contribute up to date on the program. In the July/August issue e-mailed to participants, she also tells how to write letters or send gifts to sponsored children.
"However, I ask you to use moderation so as not to upset the other children, who may not receive individual gifts," she wrote.
"A true hallmark of the very poor is their capacity to share what little they have, and these children are no different. Anything that can be shared amongst them all is especially welcome."
That's how expenditure of sponsor funds works, too.
"The realities are that all of the children have needs," said Dobilas as Blow nodded agreement. "The nuns decide how best to use the money."
So while sponsors are matched with individual children, all the orphans are fed, are given medical treatment and have other needs met by program funds.
"Most of them are dealing with abandonment issues," Blow said. "Several were sexually abused before coming to the orphanage.
"We're really trying to address those human needs."
A dream Dobilas hopes will become reality soon is Internet for El Crucero.
"With Internet access, it opens up their world," she said. And it would allow communication by e-mail between the children there and their sponsors in the United States.
"I want these kids to know people here care about them," she said. "I really want to foster a bond between the child and the sponsors."
About two-thirds of sponsors live in her part of the state; the rest are from the North Country. Dobilas is actively recruiting new sponsors to ensure the orphanages can meet the needs of all.
"I had wanted to do something like this all my life," Dobilas said.
And after seeing third-world poverty close up, she added, "it's the only way I can ease my heart a little bit."
E-mail Suzanne Moore at: firstname.lastname@example.org