Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Blazing a trail for others

Kensington resident hopes to establish a volunteer program at a Nicaraguan education center

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Christine Ruppert, of Kensington, will soon leave for a two-year volunteer position at a community center in Nicaragua. The center teaches art, English and technical skills and it will be Ruppert’s job to expand the center’s volunteer program and funding.
Christine Ruppert hopes to bring new life to a 24-year-old community center in the capital of Nicaragua.

Ruppert, 22, a Kensington resident and recent graduate of Boston College, along with her college friend Laura Hopps, 22, of Yardley, Pa., will spend two years at the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte, a community center in Managua that provides education, counseling and job training to 900 Nicaraguans each year.

‘‘The overall umbrella job is creating a volunteer program and laying the framework for others to come to the center and work with the community,” Ruppert said. ‘‘It’s about creating something that will last years after we’ve left.”

While there, they will be responsible for applying for grants, teaching English and creative writing classes, forming cooperatives for the students and other projects with a larger goal in mind.

By the end of their two-year stay, they hope to create a program where volunteers will spend two years working at the center.

It’s a big job, Ruppert said, but the end goal will be worth the sacrifices.

‘‘It’s mainly a lot of older women who have been supporting the center, but they need some new blood in the center to keep those traditions going,” she said.

The center is endorsed and partly run by Sister Helen Prejean, anti-death penalty advocate and author of ‘‘Dead Man Walking.”

Prejean, a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, began her prison ministry in 1981 and dedicated her life to the poor of New Orleans, according to her Web site, www.prejean.org. She used her experiences to write the award-winning book that was adapted for a 1996 film starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as a death row inmate.

The center in Nicaragua is run by the Friends of Batahola, a board of directors that includes Prejean. Ruppert and Hopps will be working with the leaders of the center to expand the services offered and create a program for future activists to follow.

After volunteering in El Salvador and Costa Rica, Ruppert jumped at the chance to help another community.

‘‘Going back was all I could think about [at college]. I loved the people, and the community there,” she said.

She spent a semester in Costa Rica, working at the International Center for Sustainable Human Development and another four months in El Salvador working with the Casa de la Solidaridad, an academic initiative between the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, University of Central America in El Salvador and Santa Clara University.

She took classes three days a week and worked with the impoverished citizens of the country.

‘‘I really was so happy there, and four months just wasn’t enough,” she said.

After those experiences, she became passionate about immigration issues and immigrant rights. Currently, Ruppert volunteers for CASA de Maryland, Inc., in Wheaton where she negotiates work contracts between companies and day laborers.

She believes her work in Nicaragua is a natural next step.

‘‘This can really be a big help if I want to continue that in the future,” she said. ‘‘It’s something I’ve always been interested in, especially women’s rights.”

Ruppert’s parents noticed a change in their daughter when she returned from her earlier trips abroad.

‘‘I think it was hard that first semester back at school because she just wasn’t into the tailgating and those parties so much anymore,” her mother, Barbara Ruppert, said. ‘‘She saw so much poverty and what [corporate] desire for big profits can do to another country. She really lived with people struggling for the next day’s meal.”

The youngest of five Ruppert children, Christine Ruppert watched each of her siblings spend semesters abroad and volunteer for service projects while growing up.

With this project, she will be away from home longer than any of her brothers and sisters and is ready to blaze her own path.

‘‘They always encouraged me to learn a different culture. Live in a new reality,” Ruppert said.

Barbara Ruppert said the family was understandably worried about their youngest child spending the most time away.

‘‘We kind of figured all along that there would be some kind of a service period of time in her life after graduation,” she said. ‘‘It’s going to be tough, but we’ll get through. We just kind of trust that the good Lord is leading her.”

Through high school, college and after graduation, the Ruppert children served not only their community but took their service to different parts of the world.

The oldest brother David Ruppert, 36, now in College Park, spent time as a Capuchin Franciscan volunteer in Washington D.C. working with the poor.

Stephen Ruppert, 34, now in Chicago, spent a year in Panama building bridges after studying engineering in college. He now volunteers for a homeless shelter in Chicago.

Anne Marie, 30, spent a year in Brooklyn, N.Y. working with teenage girls with behavioral problems. She now lives in London.

Mary, 24, worked with Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic with the Sisters of the Holy Child. She now works in the District for L’Arche, a nonprofit that provides housing and support services to people with intellectual disabilities in Adams Morgan.

‘‘They liked to give back from the advantages they enjoyed growing up,” Barbara Ruppert said. ‘‘[With Christine] ... she saw her brothers and sisters go abroad and you knew it was in her mind.”

Ruppert and Hopps received grants from the Volunteer Mission Movement to cover a monthly stipend, airfare and medical insurance. Their stipend or other grants they receive will cover expenses like rent and classroom materials.

The young women plan to take classes the center offers to ingratiate themselves in the community.

‘‘[With] two of us sharing a tiny apartment for a while, I think cooking classes will be a good idea,” she said. ‘‘I mean, I’m just coming out of college.”

To Learn More

For more information on Batahola Volunteers

E-mail bataholavolunteers@gmail.com

Visit www.friendsofbatahola.org

Readhttp:⁄⁄bataholavolunteers.blogspot.com for up to date info on the project