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Ford Scholar Jamily Duarte ’16: Documenting Poverty and Alleviating Hunger

Jamily Duarte ’16 spent nearly a month this summer with some of the most poverty-stricken families in Central America. As a Vassar Ford Scholar, Duarte traveled to a small town in Nicaragua to gather data on the barriers children there face in attending school, and she helped launch an anti-hunger organization founded by a former Vassar faculty member.

Former English prof. Judith Nichols, Ford scholar Jamily Duarte ‘16, and education prof. Tracey Holland

Duarte’s survey of 30 families in a squatters’ community, called El Quilombo, in the town of La Paz Centro kicks off a two-year study being conducted by assistant education prof. Tracey Holland for the Nicaraguan Education Ministry. “I compiled statistical data and information on the families’ living conditions and included their comments on things they said would be helpful to the government in addressing their children’s educational needs,” Duarte says.

As expected, Duarte found most of the obstacles preventing children from going to school stem from their families’ economic condition, Holland says. The only public school houses four grades in two rooms and is poorly equipped. Two other schools are private and charge modest tuition that many families can’t afford. And many young children earn money for their families selling firewood or washing clothes, keeping them from attending classes.

Holland says she was impressed with how easily Duarte engaged with the people of El Quilombo. “Jamily really hit the ground running – there were no awkward moments,” she says. “And as the interviews went on, she became a better listener and went off-script to obtain the information we needed.”

Duarte was in Nicaragua for most of the month of June and is spending the balance of the summer transcribing her recordings of the interviews and compiling a report she and Holland will present to the Education Ministry.

When she wasn’t surveying the families about the local school system, Duarte was performing numerous tasks for Artists for Soup, an organization founded last spring by former adjunct associate English prof. Judith Nichols.   Nichols decided to stop teaching, after more than 20 years at Vassar, after she was diagnosed with cancer. She has since recovered and remains affiliated with the college as a visiting scholar.

Nichols calls Duarte’s role in helping to launch projects for Artists for Soup “invaluable.” Among other tasks, she helped set up an arts workshop in an abandoned factory and helped to run educational programs at a garden that serves as a vehicle to teach nutrition and community organizing. “Jamily worked with young children at the arts workshop – she’s a gifted artist and a very patient teacher,” Nichols says. “And she got a lot of the children involved in the garden project. She’s magical the way she can draw kids out. It was a real benefit this summer having her along.”

Duarte, a sociology major from the Bronx, NY, says her work in El Quilombo was both challenging and inspiring. “The people there were living on less than a dollar a day in houses made of plastic or mud,” she says. “There was no running water and very little electricity -- I saw one light bulb while I was there. But the men and women want something better for their children.”

Duarte, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, says she enjoyed getting to know the children in the community. “My fluency in Spanish helped of course,” she says. “I’d often approach them with a deck of cards and teach them games, or we’d play soccer or kick ball.”

She says she left El Quilombo with a mixture of frustration and optimism. “There’s lots of work to be done – it’s an ongoing project – but I see hope,” she says.

Duarte says her work as a Ford Scholar has spurred her to continue to become involved in the future in projects and activities that fight hunger and poverty. “What I learned this summer is that I want to help – whether it’s in my neighborhood in the Bronx, or in the Dominican Republic where my family is from, or in Nicaragua,” she says. “I discovered I really enjoy advocating for people who need it.”

--Larry Hertz