Nicaragua: Tio Antonio's Hammocks for Social Change
A few weeks before our second trip to Nicaragua, we learned about a man named Tio Antonio (Uncle Antonio) who had a hammock store that provided jobs to at risk youth and deaf and mute youth. We were told that travelers could stop by, see the youth making the hammocks right there and if interested buy customized hammocks a few days later. We immediately looked into and realized that it was much more than just a hammock store, it was a whole eco-system of social support that empowered individuals who normally would be pushed to the outskirts of Nicaraguan society. We knew that we had to take our travelers there.
Right when you walk in, you see several youth working on customized hammocks that previous visitors had ordered. These jobs provide a competitive and respectable income while they continue to pursue other educational opportunities. It is not only seen as a job, but a mechanism to give hands on training on other aspects of professionalism, such as understanding work schedules and job responsibilities, sticking to deadlines, etc. A portion of the hammocks funds the center and it's other job training activities, allowing for financial sustainability of the organization.
The day we visited, Tio Antonio, the founder, was there and took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his work, why he started his center, and his love for Bruce Springsteen. His passion was palpable and his commitment to the youth inspiring. The center was first started to provide employment opportunities to deaf and mute youth. He had met many who were not given professional opportunities because they were discarded as useless in the work force. He knew that this was a stereotype that he was committed to ending.
In addition to the hammock store, the center also has a cafe that anyone can come to and work or get food and coffee. All the waiters are deaf and mute and there is a simple system put in place for ordering. While these jobs do provide an income to the youth, there is a larger underlying purpose to the cafe. The cafe is an opportunity to educate the general public and break down misconceptions that they might have of the capability of these youth. The idea is that the youth will get their careers started here, but Tio Antonio's will help them to continue to advance professionally by placing them in better jobs at other companies whose owners may frequent the cafe. These owners are now accustomed to communicating with them and understand that their disability is not a hindrance to their work ethic or dedication. The idea is simple, humans are humans, and when you interact daily with individuals who you my have misconceptions about, you cannot deny their humanity and their potential.