On his first Baptist mission trip to Honduras in early 2008, Chuck Nichols fretted over germs and constantly coated his hands in sanitizer.
By the second trip, a year later, the Raleigh lawyer had taken to playing games with the village children whose humble circumstances affected him profoundly. Nicknamed “Pepe” by the villagers, Nichols returned to Raleigh consumed with the idea of finding some way to use his privileged status to help lift the Honduran children from a life of grinding poverty.
Today the transformation of the naive gringo is complete: Nichols, 54, a self-admitted flop at foreign languages, has taught himself Spanish well enough in two years to read “The Lord of the Rings” in Spanish translation. He has visited Honduras a dozen times to help administer charitable projects in hamlets where illiteracy is still common and electricity rare.
Nichols is one of the founders of Sharefish, a small Raleigh nonprofit that builds one-room libraries and pays for village children to attend school in the small Central American country. The group is supporting about 70 children and youths who likely would be forced to drop out after elementary school because of a lack of supplies and shoes, almost certainly consigning them to a life of field work and menial labor.
“I feel compelled, almost to an obsession, to do something for that community,” Nichols said during an interview in his downtown Raleigh law office. “Here’s a whole group of children, really nice children, who have no future. My hope is they get through colegio, 12 grades of education. If they get through high school, that is a well-educated person in that country.”
In 2008, Nichols was no different from the thousands of Americans who visit a Third World country each year on a mission trip sponsored by their religious denominations. The 10-day trip to Honduras, with N.C. Baptist Men, was a maximum time commitment for Nichols, a busy commercial transaction lawyer accustomed to arriving at the office at 7 a.m.
The next year, Nichols’ personal circumstances were upended by the recession. His commercial real-estate work had dwindled, putting his solo legal practice in survival mode, but at the same time freeing time and energy to reflect on other priorities.
The fish tale
The idea for Sharefish sprang from brainstorming sessions by Nichols and several others who took mission trips to the remote villages of Altos de Santa Marta and El Carrizo in southern Honduras. They bandied such possibilities as microloans, nutrition programs and water purification projects before deciding to sponsor children financially so they could complete their studies.
The name Sharefish was suggested by one of the co-founders, Oie Osterkamp, a Raleigh business consultant who is now president of the nonprofit. When Osterkamp was growing up in Rocky Mount, his mother coined the Dr. Seuss-sounding nonsense word for a family proverb: “It is better to be a sharefish than a selfish.”
The group has raised about $50,000 since February 2010, $25,000 of it from an anonymous donor. That’s been enough to build and furnish two tiny libraries and supply financial assistance to keep children in school. Nichols and other members of Sharefish pay for their trips to Honduras out of their own resources, Sharefish treasurer Glenn Raynor says.
“The poverty I’ve seen there, so little (money) can do so much,” said Nancy Arne Jones, a Sharefish board member who works as director of development for Habitat for Humanity of Wake County. “These are just little villages. There’s nothing out there.”
In May 2009, at 52, Nichols dedicated himself to a personal quest: becoming fluent in Spanish. Nichols remembered little from his high school Spanish classes in Greensboro, which he had dismissed in the 1970s as irrelevant to his life. He began by signing up for two classes at Wake Tech.
He now receives private tutoring from a retired high school Spanish teacher, and spends about 10 hours a week drilling himself on vocabulary and grammar.
He has created hundreds of index cards, affixed to metal rings, for study during snatches of free time.
“He has really attacked this with a vengeance,” said his wife, Susan Nichols, a special deputy attorney general. “When we drive back and forth to Greensboro to visit his mother, I call out his palabras (words) to him.”
Sticking to the rules
Sharefish is not designed as a welfare program, but as a contractual agreement. The families who receive money – $365 a year for elementary school kids, and $600 a year for high school kids – must keep their children in school with passing grades.
A local pastor distributes the funds and collects report cards from every child to verify eligibility.
“I believe 90 percent will complete their high school studies because these are the ones who are doing well in class,” pastor Rodolfo Antonio Mejia of the Iglesia Bautista de Vida Nueva church in El Carrizo wrote in an email.
At the end of the 2010 school year, five students didn’t complete their grade and were cut from the program. They were replaced by the next five children on the Sharefish waiting list.
Nichols, who chairs the Sharefish board of directors, said teachers, parents and even a U.S. sponsor pleaded with Sharefish leaders to give the failed kids a second chance. Many of these children live in huts with dirt floors and have illiterate parents.
“The families are very large and don’t have an extra source of income,” Vilma Lagos, one of the local school teachers, wrote in an email to The N&O. “Some of the parents have never been inside a classroom and don’t know how to help their children.”
But Nichols said the rule is needed.
“If you don’t enforce that rule, then everybody would become an exception, and it would become a general welfare program,” he said. “Their needs are greater than our resources.”
Graduating from high school in Honduras can clear a path to a career in the technical, vocational, administrative, clerical, nursing and teaching fields.
El Carrizo has about 800 inhabitants; Santa Marta, about 500. Sharefish leaders said the educational conditions in rural Honduras are comparable to those in rural North Carolina a century ago, with several grade levels taught simultaneously in one-room schoolhouses.
“A dog runs into the classroom and runs back out,” Nichols said. “A baby comes in wearing diapers, and one of the kids has to get up and take him back home. The temperatures are in the high 90s. The desks are a shambles.
“And they’re being taught by teachers who have a 12th-grade education.”
BY JOHN MURAWSKI – STAFF WRITER, NEWS & OBSERVER
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-8932