Above the front door a small office on a backstreet in Buford simply says “Amigos for Christ.”
The few offices and a warehouse does not stand out in any way. Few would guess this nondescript place is the headquarters of an organization that coordinates hundreds of missionaries and service workers with more than 100 employees in Nicaragua to provide clean drinking water, education, health care, food and other essentials to some of the most impoverished people in the Americas.
“Nicaragua is the poorest Spanish-speaking country in the world,” said Tessa Sulimirski, director of missions for Amigos. “We’ve stayed in the same area of Nicaragua because one of our main points is to build relationships.
“We don’t just pop in, paint a building and leave. We’re there for the long haul.”
The organization works primarily in the Chinandega region on the western coast of the country, bordering Honduras. Roughly 3.7 million Nicaraguans live on less than $2 a day. In the rural areas, 60 percent of the water supply is contaminated and nearly 100 percent of families use latrines that become breeding grounds for intestinal parasites, according to Amigos for Christ. Because of this, Amigos for Christ creates access to clean water through wells and building modern bathrooms, which include a flush toilet and shower area.
“Our focus is definitely on clean water right now,” Sulimirski said.“We have built houses, schools and churches in the past, but we’ve really found that without clean water there really is no point.
“If you don’t have clean water, there is no point in coming in and doing surgeries, addressing health issues or building houses. It is the root of everything.”
Diane Cook, a University of North Georgia professor, has led a group of students to Nicaragua with Amigos every May for three years as part of a summer class on diversity.
“It’s a great experience, but it’s not luxurious,” Cook said. “It’s hot, there is no air conditioning and no hot water, but they feed you very well and you get to do something that has a purpose.
“(The students) get to experience another culture and get class credit, but also do something that they really believe is important.”
After the trip, each of Cook’s students attends summer classes and completes coursework.
Students also do not have to participate in the devotional activities, even though Amigos is a Christian organization. The mission group does not believe in heavy-handed evangelism, Sulimirski said.
“I have students who are atheists and Amigos believes in showing people how to be helpful,” Cook said. “You can be as much or as little a part of the devotional activities as you want.
“I allow my students to make it whatever kind of trip they want it to be.”
Lydia Fields, the associate pastor of college and multimedia for First Baptist Church in Gainesville, is preparing to embark on a trip with Amigos in October. She is hoping to use her experience to organize a regular trip for the church’s current college students.
“When I heard about Amigos, I was just thrilled about all that they are doing,” Fields said. “I believe in doing global missions that are not just going in and helping people for a week and then leaving them stranded.
“The work they are doing on an ongoing basis is a great thing. We are a small piece of the puzzle for the greater work that they are doing.”
Amigos for Christ has been involved in Chinandega for 15 years. They first entered the area after Hurricane Mitch caused massive mudslides in the country, which resulted in the deaths of thousands. The organization employs roughly 85 native Nicaraguans and makes a strong effort to maintain ongoing relationships with the communities it serves.
Everything Amigos does, it does side by side with the local residents. When a community approaches the organization, they are required to make a commitment to pay a nominal amount of the cost and help build the well, which is almost always the first step. Amigos owns the largest well-drilling rig in the country, and they dig trenches to get water to the homes. The goal is to get a capacity of a 100 gallons of clean water a day to each home, Sulimirski said.
“Right now, they either go to a dirty river to get water, or they drink contaminated water from the ground,” she said. “If they go buy water, they usually spend $1 a day for water, which they had to walk miles for, and their income is $2 a day.
“That’s half their income to get water, and it just cripples them financially.”
After a clean water source is established, Amigos looks at other projects.
About two-thirds of Nicaraguans drop out of school by the sixth grade to work, and Amigos attempts to “bribe” students by distributing meals and vitamins at school.
Other projects include health care initiatives and microloan programs where they give chickens or pregnant pigs and cows to farmers with the stipulation they cannot kill the animal for food. They also have to give one equivalent animal back to Amigos within a year. By selling the other animals or their by-products, one animal could take a person out of poverty in a couple of years, Sulimirski said.
With or without the help of mission trips, Amigos is committed to staying in Chinandega and continuing God’s work, Sulimirski said.
A description from their annual report describes the mentality best: “In the end, we embody Christ most fully when we work together to create something that will have not only an immediate impact, but also eternal significance in the lives of other people.”