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Mass. Pair help found school in Nicaragua

By Donna Boynton
Telegram &Amp; Gazette / April 8, 2012
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WORCESTER, Mass.—Jeff Pluta says there is nothing extraordinary about him -- he simply believes "anything is possible."

It is his mantra, written on his notebooks and workbooks. He uses those three words to motivate his students at Smith Academy in Hatfield, where he is a teacher.

"Anything is Possible" was also written on the ribbon that was cut to symbolize the grand opening of Nueva Esperanza Secundaria, a school that his fledgling charitable organization, Amped for Education, helped build in a barrio in Granada, Nicaragua.

The name of the organization comes from the Spanish word "ampliar," which means "to expand."

"I had an idea two years ago that seemed impossible," Pluta, of Hadley, said in an email. "It doesn't take anything other than motivation -- you'd surprise yourself at what you can do."

Today, Pluta's nonprofit organization consists of his friend, Sarah Wormann of Northboro, who serves as president. While they are still celebrating their accomplishment, they are also considering expanding the reach of their organization through "volun-tourism" trips and student sponsorships. Expanding education is an opportunity to expand the country's economy, most notably tourism.

"I was talking to a friend of mine from graduate school, who was teaching in Ecuador, when I was brainstorming this idea. Around the time I realized I had to incorporate an actual organization, I mentioned this to her and right off the bat, she said, `Call it Amped for Education,'" Pluta said. "So expanding education . Amped for Education. It kind of works."

Pluta's motivation is rooted in his profession as a teacher -- which is, simply, to educate. After finishing graduate school at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pluta moved to California, where he dreamed of combining two pleasures: teaching and traveling abroad. What he came up with was an idea to build a school in Central or South America. He researched poverty levels, exchange rates and history, and settled on Nicaragua, where many children's education ends at the sixth grade.

But to build a school, he was going to have to raise money and incorporate an organization, which he did in 2009. After eight months of preliminary work, Pluta went to Nicaragua, found a plot of land in Granada, in an impoverished community where the average home is a simple shack -- but residents there understood the value of an education.

"While I was there with a group last summer doing some work with contractors building the first classrooms, a man came up and spoke with a contractor and then got to work," Pluta recalled. "When I asked the contractor who he was, he told me that the man said his son would be attending the school next year, and would have to end his education otherwise. The man was unemployed and at home, so he offered to help with construction and he did so for days."

Pluta then brought in Wormann, who has teaching experience in Africa. Over emails, phone calls and in-person meetings with Wormann between Northboro and Hadley, the two oversaw fundraising, remotely kept tabs on construction, and coordinated the opening of the organization's first school in Granada.

"We've really come a long way," Wormann said. "Jeff said at the beginning, `I want to have kids sitting at a desk in two years.' I said, there's no way we can do that."

However, Pluta believed anything was possible.

Amped for Education linked up with La Esperanza Granada, a local nonprofit already working in the Granada area to promote and improve education. La Esperanza Granada introduced Pluta to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, which endorsed the school, agreed to pay the teachers' salaries if Amped provided the building, and the ministry will absorb it into the public school system in five years.

"Prior to going to the Ministry of Education, we got a written petition from hundreds of members of the barrio pledging to do whatever they needed to do to have a secondary school," Pluta said. "The vote in the community to give the land to build a school was an informal show-of-hands, but to that point, was the happiest day of my life."

The school also was built with private individuals, Builders without Borders and students from Westfield State University. Westfield State students have twice visited Granada to work on the school. In January 2011, a team of students built the foundation for three classrooms, and this January they built the entire technology classroom from floor to ceiling, said Katheryn Bradford, director of alumni relations at Westfield State University.

"We are very committed to Granada," Bradford said, noting that the university is recognized on a plaque dedicating the classroom. "Our personal philosophy is you can help one person fix their home, or you can help build a school and help a whole community. This is a really big thing."

The one-story, L-shaped school opened in February, and is still a work in progress. There are three buildings inside a fenced-in area, and the first three classrooms cost about $60,000, which Amped and La Esperanza Granada raised through donations, as well as a collection of small grants. Amped also contributed to extended electricity to the school.

"There are 52 students enrolled who otherwise wouldn't have a chance," Wormann said.

Amped for Education is expanding their mission, now coordinating volun-tourism trips that combine charity work with vacation time and the first trip is planned in July, where volunteers will add to the new school by helping to build technical classrooms.

Amped for Education also sponsors students. A donation of $285 a year will provide a student with a uniform, an eye exam and glasses (if needed), a dental exam, a backpack, school supplies, books and an additional eight hours of tutoring during the school week, Wormann said.

Within the next year, Pluta said he hopes to find another site for a school in Nicaragua, and hopes Amped can continue to work in partnership with local residents in building these projects.

"We are just taking it one day at a time," Wormann said. "Even if this is the only thing we ever do, it's really something to be proud of -- just to think that you are responsible for those children having as much education as they can."

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