“I wouldn’t have this store today if it wasn’t for Manna Project,” says Laura Zelaya as she begins to tell the story of her nearly eight year long relationship with MPI. “Manna Project gave me confidence. They showed me that I could do something besides cooking and cleaning, that I could run a business.”
Laura Zelaya awakes at 5:30 every morning to prepare breakfast for her husband and daughter as they get ready for work and school, and often does not rest her head until 11 at night. In certain ways, her days are similar to those of many Nicaraguan women – full of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and taking care of her family. But unlike most of her peers, Laura’s daily life includes very welcome interruptions: calls of “Buenas!” from a steady stream of neighbors coming to buy soda, snacks, and toilet paper from the small store (venta) that Laura runs out of her house.
Laura first became acquainted with the organization through Kathy and Halle August, independent missionaries who own the two community centers in Chiquilistagua and Cedro Galan in which MPI holds programs. She had petitioned fiercely (and successfully) to get her only daughter, Laurita, into the Augusts’ preschool, even though Laurita was a few months shy of the minimum age. Lori Scharffenberg, one of the founders and current executive director of MPI, was a preschool teacher at the time, and developed a strong bond with Laurita. Despite her family’s close relationship with Lori and the successful children’s programs MPI ran in the community, Laura was a bit skeptical of the help that MPI could provide to help lift families out of poverty. At the time, her family lived in a tiny, one-room house, and survived solely on Laura’s income as a housekeeper, as her husband was unable to find work in construction. So, a few years later, when MPI started a microfinance and business development program, Laura made the life-changing decision to attend the first class.
In the microfinance program, Laura learned the structure of a sound business plan, the basics of accounting, and the expectations of loan repayment. She won a loan to start selling clothes within the community, and her career business took off. As the sole breadwinner in her family, she kept her daughter well nourished and clothed, and she still beams when talking about her proudest moment: the day that she was able to buy a new door for her house. Laura also became part of an initiative developed by two MPI Program Directors that encouraged local women to become seamstresses.
She and her sister-in-law sewed aprons and bags, which they sold to visiting volunteer groups for a profit of $5 apiece. Laura went to work in a local store when this program ended, but eventually felt she was not receiving enough pay for her work. She began selling helados (homemade ice cream) and enchiladas out of her house in order to supplement her income. Very slowly, she started saving money and developing a business plan for her own store. Over the past year, Laura’s store has flourished. Combined with her husband’s income from construction, the family has been able to expand their house. Although the organization did not provide a loan for her current business, Laura credits MPI with giving her the knowledge, inspiration and drive to start her own store. She also thanks MPI for instilling a love of learning in her now 10 year-old daughter, who has taken literacy and math classes with MPI and is one of the most dedicated students in its English program.
Laura, an outgoing and patient woman, constantly shows her gratitude to MPI by helping new Program Directors learn Spanish and welcoming them into her home. As her store grows, she hopes to give back to the community by serving as an example of success for others who are starting businesses.