Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Jessenia Castillo, ¡Presente!

Photo by Joe Alexander

Last night we lost the face of the Nueva Vida Clinic, Evelyn Jessenia Castillo.  She died from COVID-19.   Jessenia was our health promoter.  Jessenia suffered from diabetes and struggled mightily to keep it under control.  This made her passionate about helping others maintain their own health and gave her deep insights on how to help.

Let me share a few memories with you to help give you in-sight into this caring, darling, wonderful woman…

Ten years ago, I decided that we really needed a health promoter to organize our public health outreach.  I asked César, who is gifted in community organizing himself, to find us some candidates.  He brought us Jessenia.  She was mild spoken, unassuming, and told about her organizing experiences.  She had limited public health organizing, but was willing to learn.  To be honest, I wanted someone - anyone - and I wanted them working ASAP.  Little did I know just how perfect she was for the job.

Two friends who gave the CDCA the money to hire Jessenia, Nora and Becky, always went to the clinic to visit... especially with Jessenia.  The three would chat and strategize about how to help the new mother’s programs.

Jessenia would soak in information and ideas from anyone willing to teach her, but she was also wise to what might work and what might not.  She loved having Professor Ronna Krozy come and Ronna loved working with Jessenia.  Every time Ronna came she would always comment on how we had a gem in Jessenia, something that we already knew, but high praise from a public health nurse with her doctorate.  In fact, everyone who worked with Jessenia was highly impressed by her knowledge, her caring, her wisdom and her kindness.

Jessenia was the face of the clinic in the community through our lay health promoters.  If we had problems, she would gently but forcibly tell me about them.  She would explain why my logical choices were absolutely ridiculous… but never in those words… though sometimes I wish she had… we would have saved ourselves some troubles.

Jessenia loved the patients and they loved her back.  She knew so many by name and knew the burdens that they lived under.  She could - off the top of her head - tell us who needed extra help, who needed follow-up, who needed to be visited, who struggled to eat, and the list went on... all in a community of thousands of poor people.  She could walk anywhere and volunteers could walk with her and be safe, because she was known and loved.

Jessenia had backbone.  She would stand up to a volunteer when they were not being culturally appropriate and not back down... a true gift… not to mention great responsibility.  It is hard to do this, because we all know that volunteers give of their time and expertise. It was difficult for Jessenia who did not like conflict.  She would frequently confer with me to see if her choice was right.  It always was… always.

She took her calling to be the clinic’s health promoter seriously.  I firmly believe that her job was as important as the doctors and other medical services; if not sometimes more important.  Here are some of her accomplishments:
  • Recruiting, organizing and supporting the 30 lay health promoters
  • Creating and teaching three new mother's groups bi-weekly or monthly
  • Leading teen girls' and boys' groups
  • Starting and maintaining support for HIV positive patients
  • Teaching weekly classes for our chronic care patients
  • Leading volunteer doctors, nurses, nutritionists, dentists, lactation specialists, and respiratory therapist into homes of patients and bridging the cultural gap with sensitivity
  • Creating and maintaining a home visit program for chronic care patients, new mothers and pregnant women, patients at risk, and asthmatic patients
  • Organizing and teaching so many in Nueva Vida on umpteen million topics, it seems
  • And connecting our clinic with the gay and transgender community in a respectful and dignified manner.
She was a powerhouse of ideas and  her desire to make Nueva Vida a better place was palpable.

Jessenia was loved and respected by the clinic staff.  She was heart and compassion through and through.

She was  patient with me. She taught me how to listen to the staff as well as the community of Nueva Vida.  I loved her... we all did and we will miss her… terribly. 
- Kathleen

For nearly 5 years I had the privilege of spending every Tuesday afternoon with Jessenia
- and 12 teenagers! - when we started the Las Lobas group for at-risk girls together. Jessenia had trained as a teacher, she was an educator down to her core, and she taught me so much!

With the Lobas she knew how to strike just the right balance between love and discipline. Jessenia was physically affectionate with them - so important in Nicaraguan culture and in particular with these girls - allowing them to hug her, braid her hair, even practice putting make-up on her. She taught me that it was okay to let these girls fully into our hearts. And yet she never let them walk all over her, she insisted on respect - but it was a mutual respect, and the girls recognized that.

The stereotype of a Nicaraguan mother teaches her children and grandchildren through regaño - berating and chastising them. In many cases the mothers are so terrified for their children that shouting is the only way they know to get their kids to understand. Jessenia did not berate. She was always calm and patient and helped the Lobas understand tough topics in the way that the best Nicaraguan community organizer artists do - by explaining the same thing three times in three different ways using everyday examples.

Jessenia, a gifted baker, gave Las Lobas an 8 week baking course in her home.

We made it a custom to take the Lobas out of the neighborhood every other week - one week we would do something educational, and the following week we would take them on an outing. The first outing we went on was to see the movie Godzilla, and one of the girls came to us to tell us that another was carrying a knife. Jessenia helped to negotiate with the girl - who insisted the knife was for peeling mangoes - to leave the knife in the pharmacy with Danelia while we went to the movies. Anyone who's ever chaperoned a school field trip knows that our hearts were in our mouths each time we went out, but as long as Jessenia was with us, I knew we'd all make it back in one piece.

Jessenia was invaluable in helping me to negotiate the world of teenage girls in a culture other than the one in which I grew up, which made me a better leader for the Lobas, but also a better mom for my own two Nicaraguan teenage girls. I am forever indebted to her. Jessenia Castillo,
¡Presente! ¡Presente! ¡Presente! 
- Becca

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Donate here to the ongoing work of the CDCA with the poor in Nicaragua.  You can help continue Jessenia's work by giving in her memory: