Meeting the Chavalos

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This week, Steve Jackson is guest-blogging for from Granada, Nicaragua. He works there as a volunteer fundraiser at CafeChavalos.

See Steve's blog post from yesterday by clicking here.

Before Vietnam I had never worked with young people.

My position at KOTO was as fundraiser and, as far as I knew, time spent with the KOTO kids would be minimal.

That wasn't the way it worked out. In all my memories of KOTO, I have kids hanging off me. I could easily throw one of them over my shoulder. Six of them, on occasions, would lift me.

The Vietnamese have a gift for being cheesy without the queasy. They can say, with a straight face, and without embarrassment, the kindest, most complimentary and most heart-warming words.

Being told once, by a formerly desperate street kid, now in KOTO's care, "I am very happy," was enough to make me sneak off and bawl.

Cute is good in Vietnam. Anger is bad. Culturally teenage boys even felt it was normal to try and hold my hand in the streets.

I think young Nicaragua males would rather chop off their arms. Meeting the CafeChavalos kids was a very different ordeal.

At first I put it down to age difference. These big tough macho guys were surely older than their KOTO counterparts. But no, when I checked, they weren't.

As regards volunteers winning a place in their hearts, well, they were clearly more discerning than the Vietnamese.

However, my attitude towards them softened a little when I sat down with Donna Tabor, the project founder and she clued me in on their backgrounds.

As the Chavalos worked, putting together a meal for a tour group, we chatted in the corner. With a head nod or a directed glance she took me through the Chavalos personnel.

It was an eye opener. Drugs was a common link. Starting with glue-sniffing, a huge problem here and moving on to crack cocaine. Gangs also cropped up too. There were fights, serious injuries.

Add to that, absent parents, extreme poverty and a lack of education.

Now I could see why these tattooed teenagers were they way they were.

A few days later I was due to take pictures of them for publicity use. I snapped one shot before they decided photo shoots were embarrassing and they stormed off in differing directions down Granada's cobbled streets. I was left frustrated and angry. Respect, I realized, might be a long time coming.

Two days later, the kid who had been the first to walk out, came to apologize. Through a translator I readily accepted and we shook hands. I learned later that the last volunteer he argued with, he had tried to stab. All things considered, I was doing okay.

I soon realized that the most amazing aspect regarding the Chavalos is their progress to date.

They have moved on from crime and drugs. One is teaching, one is about to apply to University, nearly all have returned to education at some level and all are rebuilding their lives with the lessons they have learnt.

Unlike KOTO, CafeChavalos is not about preparing kids for a career in the hospitality industry -- it is simply about building a team and helping its members to learn ambition, responsibility and create their own goals. It's a formula that has already proved itself.

In two months we will open a new CafeChavalos in the heart of Granada -- the success of the restaurant and its program to-date demands it. That restaurant will continue the fantastic work done to date and help new generations of at-risk youth gain new horizons.

I'm proud to be a part of it. As with KOTO I am here to fundraise. New restaurants aren't cheap but what an investment it can prove to be.

I look forward to watching the future CafeChavalos members develop. I look forward to them, slowly, becoming friends.

Return tomorrow for Steve's next post. See a promotional video clip of CafeChavalos by clicking here. Read Steve's blog at

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