Hola de Nola

by Kate Frentzel

When you envision a life of service, it’s hard to shake the image of Nola (Ekern) Nackerud ’72. She’s spent the past 21 years in rural Nicaragua connecting kids with education. At 72, she often walks over an hour to visit their homes. “Sometimes I’ll borrow a horse or burro to cross a river to get to some of my very rural schools,” she says. “If not, I wade across.” She lives in Condega and takes the bus for an hour to get her mail in the nearby city of Estelí. Six years ago, she finally got an indoor toilet and running water. “Still no hot water, but I feel like I live at the Ritz!” she quips.

It’s easy to focus on the sacrifices Nola makes in order to do this good work. But what’s truly impressive is the effect she has.

Nola (Ekern) Nackerud ’72 connects children with education in rural Nicaragua.

A Diverse Teaching Career

As a newly minted Luther grad who majored in education and minored in Spanish, Nola moved around a lot with her ex-husband. An abbreviated resume of the first three decades of her working life includes stints as a house parent to 12 kids ages 6 to 16 at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch near Billings, Montana; a kindergarten teacher on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana; and a home base teacher for Head Start in Alaska. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in education and deaf studies and a second degree in interpreting for the deaf. She worked as an interpreter in elementary schools in Ithaca, New York; New Mexico; and outside Atlanta, Georgia.

When a divorce after three decades of marriage rocked her life at age 51, Nola took stock. She and her ex-husband had been accepted into the Peace Corps back in 1973 but decided to become house parents to troubled youth instead. But Peace Corps “never left my heart,” she says. She reapplied, was accepted, and stored 30-some years of belongings in a nephew’s attic. She set out to Nicaragua for a two-year engagement that’s turned into two-plus decades.

Nola joined the Peace Corps at 51. Twenty-one years later, she remains in Nicaragua finding ways to help children in need.

Finding a Fit

Nola’s adjustment to her new life wasn’t easy. “Oh gosh, I felt so out of place!” she says. “Everybody was so young!” It was an emotionally fragile period. She remembers crying on the phone to a relative about the cool Teva sandals all the 20-something volunteers were wearing—they felt like a marker that she didn’t belong.

“But anyway,” she says cheerily, “I survived and I thrived.” After her two years were up, she asked to stay another two. There was a deaf school nearby, and she wanted to learn Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN). ISN has fascinating origins. It evolved spontaneously in the 1980s among deaf students who were finally schooled together. Before that, deaf children in Nicaragua communicated with their families through idiosyncratic home signs and gestures that didn’t have meaning outside their families.

While Nola knew both Spanish and American Sign Language, ISN was an entirely separate language that would help her bridge even more gaps and connect even more students with education. She ended up extending her Peace Corps service to six years, almost unheard of in the organization. When those six years were up, she leveraged the sister city relationship between Condega, where she lived, and Bend, Oregon, to draw more resources toward helping deaf families. She also started working for the Asla Foundation, a nonprofit founded by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer to provide funding for underserved Nicaraguan students to attend high school and college.

In rural Nicaragua, Nola explains, many families live subsistence lifestyles far from cities and educational opportunities. It costs money—bus fare, clothing, books, food, and lost wages—to attend school, and not all families can afford it. For the Asla Foundation, Nola canvases families in rural, impoverished areas. She outlines options. She helps students—both deaf and hearing—fill out paperwork and applications. Sometimes she connects them with families and lodging in urban areas. This kind of support is often the difference between a child struggling for life and a child growing up to make meaningful, empowered decisions about their future.

Nola visits families in person and helps students with paperwork, city lodging, and funding.

Deaf Rights Activist

In addition to working directly with students, Nola’s been involved in other projects to spread awareness and support deaf students. She helped make a documentary about rurally isolated deaf Nicaraguans called A Life without Words (Una Vida sin Palabras). She helped develop an app with Signs and Smiles (Señas y Sonrisas) to allow non-ISN speakers to communicate with deaf children. And she’s a critical ally in the fight for deaf rights.

It took more than two years of perseverance for her to get deaf students into a local university. Once there, it took another fight to get them a trained interpreter in their classrooms. She drafted a letter and had all the parents of her deaf students sign it. She also threatened to make a phone call to the very popular local radio station. Two of the students Nola fought for went on to become teachers of the deaf.

“It’s a challenge for sure, but these children need a language and need to learn and be with other children,” she says. “They use another language to communicate and need to feel proud.”

This kind of support has real results. One Asla student has become a math teacher, another a nurse, and a third a doctor. “With the help of the scholarships, it changes lives,” Nola says. “I am witness to that.”

Nola remembers someone saying that in order to be healthy, you should get ten hugs a day. “Well, you know, I DO get ten hugs a day!” she says. When she goes on walks, little kids and their parents—sometimes former students—flock to her. This is your grandma. This is your other abuela, the parents say.

“My life certainly is not what I thought it would be at this stage,” Nola says. “But I do feel blessed to be able to continue to do whatever I can here to make life for some a little better.”