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Catonsville resident teaching children in Nicaragua

Eating beans and rice twice a day for the past year has left Sarah Dobson craving the variety of flavors back home in Catonsville.

Missing Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July left her homesick during those quintessential American holidays.

Still, the 2007 Catonsville High School graduate isn't ready to leave Laguna de Apoyo, a nature reserve in Nicaragua where she teaches children English and art and lessons about computers and environmental conservation.

She arrived at the small, rural community near a volcanic crater on Aug. 13 of last year.

And before she leaves in January, Dobson, 22, said she intends to create a better life for the people of Laguna de Apoyo.

"The community here doesn't have a whole lot of resources, but they have a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm and potential," Dobson said.

Dobson created a program called The Peace Project with two of her classmates from the University of Maryland after they graduated in 2011.

Their goal was to teach basic skills and peaceful conflict resolution to residents of the area, which is a nature reserve that is a popular tourist destination thanks to its huge lake and protected forest.

"It was our idea to get started," Dobson said. "The community told us the direction to go.

"My goal is for the community to be able to support themselves and live comfortably," she said.

The seed of philanthropy

Though Dobson, a sociology major who earned a minor in international development and conflict management, credits a college class called "Alternatives to Violence" for setting her on the path of helping people resolve conflicts peacefully, her mother sees it differently.

Linda Dobson said her daughter, who graduated magna cum laude from Maryland, has shown a willingness to help people both in her community and far away since entering high school.

"It seemed to start in high school," Linda Dobson said of her daughter's philanthropy. "She has always felt concern that people should be treated equally and fairly."

For example, the younger Dobson participated in the Student Sharing Coalition, which volunteered at various homeless shelters and soup kitchens in Baltimore, throughout high school.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Sarah Dobson helped organize a a group of 59 students and 14 adults to travel to the Gulf Coast to help reconstruction efforts in the devastated area.

"I don't know what planted that seed in her, but it's really blossomed since high school," Linda Dobson said.

That determination to help others has continued to grow.

Sarah Dobson made a surprise trip home for her mother's birthday in June.

The day after celebrating the birthday, the younger Dobson went from restaurant to restaurant in Catonsville and Ellicott City in an attempt to organize a fundraiser.

The Phoenix Emporium in Ellicott City agreed to donate some of the proceeds from a night's business after hearing her daughter's pitch, her mother said.

"She realizes that there's so much more out there in cultures and communities," Linda Dobson said. "I'm always very amazed at her dedication and accomplishments."

A lot with a little

The Peace Project has relied on personal donations in its first year and spent only $700.

In addition to donations of a computer and school supplies that helped defray costs, Dobson and the two other directors receive free room and board from the owner of an area hostel.

Though they spent little, Dobson said they have seen big results.

Dobson recalled how one young girl that other children excluded from groups would always scribble on her paper while her classmates would draw rainbows, houses and flowers.

Dobson suspected it was because the girl feared being judged by her peers, she said.

After working as a group, the girl has become accepted into the group and has recently begun drawing pictures like her peers.

"The kids are learning a lot and they're learning very fast," Dobson said.

Dobson cited another example of a 15-year-old boy whose parents pulled him from primary school before he could complete it.

The boy's parents never completed school and now operate a bar. They believved the boy could do without those lessons, Dobson explained.

And even if he wanted to return to school, the teachers would be hesitant to include a teenager in a class of 10-year-olds, she said.

"I don't think there's anyone there pushing for him," Dobson said. "We're the ones pushing."

With The Peace Project, the boy has taken English lessons.

Looking forward

The year Dobson has spent in Nicaragua has been a learning experience for her, too.

Her Spanish skills have improved to the point where she is now fluent.

Dobson has also learned to communicate with the Nicaraguans, who tend to handle issues indirectly, she said.

She said she plans to stay in Nicaragua until January so she can experience the festivities that accompany a Nicaraguan Christmas, she said.

After that, she plans to turn what she has done for the past year into a career.

Dobson said she intends to get a job inWashington, D.C., with an international development agency, preferably in the field of women's empowerment.

After she gains a few years of experience, she will apply to graduate programs where she will study international development, she said.

Dobson plans to stay on the board of directors and assist with marketing for The Peace Project once she leaves Nicaragua, she said.

But those things are all years into the future.

Dobson is focused on more immediate concerns for the coming year.

The Peace Project is waiting to hear if it will receive a $24,000 grant from Rotary International.

"It has everything on our wish list," she said.

The grant would allow them to provide a living stipend for the next director, whom they've already hired, and bicycles and computers for the students, Sarah Dobson said.

"Until the grant goes through, I'm not sure I'm satisfied with everything," she said. "I want to make sure the next person's set up and ready to go."

Over Thanksgiving week, Linda Dobson and her 25-year-old daughter, Jennifer, will see firsthand the work of The Peace Project.

Sarah Dobson's younger brother, Michael, 19, will stay home so he doesn't fall behind his studies at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, Linda Dobson said.

They plan to visit for the week to volunteer and ease the sting of homesickness that accompanies the holidays.

Donations to The Peace Project can be made through its website, http://www.thepeaceprojectnicaragua.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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