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Nicaraguan Plight, Salvation Focus of Documentary

Morristown filmmaker is working with the PeaceWorks initiative on documentary of humanitarian organization's two-plus decades of aiding the small Central American country.

There is a difference between seeing someone's troubles on TV, and witnessing them firsthand.

Jim Burchell recognized this when he founded PeaceWorks in 1990, just as an-over decade-old revolution finally was easing into new government. Since then, Burchell and few dedicated volunteers have organized and shipped humanitarian aid packages to Nicaragua, one of the poorest nations in the world, every year. Every January, a small delegation heads to the tiny Central American country to meet and work with the farmers and other small business owners Burchell has cultivated relationships with over two-plus decades.

This January, for 12 days, Morristown resident and filmmaker Christian Schuller decided to join the delegation and begin what he hopes will eventually become a documentary on Peaceworks, their service to those in Nicaragua and their continued need for support.

Schuller, a video and event producer by trade and the creator of the Growtown Motown documentary on the Early Street Community Garden, first heard about Burchell's Peaceworks initiative from a neighbor. Its mission, he was told, was "to work to aid the peoples of the Americas in the common struggle for justice, human rights and sustainable economies."

It sounded like something the 30-year-old East Brunswick native could get behind.

While his friend pushed for the two to meet, a year passed before they did, by coincidence, at a local community garden conference last year.

"We clicked immediately," Schuller said. "He told me about Nicaragua, I told him I do video and photo work. He said, 'I need help telling the story.'

"He's a one-man band running the show. He can't do everything," he said.

Perhaps not, but Burchell has made a go of it for many years, long after trade embargos from the U.S. to the 50,000 square mile country were lifted, after the revolution ended.

"A lot of communities across the U.S. had responded to the plight of the Nicaraguan people in the 80's by forming Sister City projects," Burchell said, citing several in Morristown, Princeton and Teaneck. "Peaceworks started working with all these Sister City projects, started shipping humanitarian aid to them."

When the war in Nicaragua ended in 1990, "there was a change in government but we continued our efforts," the Madison resident said. "We had developed relationships with a few organizations."

Despite some stability since the war-torn 1980s, "the need has not decreased," Burchell said. "It has changed in some ways."

One of those ways, he said, is in the access to certain types of care. Whereas before 1990, there was access to free healthcare and education for children, he said. Today, many roam directionless in the streets. Many of those have taken to finding ways to pass the time by sniffing industrial strength glue, which leads to adverse health effects and crippling addictions.

"It's a terrible cycle," Schuller said. "People are selling them glue in Gerber bottles."

One of PeaceWorks' initiatives is working with the Inhijambia, a group that works with these street children to provide for them an outlet, a safety net and a place to turn.

Besides spending time with the Inhijambia, the delegation Schuller participated in got to visit a small coffee plantation, where about 40 families young and old tend the crops, cultivate the beans and sell them to Peaceworks, who then sells them in the United States.

The delegation also went to other small farms, where donations like farming equipment could be seen in use. "They wanted to show us what they have been doing with tools they received," Schuller said. "We got to see their towns and the farms in their backyards. This is all the food they are growing for themselves."

Overall, he found it a humbling, eye-opening experience.

"I've never been so close to it," Schuller said. "They shook my hand, gave me a hug. ... I have never worked with an organization like this and got so close to the inner workings of the culture, the good, the bad and the ugly." 

Telling the story of Peaceworks to a broader audience has proven a challenge over the years. And, for the Morristown filmmaker, it also will prove expensive.

PeaceWorks annually must raise about $115,000 in order to provide shipments and services to its partners in Nicaragua. Schuller, like the rest of the delegation, paid his own way down to Nicaragua. And, while he got to speak with and film many people, he anticipates having to head down again. Low budget documentaries can cost about $100,000. Schuller hopes to fundraise at least $25,000 to get his going. Currently, he has raised about $3,000 through his own website, www.happycampercreative.com.

The filmmaker anticipates the labor of love will take a lot of time and money, but said he feels it's worth it.

"I think it's a pretty great story they have," he said. "Nicaragua is fresh off a revolution. The wounds have not totally healed."

Peaceworks, despite being a small organization, has been involved in improving the lives of many, Schuller said. The direction his documentary takes will largely depend on how much funding they are able to acquire. But, it's a story Schuller wants to tell.

"Some of those kids are so full of life," he said. "The organization is helping them. They all have so many stories of failure and of rebirth. I think it's a testament to the people running the organization. ... It takes a really special person to day in and day out organize people to give. He's out there every single day. He's telling the story as best he can. I'm really excited to see where it's going to go, because I can help."

PeaceWorks will present a recap of the 2013 delegation, "From Nicaragua With Love," starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Chatham-Summit Friends Meeting House, 158 Southern Blvd., Chatham. $10 for dinner, kids eat free. RSVP at 973-765-9102. For more information about PeaceWorks, visit their website or email peaceworks@peaceworks.org.

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