Success in two worlds

Jeff Allison combines business and service

From volunteering to nuclear waste clean-up

Returning to the United States last December after a couple of years as a volunteer on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast, Jeff Allison (FIN ’91, ENGL ’91) moved to the desert of southeastern Washington state for seven months.

There, at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site — home of nine former nuclear reactors built for the Manhattan Project and the Cold War — Allison, a senior pricing policy analyst at Lockheed Martin, led and trained a financial team involved in America’s largest nuclear waste clean-up effort.

Back in Maryland

That assignment over, Allison is back at his company’s Rockville, Md. offices, where he heads up a cost estimating team that works on attracting new business. “I am thankful,” he says, “to have the opportunity to come back and work for one of the world's leading companies after taking two-plus years off.”

View of Nicaraguan coast
Puerto Cabezas sits on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua

Feels smaller than Virginia Tech

Allison had left his job to move to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, to work with its indigenous Miskito Indians on community development projects, including the region’s only orphanage. “Puerto Cabezas sits on a cliff that drops off into the Caribbean Sea.” It has a population of about 50,000 “but feels smaller than the campus of Virginia Tech,” he says, because of its isolated location.

“It takes nearly 30 hours to travel 300 miles by bus to get there from Managua, the capital city. You travel on dirt roads that can be washed out during the rainy season and become impassable until the floods dry. If you are fortunate and have access to a four-wheel drive, you can make the trip in about 18 hours.” Flying in via a 12-passenger single-prop plane, he says, takes about an hour and a half.

A Nicaraguan home

Allison notes that Nicaragua is regarded as the poorest Spanish-speaking country in the world. “When I arrived in Puerto Cabezas, I was taken aback by the level of poverty and the living conditions. Then and still today, the majority of the people do not have clean drinking water, proper sanitation, or adequate healthcare. Families live in one-room wooden shacks where they battle the elements and fight malaria and dengue fever. Many children walk the dirt streets hungry and barefoot.”

Putting financial skills to work to help children in need

He primarily worked and lived at the orphanage, assisting its staff members and local leaders in developing a transition assistance program for the older children. With the region’s 80 percent unemployment rate, he says, the children will remain in “a world of poverty and despair if they are not equipped with the necessary tools in education, career training, household management, and spiritual grounding.”

He deployed his financial management skills to prepare proposals, budgets, and forecasts while working with American aid groups to support the indigenous church running the orphanage. “We are raising funds for a new facility for the 110 children living there. The hope is to build a 200-bed facility so more children at risk can be rescued.”

Jeff Allison with Nicaraguan teens
Learning Spanish was a must, for Allison and the children at the orphanage. “I was able to pick up some Miskito,” he says, “but we all used Spanish to communicate with each other. Classes are taught in Spanish to help prepare the children for the ‘outside world.’”

He points to a number of successes, including the construction of the first transition house. With room for 10, the house gives students an environment in which to study and begin living life outside the structure of the orphanage. “I have big hopes for the young adults,” Allison says. “They are very eager to learn and to work their way out of poverty.”

A commitment to communities

He worked with a U.S. organization that underwrote needed repairs and renovations to the boys’ dormitory in the wake of Hurricane Felix in 2007. “We were able to buy new beds for every child and do necessary repairs on the facility that houses nearly 40 boys.”

Allison and his church (Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn, which sponsored him during his second year) also established a business in Puerto Cabezas selling high-quality used clothing. “Our company is a for-profit company, but we have written into our by-laws that 100 percent of the profits are to be used for micro-financing, educational, and other community projects and for local ministry work.”

A new team of Americans

There is a long way to go still, he says, “but I feel that we are walking in the right direction and making strides toward real change in the Miskito nation.” Since his departure, a new team of Americans has moved to Puerto Cabezas to partner with local residents in community development.

Allison is grateful to his family, friends, and church for supporting his volunteer efforts and is particularly appreciative of his employer. “They agreed to give me my one-year leave of absence the day I asked for it. Due to my work record and accomplishments, they granted me the leave and agreed to hold a position for me.”

Jeff Allison canoeing on a river
Allison rides in a canoe during a trip to Nicaragua

A different man

When he could not return on schedule — there was still too much left to accomplish — he resigned from the company. “It was a hard decision but necessary,” he says, “to ensure that the projects I was working on continued to the point where they are today. Now the locals are managing the projects, which was always the goal. I can help support them from here and visit as often as possible.” When he was ready to return to the U.S., he contacted his former manager and was promptly rehired.

Allison has been “picking up my life where I left off” but remains very connected to his Puerto Cabezas community. “I know I have returned a different man due to the people I lived with in Nicaragua. I try to speak with at least one of my friends on a weekly basis by phone or Skype, when they have Internet service in the area. Being that I took this journey on a leap of faith, I pray for my Nicaraguan family and friends constantly.”

An important graduation

He is helping to raise funds for college tuition for several former residents of the orphanage. “It was my passion to see the children advance to a level of being able to attend college when I first went down there. Now that it is happening, I feel a great peace in their success — as well as a responsibility to see that their opportunities continue.”

He is planning to return to Puerto Cabezas in December to attend an important high-school graduation ceremony. “This is the year my adopted little brother graduates, along with 11 other children living in the orphanage. My prayer is that each of them are able to transition into a new life outside the orphanage and have opportunities greater than those of the generation before them.”

Read the introductory story, “Jeff Allison: A leap of faith brings great rewards.”

Shadow for bottom of page