Merced Mayor Mike Murphy is used to going to community events and speaking to crowds.
He gets recognized on Main Street all the time.
Sometimes residents want to say hello, or more often than not, talk about a problem in their neighborhood.
But those encounters pale in comparison to what Murphy experienced during a recent trip to Somoto, Nicaragua, where Merced’s official Sister City is located.
The whole town reportedly rolled out the local equivalent of the red carpet. There was great fanfare everywhere he went.
At City Hall, he met Somoto’s mayor Dania Martinez Mondragon, and they exchanged symbolic Keys to the City. He was also presented with a beautiful painting the size of a kitchen table.
The mayor was cheered at schools. Members of the pro soccer team Real Madriz presented him with a signed jersey. He was even interviewed by national TV crews who were notified about his big visit. Journalists called him “Señor Alcalde Mike Murphy, elmáximo representante de Merced.”
At the end of his visit, a cultural festival was held and dancers performed.
So why all the big fuss for an American mayor who lives and works only 3,445 miles away?
Well one of the reasons is sort of embarrassing because Murphy’s visit in April marked the first time ANY leader from the City of Merced has visited Somoto since the official sister city status was granted in 1992. So good for the mayor for stepping up! This year is especially important because it’s considered the 25th Year of Sisterhood.
However, the main reason is that Merced — and an ongoing medical and education mission run by Mercedians — means a whole heck of a lot for the people of Somoto.
“It’s hard to find a part of Somoto that hasn’t been touched by the good work that Mercedians have done,” Murphy told the Times after he returned home. “They know more about us than we know more about them … We, Mercedians, have impacted their lives in countless ways.”
It all dates back to 1988 when the Merced/Somoto Sister City Committee was formed with standout members such as Betty Stewart, who donated initial resources to Somoto. After sister city status was granted in 1992, trips were made by committed community members over the years. In 2003, however, engagement increased after Dennis and Theresa Cesar visited Somoto for about three months. Dennis is a urologic surgeon and he was volunteering his services, while also helping to assess the community’s needs. They returned to Merced with a long list of desperately needed projects, and that was the spark to create their nonprofit known as “Hearts Afire.”
They have been making annual visits to Somoto ever since, along with community volunteers. The impact of this mission is so vast that it would take a book to detail, but some of the top ongoing projects include:
- Construction and operation of the Los Pipitos Center for Handicapped Children, serving some 400 kids.
- Full education scholarships, 25 students at a time, until they obtain degrees
- Aid to women who are in last weeks of pregnancy.
- A dental clinic for impoverished residents
- An English School and youth activities.
Murphy became interested in Nicaragua after meeting Ambassador Francisco Campbell Hooker in Washington while at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. They both talked about the two cities for quite awhile. Later, Murphy learned more through Hearts Afire in Merced, and he invited Theresa Cesar to come and speak about the nonprofit mission during a City Council meeting. She did so in October, and invited residents to learn more about their sister city.
This coming Monday night, Cesar plans to update the council again on their latest trip. The meeting starts at 6 p.m., and can be viewed on local government access TV, or online through the city’s website.
“Mayor Murphy did a spectacular job,” Cesar said of the most recent visit. “It was his first time doing something like this and he really was able to share the warmth and goodwill of the people of Merced. He never stopped for a minute. We all loved it.”
Said Murphy, “I was just amazed at all the hard work that is going on.”
Asked about his impressions, and contrasts with Merced, Murphy smiled and said Somoto’s mountainous landscape, near the border with Honduras, is a lot like Cathy’s Valley — sometimes dry and brown, and sometimes green and lush.
He said he was surprised to learn that the City Council has a whopping 21 council members, compared to Merced’s seven.
When Murphy received the key to Somoto, it came in a handpainted, bamboo box that was lined with velvet. The key inside was also handpainted.
Murphy’s son, 13-year-old Maxwell, accompanied him on the trip. He said they both were astonished by the poverty they encountered. They went to the clinic, but also went on some house calls for people who live in out-of-the-way areas. They took four-wheel-drive trucks to places where people live in shacks with no running water, no electricity and dirt floors.
The most shocking thing Murphy witnessed was a woman trying to manager her daughter who was suffering from schizophrenia.
He said Somoto is facing problems dealing with basic needs such as clean water, adequate health care, and paved streets.
Like Merced is the Gateway to Yosemite, Murphy pointed out that Somoto in near a majestic canyon with a river at the bottom. He said officials are trying to get more tourists to stay in Somoto when they go to visit the canyon. They are considering building a Welcome Center. Sound familiar?
Murphy paid for the trip (no taxpayer money involved), just like all the members of the group. Hearts Afire helps organize the trip. It costs about $1,200 to $1,500 to attend, and that’s mostly for transportation, because Americans can get by on about $25 per day in Somoto.
Cesar says the nonprofit needs about $200,000 a year to keep everything going, and most of that comes from private donations, both individuals and companies. The local medical community has been a big help.
The next Hearts Afire group trip will be next February. To find out more, visit the website online at: heartsafirefoundation.com