Serving Abroad in Nicaragua
Happy holidays, readers! Please accept my advanced apologies for the length of this post. I just got back from building a house with some members of the Bienvenidos club in El Sauce, Nicaragua, and the following is only a fraction of all that I could say and want to say about the experience. If you take the time to read through it all, I would really appreciate it, and I think you may learn something as well!
The second that the plane touched down in Managua, I knew right away that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. What I had loved so much about my first experience in Latin America just a few short years ago was undoubtedly the people and the overarching love for life. Within seconds of being in Nicaragua, I felt that love again. I was still sitting in my seat on the plane and the men carting the luggage gave me a welcoming wave from outside. We then went to baggage claim and looked out the window to see a sea of hundreds of people anxiously awaiting their loved ones with signs and gifts. I knew right away that we would experience much more of that familiar love over the rest of our week in Nicaragua.
There were eight of us, six students from the Bienvenidos club and two advisors, taking on the task of building a house for a family in the impoverished village of El Sauce. The family that we were building for, Carlos, Daisy, Neysi (age 7), and Derwin (4), collect an annual income of around $1,200. During our time in El Sauce, we learned that for a family of four to have everything that they need but still live a pretty minimalist life, they need around $8,000 yearly. That amount gets the bare minimum, and the family we were with makes about 13 percent of it. This level of poverty was certainly evident each day at the work site.
We saw this poverty all around El Sauce, but it seemed to worsen significantly when we headed away from the main part of town into the neighborhood in which we were building. Our family was living under a tarp that they attached to their neighbors’ house. Their bathroom is a door-less hut with a hole in the ground. They bathe and wash their clothes in the river below, the same river from which they get their drinking water. The conditions in which this community lives are absolutely unimaginable, and any descriptions that I attempt to give cannot even begin to give a realistic impression of their severity. We were heartbroken at seeing the way that they live, but these feelings are what sparked the Vincentian response in all of us. We asked the million-dollar Vincentian question: What must be done?
The answer was plain and simple: hard work. The eight of us, a few masons, and the family started working each day around 8 a.m. We were taking on such tasks as making cement, moving bricks, forming rebar, passing and laying bricks, and filling in mortar all week. We were told several times by the masons that we were “como una máquina” (like a machine)! It is uncommon for 4 Walls groups to see the completion of their project before heading home. We were also told on day one that we would not see the completed house. That made it even more satisfying when we laid the last brick on our final day of work. We had finished all but the roof, which the masons have to do alone anyway. The hard work paid off, especially knowing that so many loving hands and hearts went into its success. Seeing Derwin walk around the inside of the new house with a smile on his face and a stuffed Monte in his hands was a real-life image of exactly what we were all feeling in our hearts. It was a reminder of the Vincentian mission and our call to answer it. It was a reminder that even though there is so much injustice in the world, small acts can add up to change it, even if it is just for one person or family at a time.
The absolute perfect touch was Father (Vincent) O’Malley’s blessing of the house and the family. All of the workers and the family circled up inside of the house, and Father gave a few words before inviting everyone else to do the same. Carlos, the man receiving the house, thanked God for giving a chance for a better life to his children, and he thanked us for leaving our country to lend a hand in this life-changing opportunity for him and his family. His wife, Daisy, who had worked tirelessly all week, began to cry, and we found out that this was her sixth time applying to get a home from 4 Walls. Niagara University's Bienvenidos club helped to finally make it a reality for her.
There were few dry eyes as Father blessed the family, the crew, and finally the house. We were blessed with both his and Dr. (Abigail) Levin’s leadership all week, and this particular experience emphasized and reiterated for all of us the inherent Vincentian call in what we were doing. That day, we also left the family with a suitcase full of clothes and toiletry items, and invited them to a farewell dinner later that night. Their economic and material discomfort, as well their appreciation, became evident again when both Daisy and Neysi were already wearing some of the donated clothes that we brought at dinner that night.
The kids also received a little touch of American Christmas when we presented them with stockings full of toys, books and school supplies. We then switched gears into a Latin American holiday when we all took turns swinging at a piñata after dinner. The whole night was the perfect send-off as we were heading back to the States in the morning. It was a cross-cultural exchange. It was a casual celebration of the week’s physical labor. It was children innocently enjoying gifts during the holiday season. It was engagement in those simple universal pleasures that remind us that despite place of origin, socioeconomic status, language, or any of the other factors of our lives that tend to separate us, we are all human and that we all deserve the same level of justice.
We also benefited so much from just spending time in Nicaragua even when we were not on the job. Of course, there is much to be learned and felt while just walking around a community impacted by such economic disparity. But what is so admirable about it all is how happy most people are and how much they are able to just love life and thank God for the blessings that they do have despite how much they don’t. The attitude in Latin America is enough to make us reconsider some of the trivial things that we tend to fixate on in our North American lives. This was especially pertinent this time of year, and I often found myself dreading coming back to the States just two days before Christmas where we would be surrounded by commercialism and gift-giving, when the people that we had spent every waking second with all week did not even have plumbing or clean water. It didn’t make us feel guilty for what we have, but it certainly does make you think about what and who is the most important.
We also had so many priceless moments that we will cherish forever thanks to the children of El Sauce. When we were at the worksite and the neighborhood children got word that there were gringos who spoke Spanish in town, they had to come see for themselves. We had several visitors, and they were eager to help in any way that they could. They also just wanted to be the innocent, developing children that they are, and, as such, every break that we had was spent playing games with the kids. It was absolutely heartwarming that, most of the time, they wanted to play school, and the class in session was almost exclusively English. They all took turns asking us how to say words and phrases, and their eagerness to learn was a reminder of the simple yet inherent value of education. The kids came back to the site each day from then on, and they became friends. Seeing the innocence of a child and his absolute lust for the future is universal. The need to be loved and paid attention to is universal. The lack of understanding of the real issues going on around them and the ability to love each second of the day is one of the most beautiful aspects of childhood, and we were able to learn as much from the kids as we taught them.
Another benefit to this trip was the amount of Spanish that we were able to speak. The masons and the family appreciated our efforts instead of just speaking English, and our level of Spanish increased as well. Any chance to speak with native speakers in a real-life setting is great practice, and it is experiences like this one that motivate us to study the language so much. So much more can be taken from an experience when you speak the language of your counterparts. You can understand them on a more intimate level, and you can understand them on their terms. The ability to speak Spanish allowed us to interact with the neighborhood children, to talk to Neysi and Derwin, to ask the masons questions about the work they do, to earn the respect of people around town, and even to sit outside with the man who owned our hotel and listen to his wisdom about Nicaragua and the world. So many more doors are open when you speak another language, and this is something that our club believes wholeheartedly and was able to embrace through this opportunity.
I’m realizing how long this is quickly becoming, so I will start wrapping up. We give so much thanks to everyone who made this dream a reality for us. Spending time in Nicaragua and changing this family’s life forever was more worth it than I can even begin to explain. Thanks to our parents for sending us away despite being nervous. Bill (Newton) and Mati (Ortiz) in Campus Activities for having me in their offices more often than anyone would have wanted me there until every detail was figured out. Dr. (James) McCutcheon for always believing in us and for fighting for us to do something good in the world. EVERYONE who donated money or items for the family - any contribution means more than you can imagine. It is givers that help make the world a better place. And, of course, so many thanks have to go to Father O’Malley and Dr. Levin, our fearless leaders throughout the trip. The reflections on what we were seeing, the wisdom that they shared with us, and their beautiful hearts and willingness to serve were all very appreciated all week long, and we now have two more important figures in our lives. Thanks to all for making this possible, and thanks to all who are still reading! Happy holidays! Keep in mind the reason for the season.