Written by: Patrick Burns, John Carroll University ’12
My first experience in Nicaragua was extraordinary and confirmed my notion that when it comes to immersions, there is no such thing as “just another trip.” Past experiences with service immersion trips had me enthusiastic about this opportunity to lead as an assistant director of the Canisius High School Compañeros program. Being partially responsible for eight young men in a foreign country was daunting, yet I was also excited to be in a position of influence for a group of guys who had never had this type of international experience.
For the first few days of “settling in” we moved around a bit, coming from the airport in Managua, south to Masaya, then to Rivas, to Belen, and finally ending in the village of Chacalapa, where we would spend most of our stay. Our main project was to construct a cement and steel footbridge that would connect two parts of the town during rainy season when the river floods too high for anyone to cross. When this happens people are left somewhat stranded, especially children who need to get to school and other village residents who need to access essential items such as food and medical care. Generally these types of construction projects are central to the service component of the Compañeros program.
In addition to working on the footbridge, we stayed with families in the village. The hospitality of people continually amazes me; to share one’s house and give up one’s bed to complete strangers is nothing short of admirable, particularly when the house is one floor with a few small rooms. Although all the meals were eaten at one location with the entire group, the host families shared everything: their space, their outhouse, their bucket shower, whatever they could.
Interacting with members of the community is essential to the program and sparks a new understanding and effort for solidarity. Being in solidarity with the people of Chacalapa had a powerful impact on the way the students viewed the overall experience. Putting a face to the poverty and injustices makes the issues personal and turns statistics into someone we know. This solidarity came through various outlets while on the trip. Because the bridge project affected the entire community, there was a great interest in what we were helping to build. We also became close with the workers on the bridge. Working alongside them in whatever way they saw fit was a physically draining experience, but very humbling.
The Compañeros program seeks to expose students to the reality of the world around them as well as allow them to discover how connected we all are and how our actions can indirectly affect others. From my experience, I believe the trip accomplished these goals, and it was powerful to see the group’s transformation.
We ate simple meals, played simple games of baseball and football (soccer), had simple conversations with our limited Spanish, and did the simple work that was needed. It is part of being in solidarity with that simple lifestyle lived out by many of the Nicaraguans. Simple does not mean easy though; on the contrary it presents a serious challenge. However, when these “simple” things add up they can be extraordinarily influential in where we decide to pour out our hearts and what to do with the time that is given to us, especially in the struggle for social justice.