By Tara Phillips

Michaela Saunders has worked in the University Relations office at Washburn since September 2011. She was raised in Grand Forks, N.D. and it is very noticeable. She was blessed with the “Dakota Accent,” as Wyatt called it. She is married to Jeremy Wangler (who also works at Washburn) and has an adorable almost 2-year-old son named Clark. We all had the pleasure of meeting them both when she would FaceTime them. You could tell that it was hard for her being away from her son. On one occasion she was telling Clark “take your fingers out of your mouth, Son.” However, this was very hard for her to enforce from all of the giggles in the background.

With her work in the University Relations office, she was informed by Dr. Rick Ellis about the trip he does every January to Nicaragua. He explained to her about all of the heart and dedication required for the trip and the community interactions. She decided she wanted to be a part of it and then remembers Rick saying “let’s figure it out!” The process worked out perfectly and plans where put in place.

A woman in a coral shirt taking pictures. Light shines on her shoulders but shadow covers the rest of her.

Michaela, taking pictures during dinner in Granada.

Michaela’s purpose on this trip was to be the blogger; however, it turned in to much more than that. I had the privilege of living with Michaela during our stay in El Limon and I am so glad to have had her by my side. Personally, she became my inspiration and a wonderful person to confide in. She helped me through many of my questions and troubles, as well as letting me help her along the way. Whether it was helping her up our hill or saving her from the dogs at our house, we stuck together.

As a group we all experienced many different emotions, both good and bad. It was always nice to have Michaela there with us. We all found comfort in being with Michaela because she was so outgoing and always open for discussion. We loved the fact that she was not just “the blogger,” she actually participated.

One of my most favorite and by far the most emotional memories was La Galleria de Heroes y Martires (Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs). It was amazing how much passion Doña Mina had and how all she wanted was to inform the people about what had happened in her country. As Doña Mina shared her story, Michaela not only captured that in writing but was clearly moved. It was then that the group embraced her and I believe became aware of how each and everyone one of us were in the same place. It was at that moment we all realized she was not she was not just another “chaperone,” she was one of the group.

This 2014 delegation had come so far in the last 5 months, we started out as strangers and now we all have become our own little family.

On behalf of the 2014 Washburn delegation to Nicaragua, we would like to give thanks to everyone that was a part of allowing Michaela to come. We would also like to give thanks to Michaela, for being so supportive of all of our adventures. We love you!

Wyatt Robinett and Rick Ellis collaborated with Tara on this post.

Posted in Go!

Rick Ellis has made seven of Washburn’s eight trips to Nicaragua. But this year will stand out in his mind even if he makes dozens of trips in the future.

A professor and director of Washburn’s Learning in the Community, Rick originally was interested in Nicaragua because of personal experience as a student activist in the 1960s and 70s. He was connected to ProNica to develop the Washburn delegation partnership through one of his sons, who volunteered with ProNica while attending college in Florida.

He often told the group before we left Topeka that we would “leave as Kansans and return as Nicaraguans.” He was open about the challenges that would make us question what we thought we knew, things that would make us appreciate what we have and why we have them. And he told us about the friendships he’d made on his repeated visits. About how those friends showed some of the most genuine care and compassion he received during his treatment and recovery from colon cancer, for example. And how he was certain he would be welcomed with open arms, as we would be.

We saw those friendships in action when Rick and Philip Montalban met at Quaker House, when Carlos from Los Quinchos told us Rick was “more Nica than North American now,” and when “Dona Mina at the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs welcomed her friend with the hug of a family member.

And we saw the pain Rick felt when we arrived in El Limon to learn that the village leader, Don Philipe, is dying. Rick always stays at Don Philipe’s house. It’s a sign of respect for the professor to be invited to stay in the home of the village patriarch. But this year the 95-year-old man was bed ridden and receiving oxygen.

Rick said his farewell to Don Philipe in Spanish and walked away from the house knowing it would be the last time he would see his friend. It was a tough thing to stay in the house (Wyatt and Nathan stayed there, too) knowing Don Philipe was so ill. But seeing him one last time allowed Rick to pay his respects in person, an opportunity he treasured.

We all learned so much from Rick because he wasn’t afraid to share what he really felt. When he talked about the history of Nicaragua and U.S. involvement in the insurrection and then the Contra Wars, you could hear his frustration. When he talked about how caring and loving the Nicaraguan people are, you could hear his admiration. And when he challenged us to dig deep into ourselves and really understand what we were experiencing each day, you could hear his hope for each of us and for the future. Everything we did every day mattered to him and so did we.

“I always have an alterer motive for taking this trip,” he told us during our final reflection. “How can you look at the world and make a difference? The only way to do that is through action. If all you do is tell a friend: ‘You can’t believe what I learned in Nicaragua’ (and tell them just one thing) … I’ve done my job. I’m going to do it one person at a time if I have to.”

We will gather as a group a few more times on Washburn’s campus, to continue processing what we’ve learned and experienced. And most of the students will prepare presentations of some type to meet their Washburn Transformational Experience requirement. (More about that in the coming weeks.) And Rick will keep tabs on each of the students, what they do with their remaining time on campus and what they do with their lives.

He shared many stories of students from earlier delegations who are now married to a trip mate, working for nonprofits and government groups, working for justice and for change, with Nica in their hearts.

Man in cowboy hat, jeans and cowboy boots carries a 5 gallon bucket.

Rick hauls water to the community center in El Limon.

Posted in Go!

I think we all wish we could have spent more time with the children being supported by Los Quinchos.

Our last activity of the trip was both heavy and light. Learning about the circumstances that got each child into a Los Quinchos program was heartbreaking. It made us hurt and angry and frustrated that we couldn’t make it stop. But spending time with them made an impression that won’t soon fade.

As Los Quinchos in-country director Carlos Vidal explained, nearly all of the boys at the Finca San Marcos site we visited were at one time addicted to sniffing glue. They either had no homes and lived on the streets or were sent by their families to beg for money and turned to the streets later on. Nearly all of the girls staying at Yahoska, also in San Marcos, were sexually abused and suffering in silence until a brother receiving help from Los Quinchos — or the Ministry of Family — told someone to help them.

Los Quinchos was started 23 years ago by Nicaraguans and an Italian woman to help children of the streets get clean and learn the skills for a productive life. Former Quinchos have become painters, doctors and employees of Los Quinchos. ProNica is one supporter of the organization.

Two boys at the Los Qunichos farm in San Marcos, Nicaragua.

Two boys at the Los Qunichos farm in San Marcos, Nicaragua.

We brought a pinata filled with candy to Yahoska. It was a great idea and courtesy of Kasia and Meghan. The girls loved it. So much laughter, joy and love! At Finca San Marcos, the little boys held our hands, gave us hugs, shared fruit from the trees and wanted to play. There were circus-style stunts, backflips into the pool and futbol with us.

Some were shy. Many looked tired, even haggard. In some cases we were surprised at 10-year-olds who could pass for six or seven because malnutrition had stunted their growth. In other cases, it was surprising that a boy of just 10 could have the face of a much older man, because of the effects of the shoe repair glue he used to dull his hunger and escape his reality. That glue is made for shoe repair by American adhesive company H.B. Fuller. By law, it is not sold in the U.S.

Los Quinchos programs are voluntary. The program’s first step — Filter House in Managua — is open to children who want to give up glue. As with any addiction recovery process, it is difficult. There are setbacks. And the reality is some children do not escape that life. But the staff of Los Quinchos — about 15 people after substantial budget cuts in 2012 — stay focused on their motto, which translates to “Never again a child on the street.”

The children we saw had finished the Filter House phase and were now in school and learning skills while receiving intensive therapy. During holiday break (summer vacation), most children are placed with Nicaraguan families so some Los Quinchos staff can have some time off. The children we met were not placed with families.

Our minds raced during the day we spent with those children. Now in our own homes, their faces, laughs and hugs are part of our memories, part of what will nudge us to make positive changes in our own lives.

Posted in Go!