About Michaela Saunders

2016: We're off again. Washburn students have traveled to Nicaragua for 10 years now. The Nicaragua Service Experience is a life-changing experience for students. Read, think and enjoy, 2015: Seven Washburn students are sharing their experiences in Nicaragua, with light editing from Michaela Saunders, staff leader and web editor, university relations. 2014: Michaela Saunders, web editor at Washburn University, is traveling to Nicaragua with 14 Washburn students and a professor in order to chronicle the experience.

We returned yesterday from our four-day family stay in the rural community of El Limon, Esteli, Nicaragua. The community of about 55 households has been a host of Washburn groups for the past nine years. The residents of El Limon are engaging and gracious as we learn and share together.

This year’s group includes two native Spanish speakers, one Spanish minor and a handful of students with some working vocabulary. In spite of the oral language barrier, students were able to communicate through universal language. As described by one of those students with only working Spanish vocabulary, those universal languages are smiles, laughter and dancing.

On Sunday night, we danced with the community to Nicaraguan music, including bachata, cumbia and reggaeton. It was a welcome respite after days of leveling more than 100 meters of dirt and rock road. On Monday, the work continued. Alongside men, teens and children of the community, the group dug a drainage trench to keep the road from washing out during the rainy season.

A table featuring a variety of boxes and vases made of paper with intricate origami.

Each of these items — and dozens of others we saw Tuesday — were made by Aldo Marcel.

When we said our goodbyes on Tuesday morning, many of us had sore legs, arms and shoulders. There were some tears, some smiles and lots of thoughtfulness. We left El Limon and visited the home of our guide, Aldo Marcel, who is an Origami artist and botanist. Today, we will visit two children’s homes and a large market.

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A picture of Oscar Olivas Jarquin under a glass case.

Oscar Olivas Jarquin, the uncle of our guide, Aldo Marcell, was killed in December 1978 while fighting against the Somoza regime. He was 32 years old.

Visiting the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs in Esteli yesterday brought a lot of things home for the group. The small museum was established by the mothers of those from the department of Esteli who were killed in the insurrection and the revolution. It was powerful to hear from a dauther of one of those founding mothers and from our friend and guide, Aldo, about his uncle’s role as a Sandinista, and his brutal death. That history made flesh made the conflicts and tragedy that consumed this country for several decades, which was indisputibly perpepuated with involvement from the U.S., real and emotional.

Nicaragua was at war from the 1970s until 1990. But during that time, two distinct conflicts occurred. The first, which ended in July 1979, is known as the insurrection. During that phase the mostly peasent army, known as the Sandinistas, fought to overthrough the Somoza dictatorship, which was an ally of the U.S. but was oppressive and violent toward the citizens of Nicaragua. The Somoza family held power here for decades. It was students in the 1960s who began to orgaize against the regime.

After The Triumph on July 19, 1979, the date the Sandinistas gained control of Managua and Somoza fled the country, the new government instituted a series of policies and programs that improved life, literacy-rates, health and life expectancy and education access for Nicaraguans. But by about 1981, a force of U.S. trained “Contras”, most of whom were perviously members of Somoza’s military, were fighting the pesants near the Honduran boarder. The Contras often targeted students in the literacty campaign, who lived in rural communities and taught the community members to read and write. They also targeted infrustructure, such as health centers. The Contras increased in brutality until a U.S.-backed presidential candidate was elected in 1990.

As Mark Lester explained earlier in our trip, Nicaraguans were told through popular press that they would lose the ability to receive remittances from relatives in the U.S. if the U.S.-backed candidate didn’t win. And they were told the conflict would not end if she was not elected. Virtually instantly after the government’s transition, the fighting stopped. And many of the policies enacted by the Sandinista government were quickly reversed.

In 2006, the Sandinista party candidate was elected again. He reamins president today and is expected to be the candidate in the November election.

Today we will make our way to El Limon, where we will stay in the homes of the community. In some cases, the patriarch of the house fought against the Contras in the 1980s.

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book cover of Webster's Spanish-English dictionary This year’s group is getting deep. Really deep. They’re discussing what they are seeing and experiencing with thoughtfulness and compassion.

For more than two hours last night around a bonfire, the 14 students, two Washburn faculty/staff and ProNica’s director shared reflection and ideas.

Reflections on:

  • The Spanish they’re learning and how wake their minds are feeling.
  • Thanks to the art school and seed jewlery cooperative we visited: How communities here organize and what that means and
  • The value here of making work to sustain yourself and your family when you don’t have formal employment, like 70 percent of Nicaraguans.
  • The farm-to-table tour and meal at the organic coffee farm of less than nine acres.
  • And so much more.

Today, those observations are sure to continue as we journey to Esteli and tomorrow to the rural community of El Limon for our family stay.

 

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Tuesday we traveled to Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The community is smaller, higher in elevation and a bit cooler with less humidity. There is a vibe here reminds several in the group of Colorado some how.

We had the chance to visit Casa Materna, a program for women with high-risk pregnancy from rural communities who don’t have access to health care in their home communities. The Casa has opreated for more than 20 years and seen significant results in the reduction of maternal mortality. It has worked so well that the Nicaraguan government has replecated the model in many different communities.

The group was able to hear from three of the Casa’s guests, who are expecting their babies in the next two weeks, and also from a Casa director. The women are able to make clothes for their babies and other activities. They receive regular care and are able to get to the hospital when in labor. Many of the women who stay there live more than eight hours from a hospital by public transportation.

Many great questions — from traditions related to naming a child to the presence of  family members and partners at the hospital during labor and delivery — were asked and answered. Then we saw the Casa’s map of outcomes, and the reality that maternal and infant mortality continues here.

After leaving the Casa, lunch at an Italian restaurant and the drive to San Ramon, where we are staying again tonight. The hostel is in an area that reminded several students of “Jurassic World.” Today we’ll visit an organic coffee farm and an after school program for children focused on art.

More soon. Todos, tienen un buen dia. (Everyone, have a good day.)

The Casa Materna logo, a baby held up in front of the sun with two doves flying above.

The Casa Materna logo, at the entrance to the center.

 

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Almost every student involved in this year’s trip is a Bonner Leader who is serving in a volunteer capacity at a community site in the Topeka area. The common Bonner experience is playing a significant role in the group’s dynamic, compared to the previous two trips chronicled on this blog.

There is a comfort level and trust built among them that has allowed deep and meaningful conversation, questioning, debating and reflection that is at the heart of what this trip is intended to provide. And it’s just the third day. Watching those bonds strengthen and the discussions deepen is going to be exciting.

Yesterday, after a day of exploring Granada and Las Isletas, most of the group was up and engaged in meaningful conversation into the wee hours of the morning. Breakfast  came early today at 7 a.m. and a presentation by Mark Lester, a regional director for the Center for Global Education, grounded everyone in the history of Nicaragua. Soon we will embark on a tour of national historic sites and monuments in the capital city. Today is our last full day in Managua.

The students are journaling and talking about how this experience is challenging their preconcerived notions, their understandings of relative poverty, access, equality and consumerism, among other things. They’re curious about social problems in this country, and at home. They want to be part of the solution and they’re happy to be in this experience together with others who share their passions.

Learn more about Washburn’s Bonner Leader program and Learning in the Community (LinC).

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Washburn’s 10th student delegation to Nicaragua has arrived safely and spent a relaxing first day at a volcanic crator lake.

We are again hosted by ProNica, a Quaker NGO based in Florida. We are a group of 14 students, one faculty member and one staff member. Among the group, the students are studying to become nurses, business professionals, social workers, teachers and biologists. Two students are here for a second time. All of us have our eyes and minds open.

Already there have been big questions: Why is poverty so high in Nicaragua but crime is so low? What social problems are most prevelant here? What are the political debates currently, as the 2016 election nears? What’s happening with the canal? And the land disputes on the eastern side of the country? Some of the answers are yet to come.

We spent most of the day at Laguna de Apoyo, the incredibly deep and incredibly blue volcanic crator lake. Tonight, the chance to learn about the folk art and music traditional to Nicaragua. This country, the size of Wisconsin with about six million people, as a rich musical and artistic heritage. There are murals everywhere. Maramba and guitar are popular. But those things, we learned, are not taught in the country’s public schools. Instead, children often attend after school programs for instruction in painting, music appreciation and playing insturments.

One student said today was the perfect beginning to the trip. The relaxation allowed us all to take in the cultural differences slowly. So much is ahead for us in these 14 days.

Tomorrow we will visit Granada, the oldest colonial city in Central America. Markets, historic sites and our first service provider visit await.


This year’s group — the 10th from Washburn to travel to the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes — is preparing for its New Year’s Day departure from Kansas City.

Among the group this year are several students involved in Learning in the Community, the Center for Community and Civic Engagement at Washburn. They are serving in a variety of settings in Topeka and eager to see how organizations operate and serve community needs in Nicaragua.

Some of this year’s students have never been on an airplane. Others are returning to Nicaragua again and looking forward to seeing their (host) families in El Limon, as well as their friends from ProNica, the Quaker organization based in St. Petersburg, Florida, that hosts us all.

Click the itinerary page to learn more about what we’ll be doing. Regular posts will begin after our arrival in Managua, Nicaragua.


By Caiti Crooks
Major at Washburn Human Services
Hometown Edgerton, Kansas

Monkey Granada's old train depot
Young adult man making a hammock

Note: We had a guided tour of Granada on our final day in Nicaragua. Among the places we visited were the volcano-created islands in Lake Nicaragua, where we saw a spider monkey, the old train depot and Tio Antonio’s, where young people with disabilities run a restaurant and make hammocks (Learn more about last year’s visit there).

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By Shelby Ferguson
Major Exercise Physiology
Hometown Ottawa, Kansas

Wednesday morning, after eating breakfast at Quaker House, we headed on a three hour drive to San Juan Del Sur. A picturesque town nestled on the Pacific side of Nicaragua, it is a tourist hub with a small town feel. It has also gained attention this past year by being the home of the latest season of Survivor!

After eating lunch at a small café in the city, we had to travel a little further to reach our destination for the day: Playa el Coco Resort. It was a relaxing day for our delegation, as we had the opportunity to relax on the beach, which was much needed after our hard work in the days before. Unlike my experiences in the beaches that I have visited, we found that this beach housed millions of little hermit crabs underneath the sand, which you could feel under your feet as you walked (slightly scary).

screen shots of Yik Yak and Shelby with a turtleThat evening, we had the opportunity to watch the release of approximately 140 sea turtles into the ocean. These adorable little turtles had been hatched the night before, and had to be released to have a chance at survival. A lot of us struggled with emotions watching this beautiful part of nature: happy that they were going into their natural habitat but sad knowing that only about ten percent of the turtles would survive to adulthood. The rest of the evening we spent reflecting on the rest of our travels and watching the sunset on the beach!

Fun Fact: Nicaragua does in fact have a Yik Yak!

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By Samuel Olberding
Major at Washburn: Accounting and finance
Hometown: Centralia, Kansas

group standing on the road

Together, we filled in a dirt road that really needed the attention.

It’s noon as we head down a dusty road to El Limon. We are all excited and ready for an experience/opportunity that we have never had before. I took my first steps into my home stay house. No rush of feelings. No instantaneous shock. This is not what I expected. I was hoping to be blown away by the way these people live, by how they live there lives. Instead of feeling sorry for them and sorry for the way I live, I felt sorry for myself.

El Limon taught me a few things about what is truly important about my life and what people truly need in this world. God satisfied every aspect of their lives, even though none of them made more than a minimum wage worker in the United States. They showered outside with bowls of water and went to the bathroom outside without plumbing. My family had a dirt floor, a 20-year-old busted up bed, a few plastic chairs, and a concrete stove to occupy the tin roofed house.

The thing I enjoyed most about the experience is seeing how people that we would consider impoverished are happy, caring, and giving to one another; a love I had never seen before. If you give your life to God and just live the life he wants you to live, you will have peace. The people of El Limon understood this and reaped the rewards God had bestowed upon them.

The experience filled me with joy and peace. I didn’t find their life hard. I rather enjoy it. I had far less than what I was use to, but it was simpler and easier. We can all learn a valuable lesson from these people — that if you put the Lord at the helm of your life and give him the control, you will truly be satisfied.

I came here to serve the Lord and to help these people. What I realized instead is that they helped me.

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