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.

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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.

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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.

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We are in the Atlanta now waiting for our final flight. We are so close we can taste it! Literally.

Most of us had lunch at T.J.I. Friday’s here at the Atlanta airport. Sweet tea (Thanks, Atlanta!), burgers, salads and the like were welcome fare.

Now, some of the group are sleeping in the airport. Others are playing cards. We’ll board our final flight in less than an hour and we’re ready to see our families!

The group waits in Managua's Sandino International Airport this morning.

The group waits in Managua’s Sandino International Airport this morning.

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Laura missed her hairdryer. She was attentive to what we were doing but she may have had the toughest culture shock.

During our reflection in El Limon, her wry humor came through. “I’m from Kansas City. This was really, I think I’m adjusting well — I’m not crying everyday.”

But each day she learned something new and was surprised.

“Everything that has happened I haven’t expected,” she said one day. “Each palce we learned something more.”

She especially enjoyed visiting so many different nonprofit organizations.

And it was Laura who got the group of 14 students, one professor and one staff member talking about how we will stay in touch. How people you never even knew existed can change your life forever.

A member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, Laura is a senior majoring in human services. She plans to work with special needs children and their families.

Laura, with cards fanned in front of her face.

Laura, playing cards in the Atlanta airport. We’re almost home!

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Suzie comes to Nicaragua to see her “second family.” Although graduation will prevent her from returning with the Washburn group for a fourth visit, she says she knows in her heart she will be back.

Reserved and thoughtful, the senior in psychology from Cummings, Kan. signed up for the trip to Nicaragua for the first time three years ago at the suggestion of her then roommate. She says Nicaragua is the reason she had to meet that woman. This year it was her turn to suggest the trip to someone else. She talks about Nicaragua and the people of El Limon so often that her boyfriend, Travis, had to see it for himself.

Rick says he was shocked when Suzie told him she wanted to go on the trip a second time. He’d thought she had been pretty miserable, actually. This year, he knew she would be back.

“You’ve been a pleasant surprise,” Rick told her after our final reflection. “I’m so glad to know you.”

In many ways, Suzie’s three visits to Nicaragua are merged in her mind. But she says each has changed her for the better.

She has learned you don’t have to speak the same language to laugh and play with a child. A hug from a woman you haven’t said more than a few words to can make a place feel like home if she hugs you like your mom does. And those who have the fewest material possessions often share the most.

“Life’s not what I thought it was,” she said during our last reflection at Quaker House. “The first trip, I was so far from the person I am now. I was in a bad palce. This has helped me figure out who I am. Seeing Aldo’s passion for origami, El Limon and their passion for family … it helps you figure out what you want your passion to be.”

Suzie knows she’ll feel strange this time next year when the trip happens and she’s working or in graduate school. But she’ll be planning and saving for a return trip to see her Nicaraguan family.

Whatever she does, Suzie will carry in her heart the community of El Limon and the lessons she learned in Nicaragua about the world and herself.

Suzie and Travis

Suzie and Travis

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I joked with Sam during the trip that she was combatting the stereotypes of what it means to be a “sorority girl” more and more each day. It is true.

Sam, who is from the Kansas City area, came to Nicaragua with two fellow sorority sisters. The members of Zeta Tau Alpha spent time together but also got to know the entire group.

Sam has just one semester left of nursing school. Her priorities and interests aren’t about appearance or a social calendar. (She is covered in bug bites because she didn’t think about using her repellant.) She wants to help people, to make a difference. And through this experience she has discovered new ways to do that.

“I should register to vote. When I get back, that will be my goal,” she said during our last reflection.

She said she feels like she knows more about Nicaraguan history than she does U.S. history and she plans to pay more attention to what is going on in the world.

“It has been an eye-opening experience.”

Jenna, center, and Sam, right, watch geckos on the ceiling at Mona Lisa Pizza in Granada.

Jenna, center, and Sam, right, watch geckos on the ceiling at Mona Lisa Pizza in Granada.

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We’ve seen Mombacho from a distance for days. On Tuesday we stood on it.

The biology majors — especially Katy — took the time slowly after we got off of the safari-style truck. There were so many things to see and hear in the Mombacho Cloud Forest.

Light and shadow danced on lush green leaves. Neon green moss clung to trees. Howler Monkeys howled. Exotic birds sang. A sloth eluded everyone but Travis. And the flowers! Orchids of many colors and sizes, tiny buds reaching for light, poinsettias, bogenvelia, hibiscus and more welcomed us at different heights in the forest.

Some of us were continuously amazed that we were WALKING IN A RAINFOREST, only to be speechless again at the next lookout point. At the top of what was actually a volcanic crater now covered with plant life we could see many of the places we’ve been:

The view was truly breathtaking. We all enjoyed the opportunity. Nicaragua’s natural beauty is so rich. The country may be impoverished but this nation is rich in so many ways. Imagine if the U.S. government had invested in its potential rather than making the decisions it did in the 1980s.

Las Isletas from Volcan Mombacho

Las Isletas from Volcan Mombacho

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I remember thinking during a group meeting before we left for Nicaragua that Tara might have a tough time “roughing it” here.

“I can’t do that,” I heard her say several times. She doesn’t like certain things, is apprehensive about some unknowns and downright scared of others.

But she knows what those things are and she did what it took to minimize the influence of those things on her experience here. I’ve been throughly impressed at her adaptability.

I had the privilege of staying with the same family as Tara in El Limon. As roommates for four days I got to know her well. We ended up together at her request — a great example of her finding solutions to her anxieties.

I’m vegan (eating no animal products). She was uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat that she didn’t prepare herself. Her solution: Stay with the vegan lady so she didn’t have to make a big deal of things.

Once she felt comfortable, she dove in to experience new things. She tried every vegetable, and liked many of them. She ate beets on a salad the other day, even though she swore off beets as a child. She shaved her legs standing up, even though she’d badly cut herself years before. (She cut herself this time, too, and said it could be years before she tries it again. But she did it.)

“I didn’t feel comfortable there the first few nights,” she said of El Limon. But that changed. “Our family loved each other so much.”

Tara could have chosen to complain and take a negative view of the dozens of things here that were out of her comfort zone. Instead, her true colors shined and Tara has relished the opportunity to explore a new country, get to know some of its people and learn its history. Tara has been a positive force for many in the group and already is talking about returning to Nicaragua next year.

Tara is from Lancaster, Kan. She is majoring in elementary education and special education. She works as a tutor at a school in Topeka and was especially touched by her interactions with Nicaraguan children.

Tara, standing in a window, holds the bars with her left hand and scrubs a bar with sandpaper with her right.

Tara scrapes rust on a window.

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Rachel is an emotional rock.

If she was homesick or personally struggled with anything we saw or did during these two weeks, it didn’t show.

An inspiring blend of logic and compassion, the Rossville, Kan. resident is a biology pre-medicine major who seems to love the stuff we are learning here as much as she enjoys the relaxed sight-seeing.

Rachel wasn’t too shy to use the high school Spanish she remembers during our time in El Limon. When I saw her with her family she had her dictionary at the ready but didn’t turn to it until she needed it. She woke up early enough to learn to make tortillas and helped chop vegetables and wash dishes, too.

“Our family is awesome, they’re so sweet,” she said during group reflection time in El Limon. “I made tortillas this morning. Mine are always smaller than hers. I don’t have enough dough apparently. I was really excited about making tortillas.”

The next day, when Rachel realized the family wasn’t able to sell the non-uniform tortillas she made, she decided not to make as many. She appreciated the opportunity to learn, but didn’t want to put the family at a disadvantage in anyway.

She relished the time she was able to spend with her host family. She got to know them on more than a superficial level because she chose to stay with them rather than venture into town or visit other students.

Her only request on the trip: Visit a hospital. We’ll go today when we get back to Managua. She hopes to work in either the emergency room or in family medicine.

If her reaction to the emotional challenge of the last two weeks is any indication, I can’t wait to hear in a few years how she’ll end up helping her medical school classmates keep it together. After that, she hopes to work with Doctors Without Borders.

At tonight’s final reflection she put it plainly: “This has changed my life.”

Rachel, posing with a small piece of black pottery she bought today

Rachel, posing with a small piece of black pottery she bought.

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