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.