By Shelby Fehrenbacher
Major at Washburn : Psychology
Hometown: Topeka, Kansas
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.

This morning we packed up our belongings since we will be leaving the Quaker House and will not return until the closing of our trip, We prepared for a few hour trip into the city of Matagalpa where we will see the Casa Materna most specifically but also be able to explore the mountain city.

Entering Matagalpa was in many ways a different experience than coming into Managua or Masaya. This city bustled with business men, vendors, children playing, and cars whistling in and out, just as the other cities. Yet, it felt different. I could feel more chaos but not necessarily in a negative way. Managua, in comparison to Matagalpa, was like Topeka to Kansas City. Matagalpa rang with passion, with hope, and with excitement.

Our first stop was to eat lunch at a buffet style restaurant within the city. Everyone was eager to get into the city and quickly gather after eating in order to get going. It was misting a bit as we walked down the road but we laughed about how rain wouldn’t stop us from experiencing this portion of Nicaragua.
We came across the center square where everyone was bustling about and the chapel stood front and center. Outside the chapel was much like chapels we see in the United States. Once we entered inside the chapel, however, it came alive unlike any chapel I’ve ever seen. The white walls, floors, and ceiling pieces glistened and made the whole place seem angelic. We learned that in Latin America saints and other holy figures are a bigger deal than many places in the states and this was really evident in the chapel.
I also took a side trip with a peer to the staircases of Matagalpa. These stairs were built into the sloped hills of the city and overlooked the city. It took a little energy to climb them and I kept wondering how the people who had houses up there were able to go up and down every day. At the top of the stairs, we looked down and watched over the city like birds contemplating flight. And I was. I searched within myself wondering where to go from here. It’s funny how adventures like this can change you. Being one with nature and myself, I began pondering my next step. Nicaragua is starting to find its way into my journey like quicksand molding into my toes; It’s channeling a new path inside of me and I’m excited to see where it leads.
The main event of the day was our orientation to Casa Materna. Here, we got to sit with the women and nurses of the house and speak with them about what they do. The women that were patients at the center were a bit soft-spoken at the meeting and though we yearned to hear their stories, it was evident that many of them did not feel comfortable sharing. The nurses gave us a lot of information about what Casa Maternna does and we learned of the distance the women had to travel to get to the casa and the nearest hospital from their homes. One woman had to travel 5 hours by bus, get on another bus for a few hours, and then travel another few hours by foot. One of the most important aspects of the Casa Materna is its ability to reduce the mother and infant morbidity and mortality rates and spread the concept of this late-term care to other municipalities.
I kept thinking back to the time I was pregnant and had a new nurse come into my midwife appointment and ask a million questions regarding how my pregnancy was going and how I felt about it. I remember wanting to tell her I felt miserably sick, was in pain all the time, really had to use the restroom, would much rather be sleeping, and many other not so happy parts of the pregnancy process. I remembered watching TV and how the women were all sunshine and roses saying how much they loved being pregnant and how joyous it was to introduce the baby to this world. And i remember thinking how unrealistic that was.
Sitting next to the women receiving care at Casa Materna and seeing them in all their not-so-glorious pregnancies but also hearing of all that the Casa had to offer them to help make the most of this beautiful yet hard time for them made me come to a few important conclusions. First, that we take so much for granted in our pregnancies in the U.S. For those in Nicaragua, conveniently placed hospitals, someone catering to needs, and the ability to have special rules or privileges during pregnancy are prescribed and suggested but not automatic. Second, that as the U.S. undergoes this struggle to create a place for more natural home-births, the women of Nicaragua are devastated by the challenges that come with births at home for them. And lastly, that despite the small differences, in many ways we are all really the same. Just as many women in the U.S. feel defeated, ashamed and unnerved at many points within their pregnancies so do the women of Nicaragua. But most importantly, many of the women in the U.S. feel hope, faith, and love throughout their pregnancies and thanks to the Casa Materna, the women of Nicaragua can rest easier and feel hope, faith, and love, too. It’s amazing how hope can blossom when you’re not consumed by worry.
NOTE: We visited Casa Materna last year as well. Read more about that visit. This visit was on Wednesday. Today, Friday, we head for El Limon and our family stays. We’ll be in touch again on Monday night.
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By Hayley Normandin
Major at Washburn: Psychology/Social Work
Hometown: Damar, Kansas
This morning marked our third day in Nicaragua and we were once again fed an incredible breakfast, prepared by Juliza and Jose Antonio. The food here is so fresh and well prepared I cannot help but smile when I eat it. Manuel (our bus driver) then arrived to take us to the girls and boys homes in San Marcos, Nicaragua.
Hayley and a boy from Los Quinchos

Hayley and a boy she befriended at the Los Quinchos farm.

First we visited Los Quincos, which is a farm where boys of various ages live. Many of these boys were rescued from the streets in Nicaragua and some were taken from unstable homes. Although a few have families that they are able to visit for holidays or other occasions, some boys are completely alone. Los Quincos provides them with the family and home that many of them lacked before. They also help some of the boys, who were living on the streets before, recover from addictions; a common addiction in Nicaragua is shoe glue snuffing, which gives someone an extreme momentary high, followed by a long, deep sleep, and is very harmful on the body.

As we pulled up in the van, a group of younger boys came running and hopping in excitement; many of them didn’t have shoes on and were wearing worn out clothing. We could barely open the van door before they were reaching for hugs and eager to show us their home. A young boy about 7 years old immediately latched on to me and pulled me through the trail to show me all of the farm animals, buildings, and even the plants. Although we couldn’t understand each other because of the language barrier, there was something so special in the way he was communicating. His smile couldn’t get any wider and his affection was priceless.
Then as we caught up with the rest of the group, the boys began to climb mandarin trees and throw oranges to us. They were so proud at this and made sure to share with everyone. We then made our way back to the court yard where the older boys played soccer with Samuel and Jose Antonio. The rest of us girls played with the other kids by coloring, swinging, picking flowers, and taking photos. I shared some jelly beans that I had in my bag and the kids were incredibly appreciative. The joy that came from these children was contagious and everyone seemed to be in complete bliss.
Saying goodbye to the boys was difficult, but some of us left things behind for them such as sunglasses or snacks. We all shared hugs and fair-wells like we had known each other our whole lives. Following our goodbye, we ate together at a local restaurant that was ran by Los Quincos and they prepared for us beautiful dishes of chicken, rice, steamed vegetables, and more!
After lunch we traveled down the road to the girls’ home, Yahoska. There were only nine girls here at this time and they were a little more reserved than the boys. However, after some warming up they began to play some organized games like Duck, ┬áDuck, Goose or Cat and Mouse. A few girls were still shying away on the side so I offered to comb and braid their hair. Then one of the older girls returned the favor and braided my hair as well. By the end of the visit almost everyone’s (including us students) hair was braided! This was also a bittersweet goodbye as we hugged the girls and went on our way.
The experience today at Los Quinchos and Yahoska was a humbling memory I am confident I will never forget. I feel incredibly lucky that I have a supportive family to go home to and the circumstances I have been blessed with; especially when these children have so little but love so much. Someone once told me that stuff is meant to be used and people are meant to be loved, yet too often we love stuff and use people. The children I bonded with today reminded me of how irrelevant stuff is compared to people; and for this I am thankful.
Note: Last year’s group also visited Los Quinchos and Yahoska. Read about that experience. Tomorrow we leave Quaker House and Managua to begin the next part of or journey. Learn more about what’s ahead for us.
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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’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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We had the opportunity to have dinner on Tuesday night at the Cafe de los Mimos, a project of the School of Comedy and Mime (website in Spanish). The school provides opportunity to homeless children in the Granada area, teaching them acting and circus-style performance.

The performance we saw was similar in style to Cirque du Solei with beginning skill. There was contortion, juggling, stilts, tricks of strength and wonderful acting with facial expression.

After the play, we heard a band perform. There was a lot of dancing. Music and dance are a big part of the culture here. As we saw in El Limon, even young children learn the basic steps and moves of several dances. There were very few wallflowers at the cafe. And there were professional dancers from Costa Rica who had come from a performance still wearing face makeup.

The show was a great end to a day exploring an amazing city. Our guides, Lucy and Aldo, have gone out of their way to make sure we learn about the country by visiting service groups as often as possible. For many of us, that way of exploring communities may become standard practice.

The band at Cafe de los Mimos.

The band at Cafe de los Mimos.

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We spent lunchtime yesterday at an amazing place. In 2012 a Spanish man named Antonio decided to invest in Nicaraguan youth who are differently able.

Originally, he imagined supporting an already existing effort. But he discovered there weren’t such groups that provided job kills to blind, deaf, hard of hearing and young people otherwise unable to communicate. So he started one.

Centro Social Tio Anonio, a hammock workshop, and Cafe de las Sonrisas in Granada, are that place. While there, several students were able to help make hammocks. We met a young blind man who made a hammock for Pope Francis. We met another who is fluent in English, Spanish and Nicaraguan sign language. The language has a lot in common with American Sign Language (ASL) but is its own unique language.

And we tested our communication skills yet again during lunch. Our waiter and waitress were both deaf. Signs on the wall of the cafe and a laminated placard with useful signs were available to help.

Several group members purchased hammocks, available in several sizes, to support the Tio Antonio’s. Others marveled at two efforts underway at the center. One: An ongoing fundraising drive to support hurricane relief in the Philippines. The other: turning discarded plastic bags into an “endless hammock.” The bags are tied together and woven to create a hammock that will continue to grow. No end date has been set for the effort that is cleaning up plastic by repurposing it.

Yet another lesson about Nicaraguans: We may think generally about how they have little themselves, but so many selfless acts we have seen show their concern as global citizens. May we remember this lesson always.

Learn more:

The endless hammock, multicolored.

The endless hammock in progress.

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It is widely known here that there are 365 isletas (little islands) near Granada, created when Volcan Mombacho erupted thousands of years ago, spewing lava into Lake Nicaragua. On Monday, Jan. 13, we saw a few dozen of them.

There are islands with public restaurants and homes to rent. Islands with palm trees. Islands with monkeys. Islands with some of the fanciest homes in the entire country. Islands for sale. And islands with some flora species only found here.

Seeing it from a boat with an experienced isletas guide — and Aldo, who is always happy to share what he knows about local plant species — was more than a treat. Michaela took 250 photos of the incredible, ocean-like views, monkeys, bats, birds and the contrast of homes from Rum magnates and subsistence fishermen.

We were able to see Mombacho from a different point of view, and visualize the power of the eruption that created the islands. We saw historic Granada’s cathedral — a landmark that identifies the central square from anywhere in the central city. One particular flower made an impression: it reminded us all of a firecracker. It had a sheath that made it look almost banana-like, but when slid down a striking flower with fuschia tips on each of dozens of fingers.

Volcan Mombacho from the boat on Lake Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho from the boat on Lake Nicaragua.

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We packed a lot in today. Too much to post tonight in detail, but here’s a quick preview:

  • Breakfast at a waffel house! With BACON!
  • A boat tour of the islands in Lake Nicaragua created by the erruption of Mombacho Volcano several thousand years ago. This included some amazing wildlife (MONKEYS!) and plants.
  • Lunch at a cafe focused on providing employment to Nicaraguans who are blind, deaf and hard of hearing. Many of the youth who work there make hammocks, while others work in the cafe.
  • And afternoon exploring the history of this colonial city, including museums and a church constructed in 1536.
  • Dinner at a cultural cafe, including a show by children who live in a group home that teaches them circus acts.

Tomorrow we climb Mombacho!

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A Lagrima de San Pedro bracelet on a wrist

A Lagrima de San Pedro bracelet.

Many of us left El Limon with hand-made jewelry crafted especially for us by the children who were our siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews during our time in their community.

The necklaces, bracelets and rings were meticulously strung with Lagrima de San Pedro. Known in English as Tears of St. Peter, the Lagrima de San Pedro seeds were gathered near the river by the hundreds.

After measuring our necks, wrists and fingers, the children worked quickly to clear the seeds of their internal fibrous material and string them onto plastic line or thread. In one case, painting each seed in a different design with nail polish was a special group activity.

Today — and for the days and weeks to come — we wear our Lagrima de San Pedro and remember the connections we made and the resourcefulness and ingenuity we saw in action for each of our days in El Limon. I suspect the seeds will be a reminder that we can do what we put our minds to as long as we’re willing to put in the effort.

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