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!

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.

Posted in Go!

Kasia had more work to do to prepare for this trip than the rest of us.
None of of it gave her the slightest hesitation.

Originally from Warsaw, Poland, Kasia has a Green Card and needed a visa and some other documents that those of us with U.S. passports didn’t. She also flew on her own because of a holiday trip to Florida.

The Lawrence, Kan. resident is a senior majoring in human services. She has an interest in gerontology and took the opportunity to ask specific questions at the community center we visited.

In El Limon, she worked hard during work time and enjoyed every minute of being pampered by the young girls in her host family. They intricately braided her hair daily, gave her a manicure and a pedicure that rivals any salon and made sure the coffee enthusiast always had a tasa de cafe (cup of coffee).

“I’m having a great time. It’s better than watching television,” she said during reflection time in El Limon. “I’m under the shock of experiencing what’s going on. How much labor everything requires! They’re leading very basic lives, but they are living all together, supporting each other. Everyone seems happy.”

At the end of our trip she was still reflecting on her experience with the family: “They play with nail polish because they have nothing else.”

Kasia would be a wonderful travel companion in any environment. And her willingness to share her European perspective on government and history enriched many discussions among the group.

Kasia paints the new gate at the community center in El Limon, Esteli, Nicaragua.

Kasia paints the new gate at the community center in El Limon, Esteli, Nicaragua.

Posted in Go!

5 Cordoba coins

Nicaraguan Cordoba

Tomorrow is our day of history lessons. We’ll learn the facts then see several sights, museums and the like. So tonight, it was time to get ready.

Nicaragua is a very impoverished* country. Only Haiti is poorer per person in the Western Hemisphere. That means we will see things that make us uncomfortable. Like the children — young children maybe seven to 10 years old — who came to Laguna de Apoyo to sell tamales, bananas and other food.

Downtown tomorrow, we were advised, there will be children with their hands out and “it will break your heart.”

But, we’ve been asked not to give money.

“We encourage you not to give them money,” said our guide, Lucy. “We don’t want to encourage that dependency, particularly from the U.S.”

Lucy is originally from Chicago but lived in El Salvador for several years as a child. She’s been in Nicaragua for three years and ours is her first trip as a guide for ProNica.

Rick Ellis agreed with Lucy’s suggestion.

“That paternalistic sense of ‘We’re gonna take care of you’ — really you’re replicating what one country does to another on a smaller scale.”

The purpose of our day of history is to ensure we know the context of the country we are experiencing for these two weeks. It’s not to make us feel bad for what we have. But we might. And it might light fires under us to make change when we return.

——
*NOTE: This post originally said Nicaragua is a very poor country. Nicaragua is economically impoverished but rich in many other areas, including natural resources of timber, gold and fresh water.

Posted in Go!