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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Our work is done. When the center’s windows, doors, gate and trims were painted by about 11 a.m. today.

While several students spent time raking the front yard and sweeping the community room, three students helped Teo and Ishmalle, two community leaders, construct a concrete structure around the community water pipes.

The concrete will protect the pipes from erosion-related collapse and ensure access to the shut-off valve for years to come. In the coming days, a lid the two men will construct a lid to ensure animals — or children — don’t fall in the whole.

Travis, left, and Teo, center, work on the concrete structure to protect the water pipes.

Travis, left, and Teo, center, work on the concrete structure to protect the water pipes.

After the work was completely finished, several of us walked to Esteli to purchase thank you gifts for our families. Most of us chose treats such as cake, pastries and cookies.

In the evening, the community gathered at the communal for a dance and chance to share our mutual appreciation for the work and hospitality. For some of us trying to express our gratitude was emotionally difficult. For Suzie, the third-time visitor, it was especially difficult. “I have a second family here in El Limon,” she told them. And as she wiped the tears from her cheeks we knew she meant it.

The dance lasted for about three hours and everyone had a great time. It was fun to see the good dancers in the group get down — including Aldo, Lucy and Ashonte especially.

Three rows of people, outside in front of a window.

We did it! The group, after the work at the community center is finished.

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Work went quickly today. The group painted a second coat on each window and prepared the trim on both buildings — the preschool and community hall — for tomorrow.

Travis and Suzie paint a window at the preschool building.

Travis and Suzie paint a window at the preschool building.

While the students and Lucy worked with community leaders at the center, Rick, Michaela and Aldo walked to Esteli to meet with Lillian Hall and her husband, Ricardo Esquivia. Lillian was the in-country director for ProNica when Rick first began Washburn’s partnership with the organization.

Lillian and Ricardo live in Columbia, where Ricardo works as a human rights attorney and activist. Together they operate a non-governmental organization called Sembrandopaz, which translates to Planting Peace. (The information on its website is available in Spanish.)

Ricardo, with Lillian as interpreter, told us about the ongoing conflict in Columbia and what he knows from press reports about private peace talks currently underway.

When we get back to Washburn, Rick plans to discuss the possibility of a partnership in Columbia. He plans to reach out to Washburn’s women’s studies program, the School of Law and others with the possibility of an exploratory trip to develop a program — or programs — similar to our journey in Nicaragua.

By the time we returned to El Limon the day’s work had finished and students were preparing to have lunch with their families. In the afternoon, many students walked to the river for a bath. Others took naps or visited with their families.

We’re getting more and more comfortable with our families and the reality of life here. There is one house in El Limon that is vastly more modern than the others, with a running over-head indoor shower and indoor bathroom. Most of us are using outhouses and showering by filling buckets with water and using a bowl to wet and rinse ourselves. Very different than we are accustomed to at home, but extremely refreshing.

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Matagalpa is a community with a population about 20,000 fewer than Topeka. Local residents seem much more surprised to see us and the street-side shops sell daily necessities rather than tourist souvenirs.

Two guests of Casa Materna resting in the craft room with a mural of the center's founders.

Two guests of Casa Materna resting in the craft room with a mural of the center’s founders.

At Casa Materna, the 14 women currently staying there are from communities outside Matagalpa city. (Matagalpa also is the name of a district in Nicaragua.) The organization, funded primarily by donations from the United Staters, works to prevent maternal and infant mortality by providing education in many communities and the casa itself, which houses and provides health care to woman in the final weeks of pregnancy.

One woman, preparing to have her second child, lives an eight-hour bus ride away. She told us she already has been at Casa Materna for 15 days and is expecting her child in late January. Her local clinic encouraged her to come early the first time and she’s returned this time because she said she appreciated the care she received, and the rest from the toil of housework and other responsibilities.

Many of the women appreciated the rest of the Casa, and “the attention” they receive, including nutrition, regular care by a doctor, midwives and nurses. Nearly all of them had nicely painted toenails, a sign of the papering they do receive.

When a woman staying at Casa Materna goes into labor she is transferred to the local hospital to deliver the baby. Nearly all of the woman had received an ultrasound exam and 11 of the 14 knew the sex of their babies. The other three wanted to be surprised. In 2012, for example, 638 women were served at the Casa. Each of them, and their babies made it home.

Literature from Casa Materna suggests the women are experiencing high risk pregnancy. But when we spoke to them, each said they were referred because they were between 38 and 40 weeks pregnant. So, we looked into it. The CIA Factbook estimates that in 2013 the infant mortality rate in the country was 21.09 per 1,000 live births. We took that to mean every woman here has a high risk pregnancy.

We were able to ask all of our questions. Babies born as late as 29 weeks may not survive here, even if the mother is in the hospital at delivery. Most of the woman being served at Casa Materna now have some type of formal medical care in their communities. Each of them said their communities are well aware of the services provided.

Rachel said afterward she was glad to know the women were pampered and well cared for. She enjoyed the chance to hear from so many of them during our visit, too.

For Travis, the reality that problems easily addressed at home are major crisis for women here was difficult.

“These women are like my hero,” he said in a discussion afterward. “It’s crazy to think it’s 2014 and this stuff still happens.”

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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Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

We are spoiled as guests of Quaker House. Our meals are cooked for us and for the last two nights we have enjoyed personal concerts. (Read about our visit with Philip Montalban)

Tonight we heard some of the most popular folk songs in Nicaragua, played on Marimba by 10-year-old Brisa, and on guitar by her mother. The family, from Managua, are good friends with ProNica staff.

Brisa, who, again, is only 10, played a wooden Marimba intricately painted with mango trees. When her small concert of six songs was finished, she continued to play a song in her head by moving the mallets in the air, never touching the bars. She had an obvious passion for the music and smiled brightly as she played, and at our applause.

After the concert in the Quaker House living room, we were able to browse through handicrafts available for purchase that were made by the same family.

Now, a group is playing the card game Spoons, while others read, journal or visit.

Next up: Tomorrow we visit the Masaya Volcano National Park and Masaya Market, known for its artisan works.

Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

Brisa, 10, plays the Marimba as her mom plays guitar at Quaker House

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At Laguna de Apoyo

At Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo was much larger than the word Laguna — lagoon — would suggest. It was huge, with the sound of the ocean. And completely breathtaking.

We had hours to do as our hearts desired — kayaking the lake, swimming, laying out on platforms or in chairs on the beach, playing cards and enjoying fresh fish, salad, fajitas and the like at the top-notch resort restaurant.

Laguna de Apoyo was not a national park — that will come later in our trip. It was, instead, a private resort beach. ProNica covered our entry fee and our meals and we were free to relax. On the bus ride back, we chatted about how peaceful we felt. How nice it was to just be for an entire day. And how fortunate we were to start 2014 in such fashion.

More soon.

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We enjoyed our more tropical surroundings with bowls of fresh fruit this morning, plus eggs, coffee, cereal and other options as we liked.

White pineapple, banana and papaya are readily available — and full of amazing flavor — so there were bowls of them waiting for us and we nearly polished it off.

bowls of fruit

The bowl on the left started as a salad of white pineapple, banana and papaya. The bowl of papaya on the right was brought out when we were getting low on fruit.

Dr. Ellis made scrambled eggs for several of the Ichabods, and many drank coffee. We’ll leave in about an hour for the volcano crater lake at the national park — Laguna de Apoyo. We’ll get to see Managua in the daylight today, too.

Quaker House, where we are staying for the next few days, has WiFi so we’ll update again when we return.

We hope the second day of 2014 is going well for you all. We’re already having an amazing experience.

One more thing. Please don’t worry about us having quality wanter to drink. There are two large coolers that filter our water and we are all encouraged to refill our personal bottles often.

water filters

The water filters at Quaker House

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We are getting settled in at Quaker House. Our adventure in Nicaragua has begun!

Our journey to Managua was uneventful as far as airport travel goes. Our group made both flights with plenty of time to spare, everyone has all of the luggage they had when we left Kansas City and no one left anything on either plane or the bus. Good start, right?

group in Atlanta

In Atlanta

The Atlanta airport had art all over, plus tons of options for eating and shopping. We ended up with plenty of time to fill our bellies “with the last American food for two weeks.”

Even Travis, who said he is an extremely picky eater, found something. And Suzie shared an important tip: Don’t load up on greasy food when we get home. Last year she had a fast food hamburger in the airport and “regretted that decision.”

It is easy to see how having two people who have been to Nicaragua before in the group is going to be a huge help.

We are ready. Jenna got several Christmas gifts to help with the trip, including a water bottle with a powerful filter. Deanna and Nathan planned their packing around items they can leave behind – including sleeping bags. Katy has already used her Spanish skills to help out the entire group. Meghan has been reading up on the history of the country. And right now, the group is chatting on the back porch at Quaker House.

Two big surprises. First — If we can stand the taste of all of the chlorine, we can actually drink the tap water. We’ll likely opt for the filtered water available at ProNica and elsewhere we will visit.

Second — We can’t flush our toilet paper. It goes in a trash can. The plumbing system here can’t handle it. Although everything in the bowl is no problem, remembering to put all paper in a trash bin may be tricky.

Tomorrow we relax at a volcano lake. Ashante got to relaxing tonight with a ukulele at Quaker House. She played and sang bits of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Ashante jams

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