We returned yesterday from our four-day family stay in the rural community of El Limon, Esteli, Nicaragua. The community of about 55 households has been a host of Washburn groups for the past nine years. The residents of El Limon are engaging and gracious as we learn and share together.

This year’s group includes two native Spanish speakers, one Spanish minor and a handful of students with some working vocabulary. In spite of the oral language barrier, students were able to communicate through universal language. As described by one of those students with only working Spanish vocabulary, those universal languages are smiles, laughter and dancing.

On Sunday night, we danced with the community to Nicaraguan music, including bachata, cumbia and reggaeton. It was a welcome respite after days of leveling more than 100 meters of dirt and rock road. On Monday, the work continued. Alongside men, teens and children of the community, the group dug a drainage trench to keep the road from washing out during the rainy season.

A table featuring a variety of boxes and vases made of paper with intricate origami.

Each of these items — and dozens of others we saw Tuesday — were made by Aldo Marcel.

When we said our goodbyes on Tuesday morning, many of us had sore legs, arms and shoulders. There were some tears, some smiles and lots of thoughtfulness. We left El Limon and visited the home of our guide, Aldo Marcel, who is an Origami artist and botanist. Today, we will visit two children’s homes and a large market.

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A picture of Oscar Olivas Jarquin under a glass case.

Oscar Olivas Jarquin, the uncle of our guide, Aldo Marcell, was killed in December 1978 while fighting against the Somoza regime. He was 32 years old.

Visiting the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs in Esteli yesterday brought a lot of things home for the group. The small museum was established by the mothers of those from the department of Esteli who were killed in the insurrection and the revolution. It was powerful to hear from a dauther of one of those founding mothers and from our friend and guide, Aldo, about his uncle’s role as a Sandinista, and his brutal death. That history made flesh made the conflicts and tragedy that consumed this country for several decades, which was indisputibly perpepuated with involvement from the U.S., real and emotional.

Nicaragua was at war from the 1970s until 1990. But during that time, two distinct conflicts occurred. The first, which ended in July 1979, is known as the insurrection. During that phase the mostly peasent army, known as the Sandinistas, fought to overthrough the Somoza dictatorship, which was an ally of the U.S. but was oppressive and violent toward the citizens of Nicaragua. The Somoza family held power here for decades. It was students in the 1960s who began to orgaize against the regime.

After The Triumph on July 19, 1979, the date the Sandinistas gained control of Managua and Somoza fled the country, the new government instituted a series of policies and programs that improved life, literacy-rates, health and life expectancy and education access for Nicaraguans. But by about 1981, a force of U.S. trained “Contras”, most of whom were perviously members of Somoza’s military, were fighting the pesants near the Honduran boarder. The Contras often targeted students in the literacty campaign, who lived in rural communities and taught the community members to read and write. They also targeted infrustructure, such as health centers. The Contras increased in brutality until a U.S.-backed presidential candidate was elected in 1990.

As Mark Lester explained earlier in our trip, Nicaraguans were told through popular press that they would lose the ability to receive remittances from relatives in the U.S. if the U.S.-backed candidate didn’t win. And they were told the conflict would not end if she was not elected. Virtually instantly after the government’s transition, the fighting stopped. And many of the policies enacted by the Sandinista government were quickly reversed.

In 2006, the Sandinista party candidate was elected again. He reamins president today and is expected to be the candidate in the November election.

Today we will make our way to El Limon, where we will stay in the homes of the community. In some cases, the patriarch of the house fought against the Contras in the 1980s.

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book cover of Webster's Spanish-English dictionary This year’s group is getting deep. Really deep. They’re discussing what they are seeing and experiencing with thoughtfulness and compassion.

For more than two hours last night around a bonfire, the 14 students, two Washburn faculty/staff and ProNica’s director shared reflection and ideas.

Reflections on:

  • The Spanish they’re learning and how wake their minds are feeling.
  • Thanks to the art school and seed jewlery cooperative we visited: How communities here organize and what that means and
  • The value here of making work to sustain yourself and your family when you don’t have formal employment, like 70 percent of Nicaraguans.
  • The farm-to-table tour and meal at the organic coffee farm of less than nine acres.
  • And so much more.

Today, those observations are sure to continue as we journey to Esteli and tomorrow to the rural community of El Limon for our family stay.


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Tuesday we traveled to Matagalpa, Nicaragua. The community is smaller, higher in elevation and a bit cooler with less humidity. There is a vibe here reminds several in the group of Colorado some how.

We had the chance to visit Casa Materna, a program for women with high-risk pregnancy from rural communities who don’t have access to health care in their home communities. The Casa has opreated for more than 20 years and seen significant results in the reduction of maternal mortality. It has worked so well that the Nicaraguan government has replecated the model in many different communities.

The group was able to hear from three of the Casa’s guests, who are expecting their babies in the next two weeks, and also from a Casa director. The women are able to make clothes for their babies and other activities. They receive regular care and are able to get to the hospital when in labor. Many of the women who stay there live more than eight hours from a hospital by public transportation.

Many great questions — from traditions related to naming a child to the presence of  family members and partners at the hospital during labor and delivery — were asked and answered. Then we saw the Casa’s map of outcomes, and the reality that maternal and infant mortality continues here.

After leaving the Casa, lunch at an Italian restaurant and the drive to San Ramon, where we are staying again tonight. The hostel is in an area that reminded several students of “Jurassic World.” Today we’ll visit an organic coffee farm and an after school program for children focused on art.

More soon. Todos, tienen un buen dia. (Everyone, have a good day.)

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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Almost every student involved in this year’s trip is a Bonner Leader who is serving in a volunteer capacity at a community site in the Topeka area. The common Bonner experience is playing a significant role in the group’s dynamic, compared to the previous two trips chronicled on this blog.

There is a comfort level and trust built among them that has allowed deep and meaningful conversation, questioning, debating and reflection that is at the heart of what this trip is intended to provide. And it’s just the third day. Watching those bonds strengthen and the discussions deepen is going to be exciting.

Yesterday, after a day of exploring Granada and Las Isletas, most of the group was up and engaged in meaningful conversation into the wee hours of the morning. Breakfast  came early today at 7 a.m. and a presentation by Mark Lester, a regional director for the Center for Global Education, grounded everyone in the history of Nicaragua. Soon we will embark on a tour of national historic sites and monuments in the capital city. Today is our last full day in Managua.

The students are journaling and talking about how this experience is challenging their preconcerived notions, their understandings of relative poverty, access, equality and consumerism, among other things. They’re curious about social problems in this country, and at home. They want to be part of the solution and they’re happy to be in this experience together with others who share their passions.

Learn more about Washburn’s Bonner Leader program and Learning in the Community (LinC).

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By Caiti Crooks
Major at Washburn Human Services
Hometown Edgerton, Kansas

Monkey Granada's old train depot
Young adult man making a hammock

Note: We had a guided tour of Granada on our final day in Nicaragua. Among the places we visited were the volcano-created islands in Lake Nicaragua, where we saw a spider monkey, the old train depot and Tio Antonio’s, where young people with disabilities run a restaurant and make hammocks (Learn more about last year’s visit there).

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By Shelby Ferguson
Major Exercise Physiology
Hometown Ottawa, Kansas

Wednesday morning, after eating breakfast at Quaker House, we headed on a three hour drive to San Juan Del Sur. A picturesque town nestled on the Pacific side of Nicaragua, it is a tourist hub with a small town feel. It has also gained attention this past year by being the home of the latest season of Survivor!

After eating lunch at a small café in the city, we had to travel a little further to reach our destination for the day: Playa el Coco Resort. It was a relaxing day for our delegation, as we had the opportunity to relax on the beach, which was much needed after our hard work in the days before. Unlike my experiences in the beaches that I have visited, we found that this beach housed millions of little hermit crabs underneath the sand, which you could feel under your feet as you walked (slightly scary).

screen shots of Yik Yak and Shelby with a turtleThat evening, we had the opportunity to watch the release of approximately 140 sea turtles into the ocean. These adorable little turtles had been hatched the night before, and had to be released to have a chance at survival. A lot of us struggled with emotions watching this beautiful part of nature: happy that they were going into their natural habitat but sad knowing that only about ten percent of the turtles would survive to adulthood. The rest of the evening we spent reflecting on the rest of our travels and watching the sunset on the beach!

Fun Fact: Nicaragua does in fact have a Yik Yak!

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By Samuel Olberding
Major at Washburn: Accounting and finance
Hometown: Centralia, Kansas

group standing on the road

Together, we filled in a dirt road that really needed the attention.

It’s noon as we head down a dusty road to El Limon. We are all excited and ready for an experience/opportunity that we have never had before. I took my first steps into my home stay house. No rush of feelings. No instantaneous shock. This is not what I expected. I was hoping to be blown away by the way these people live, by how they live there lives. Instead of feeling sorry for them and sorry for the way I live, I felt sorry for myself.

El Limon taught me a few things about what is truly important about my life and what people truly need in this world. God satisfied every aspect of their lives, even though none of them made more than a minimum wage worker in the United States. They showered outside with bowls of water and went to the bathroom outside without plumbing. My family had a dirt floor, a 20-year-old busted up bed, a few plastic chairs, and a concrete stove to occupy the tin roofed house.

The thing I enjoyed most about the experience is seeing how people that we would consider impoverished are happy, caring, and giving to one another; a love I had never seen before. If you give your life to God and just live the life he wants you to live, you will have peace. The people of El Limon understood this and reaped the rewards God had bestowed upon them.

The experience filled me with joy and peace. I didn’t find their life hard. I rather enjoy it. I had far less than what I was use to, but it was simpler and easier. We can all learn a valuable lesson from these people — that if you put the Lord at the helm of your life and give him the control, you will truly be satisfied.

I came here to serve the Lord and to help these people. What I realized instead is that they helped me.

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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,  Duck, 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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