In the summer of 2016, three mission groups from St. Ursula Academy traveled outside their comfort zones and developed a new understanding for their world around them. Every student had a different experience, including Rosemarie Bingham ‘18 and Caroline Leyes ’18 who made the trip to Managua, Nicaragua, and this is our joint reflection of the experience.
Even before the trip began the 20 participants, including 17 of our classmates and 3 teacher chaperones, met to prepare for the experience. We answered preparation questions to share our thoughts and fears, as well as discussed our packing list and the dress code, which seemed to shock us all. Long pants is not the first thing I would want to wear in over 90-degree weather. However, this did not discourage any of us, as you could still see the excitement on every girl’s face as we talked about the trip details.
One of the last things we did was develop a mission statement as a group that we could refer to during the trip to remember why we came and our goals. Our statement said, “As a group we ask God to help us be willing to share our culture in addition to immersing ourselves in the Nicaraguan community to build strong relationships. We hope to implement these values in our daily routines, to inspire the lives we touch, and to share our experiences to further what we have learned.” When we wrote this together, none of us knew what it would mean to us and how true it would be by the end of the trip.
A New World
Finally the day came, I faced the daunting task of leaving the country for the first time and to a place where I didn’t understand the language. As our plane landed in Managua, I stared out the window looking at the low, flat buildings covered in orange lights. I already felt out of place. As we traveled through the airport our chaperones--Mr. Stickel, Mr. Simcoe, and Mr. Nicaise--informed us about the people and crowds we would see. They wanted us to be prepared, not scared. They described the stores and carts that would line the walkways with people offering to sell souvenirs or small snacks, like sliced mango. We also were told that their would be people offering services, such as carrying a bag, and asking for a tip in return. The best way to handle these situations was to smile and reply, “no, gracias.”
Arriving in Nicaragua was like arriving in another world. Bright, neon-lit trees lined the streets, and although it was late, there was still a substantial amount of people surrounding the airport. We noticed the vendors and people waiting for their own family to arrive. As you looked at each student in our group, you could see expressions of confusion, happiness, and curiosity. It was already an incredibly different experience for all of us. We wanted to remember as much as possible that we were seeing for the first time as we drove in silence back to our new home for the week in Managua.
The house we stayed in was small by American standards, but grand and expensive compared to a typical Nicaraguan home. As we ventured out into the city and different neighborhoods, I realized that even though our house didn’t contain air conditioning, a TV, or filtered tap water, it was a luxury. There were many things in the house we had to get used to throughout the week. For example, we were not allowed to drink any tap water. Instead, we drank lukewarm water from a filtered jug. This was different for me because I am used to filling up my water bottle at home with ice and tap water. Another thing that I had to learn to adjust to was cold showers. The first couple days, I dreaded this because I hate the cold, but after a while, this was not as inconvenient because of Nicaragua’s hot and humid climate.
During reflection at the end of the first day, I knew that I had so much to be grateful for, and that I was excited to spend a week in the shoes of a Nicaraguan. Mr. Simcoe proposed a great challenge to us that night. He asked us, now that we understand how blessed we are, to try to understand why it is important to experience a trip like this and how we are going to bring it with us even after we leave Nicaragua.
The next morning, we started with a brief history of Nicaragua from our leader at the CGE, the Center for Global Education, Joe Connelly. This was surprisingly helpful as we interacted with the people. Speaking with people, at least trying to, was my favorite part of the trip. Learning people’s backgrounds and lifestyle was so interesting. The first man who spoke to us discussing his journey and inspiring us to keep working hard, was named Antonio. He was from Barcelona, Spain and moved to Managua to start the Café de las Sonrisas (The Cafe of Smiles), which hires deaf or blind workers. They use a system of symbols and tiled walls to help customers communicate with the servers. He also started a project to make a never-ending quilt out of plastic bags to motivate children to clean up their community. Using these bags as a system of currency, Antonio allows the children to trade the bags in for school supplies. His message is clear and simple, “There is always a way, you just have to find it.”
We filled the next couple of days with many adventures. From teaching students at the Cultural Centre of Batahola Norte about writing in English, to looking into a lava-filled volcano, we were nowhere short of bored. We had left our daily routines back in Cincinnati and stepped into a challenging world that we had never thought much about. Mary Ellen O’Toole ‘18 described how she had been “incredibly moved by everyone's generosity, good spirits, and the immense natural beauty in Nicaragua and [she] will always carry these memories with [her].”
Midway into our trip, we took about a three-hour drive to the mountains, where we would spend one night. The scenery there was beautiful. We stayed in a self-sustainable community that was incredible. They worked together to support themselves with a farm, goats, and a small store. Although the environment around us was beautiful, there were many complaints when we saw our bug infested cabins. The cabins were small; about the size of a typical hotel room, but with four or more people in each room. It was difficult to not be grossed out at the dead spiders in my sheets and the moths flying around above my head. In the end, that night in the mountains was the best thing about the trip. It helped me focus on why I really came on this trip. I came to experience the lives of others and realize there is more to life than my community in Cincinnati. I felt selfish complaining about bugs in my sheets, when this was second nature to the people in the village.
On the second day of our mountain stay, Pablo, a worker in the community, led a tour of their farms and stores. His passion about what they do on the farm was incredible. They grow coffee and other plants on a small scale, like mint and different types of lettuce. The coffee they grow is amazing. They take the extra time to plant it at a higher altitude to ensure it is the best quality. Before this trip, I never enjoyed the bitter taste of coffee, but I loved it when they served it at breakfast the next morning. It was great to try something new, especially when it was this special.
Why this trip matters
Anna Engelhardt ’17 has described her experience as “so surreal. It allowed me to venture outside of my comfort zone and gain a new perspective besides that of the ‘Ursula bubble.’”
This gave me a meaning, purpose, motivation, and most importantly a mission! It taught me to strive for happiness and be open. I recommend letting yourself have an experience such as this. Let go of stereotypes and our Americanized idea of life, and just live to make yourself happy and help fill others with love. With humility and the willingness to make a change, go out and make your mark on the world.
Thank you to our chaperones who made this possible, and our classmates who traveled with us. This experience would not have been the same without you all. Finally, thank you to SUA for providing a gateway to the community in Nicaragua for us to learn and be inspired.
Nicaragua Mission Trip 2016 Participants:
Rosemarie Bingham ‘18
Casey Brenning ‘17
Luci Cassiere ‘17
Bailey Cordill ‘17
Ashley Davis ‘17
Anna Engelhardt ‘17
Leah Grabowski ‘17
Dani Habegger ‘17
Margot Koenig ‘17
Caroline Leyes ‘18
Katie Miller ‘18
Mary Ellen O’Toole ‘18
Lauren Pagano ‘17
Josie Roe ‘18
Caleigh Sambrookes ‘17
Gracie Walter ‘17
Allie Zisko ‘17
Photo by Rosemarie Bingham
The view during our trip to the mountains.
Photo by Josie Roe '18
A look inside the lava filled volcano, Volcan Masaya.
Photo by Caroline Leyes '18
The community farms shown to us on our tour by Pablo.
Photo by Mr. Nicaise
Josie Roe '18, Leah Grabowski '17, and Casey Brenning '17 at Cafe de las Sonrisas in Granada.
Photo by Joe Connelly
Our teachers and students who traveled to Nicaragua.