While many Northwestern students spent their quarter break at their homes relaxing and enjoying their time away from studies, junior Kelsey Thompson -- a member of the Wildcats' field hockey team -- was one of 13 NU students who took a 10-day service trip to Nicaragua prior to Christmas through the University's Sheil Catholic Center. The following is a chronicle of Thompson's experience.
Since I have been back in the States, many family and friends have kindly asked me, "How was your trip to Nicaragua?" I don't know exactly how to put into words what I have seen, though. Amazing? Powerful? Moving? Exciting? Heart-wrenching? There is not one word--or even a page of them--that can truly describe what the 13 students from Northwestern's Sheil Catholic Center felt and experienced on our 10-day service trip.
After flying into Managua, Nicaragua's capital, we took part in a "mobile food pack," in which one station alone packed roughly 4,800 nutrient-rich meals (called "MannaPacks") for Nicaraguan children in just a few hours. We then drove seven hours on the winding dirt road to the northern mountains (during which we questioned whether we had lost some luggage strapped to the top of our bus), and finally arrived in the village of Cusmapa. The next morning we attended a beautiful, yet simple mass in a Cusmapan home, which consisted of one stucco room under a tin roof. We were struck by the fervor for faith, and the vibrant spirit of love and joy of the people there--something we would experience throughout the week here in Cusmapa.
In the mornings, our group walked to the Fabretto Center to paint the school buildings. Fabretto, an organization that works to improve education, nourishment, and sustainability for Nicaraguan children, has schools in a handful of Nicaraguan cities, but has a large presence in this small town. Initially, upon seeing the poverty that is the reality of this country, many of us wondered what good we were doing by painting--something we could have done back in Evanston. Painting a school, rather than building a school...it felt so insignificant, so "not enough." But a week's worth of work later, we had all realized we were playing a small role in a much bigger picture. We were contributing to a school that not only educated underprivileged Nicaraguan children, but also provided opportunities for a more sustainable life. The Cusmapan children needed the maintenance of this school, not a new, big, or flashy solution.
We discovered the importance of this school by getting to know the children who attend it. Every afternoon, after painting, we had the privilege of playing with the children--the Fabretto students currently on Christmas break--who ranged from ages four to 14. By the end of the week, there was not one Northwestern student whose heart was not stolen by these little rascals. We had checked extra bags to bring donated art supplies and sports equipment--including field hockey sticks and balls--to give to the school. On the first day I made friends with a group of kids curious about the funny-looking wooden sticks I was holding. Of course, no one in Cusmapa had heard of "hockey del campo" (field hockey), so I taught them how to hold the stick correctly, and used my broken Spanish to try to explain the bizarre rules of the game. We started out by passing the ball in a circle, and by the next afternoon the kids had gradated to a boys versus girls game of field hockey! They quickly took to the game, demonstrating their understanding of the game when the boys called back a goal because the girls had not properly restarted at the 50 after scoring.
In addition to playing field hockey, the girls taught me some of their own games, including their variants of tag and "duck duck goose." What struck me more than anything was their simple desire to just be with me; all they wanted to do was hold my hand. I quickly found that, unlike I had previously thought, you can hold six or more hands at once (you only have two hands, you say? psh...)--each of my arms around one girl's shoulders, plus holding two hands with my right, and two with my left...plus anyone who just grabs onto an arm! My girls, Dariella, Virginia, Marcia, Daniella, Cynthia, and Dinlora, walked around with me wherever I went. When we weren't playing games, we were walking around connected--physically--by friendship. All that these children wanted was to love and be loved.
On arts and crafts day we quickly learned that these students were not interested in coloring or drawing pictures for themselves. Instead they all wrote my name--or the name of another NU student--on the paper and gave it to us "so we would always remember them." Even children I did not know would write my name (spelled "Calsi" as they thought it sounded) on their pictures and give it to me simply because I was sitting near them. And this Cusmapan spirit of giving did not stop here.
As we walked into the Fabretto center on our last day in Cusmapa, we were nearly attacked by the enthusiastic children. Cynthia ran up to me and shoved a black plastic bag into my hands yelling, "Para ti! Para ti!" (For you! For you!). I opened the bag and found three beautiful, juicy mandarins. I looked at her, wondering how this malnourished child who truly has nothing, would give me her food so willingly. I shook my head, and tried to give it back, but grinning ear to ear she insisted that I take the gift. I could tell by her wide, excited eyes how much she wanted me to have this, and was so happy just to give it to me.
Then there was my buddy, Nidel. A curious little athlete, interested in this new game of field hockey, Nidel befriended me on the first day. I quickly found out that he was a natural at my beloved sport, and shared my love and joy of the game. This, in conjunction with his constant sarcasm and joking, made us fast friends. Every day thereafter, Nidel, came to paint with me in the mornings, helping us get the job done, climbing on the windows to get the hard-to-reach places. He made the work easy for me, as I was always laughing when he was around. I taught him several variations of the fist bump, or "pound it" handshake, all of which we would run through every time we saw each other.
Our last afternoon with the kids, Nidel kept telling me that he had a Toy Story coloring book for me, and later he would bring it by our house (Fabretto's volunteer house). That evening I looked outside, hoping to see Nidel or the book he was supposed to leave for me, but to no avail. The next morning we packed up early and drove to the Fabretto Center to drop off the last load of donated equipment. As we got off the bus, I saw a boy walking up the drive, and I knew it was Nidel. As I knelt down to meet him, from under his sweatshirt he pulled out the Toy Story coloring book he had promised. I smiled and thanked him as we did our usual fist bumps one last time. He asked me when I was coming back, to which I sadly told him I hoped next year. He told me he had to go, so I hugged him and said goodbye. As we walked away, I opened the book to find, "Friendship for always, Kelsey and Nidel - friends," written in Spanish on the inside cover. Through tears, I paged through the book, reminded of the joy and love the children gave to me this week.
(Photo by Mark Olalde)