It was Tuesday morning and I was standing in the parking lot of the college, talking to my friend Lynn. I had just returned from spending a week in Nicaragua with an organization called Seeds of Learning. We'd organized a group of high school students to travel to this poor country in Central America to participate in the building of a school. As a teacher, I'm keenly aware of the importance of education. As a parent, I understand the value of learning by doing and as a passionate social worker, I'm invested in trying to change the world. I get excited about witnessing the transformation that happens when people connect their heart with their head, and there's no better way to do that than with our hands.
I found myself talking a mile a minute to my friend, sharing different snapshots of the week. We'd been working in a small community outside the town of Matagalpa, building a classroom addition to an existing two room school that was over crowded, forcing the children of the community to go to school in shifts. Because of the lack of space, the younger children (grades K - 2) attended in the morning while the upper grades, 3 - 6, came to school in the afternoons. This schedule resulted in a mere 4 hours of school instruction each day. At first glance, the community seemed less needy than the one we had worked with the previous year. The existing building, while clearly too small for the number of students, was at least a solid structure, made of brick and concrete. Also true, however, was the lack of bathrooms, running water and kitchen facilities in which to make lunches for the many students that came to school each day. Surely these children deserved more.
I peeked in on the second grade as they worked with their teacher. Despite the difference in language, the sound of the children's voices sounded strangely familiar. Voices in unison, repeating the lessons aloud. Their teacher coaxing, encouraging, correcting. The students in our group noticed too. As the bright brown eyes of the young children met their gaze, they smiled in connection with their Nicaraguan counterparts. During recess, after the children ate their lunch of rice and beans, a whiffle ball game broke out. As the children took turns batting and chasing down balls in the neighboring field, our students, who had been raised on the competitive playgrounds of the US, commented on their cooperative spirit.
The similarity was noted in a conversation on the way back from the worksite that first day. How random it was, one of the students noted, that they had been born in the US, while these beautiful children were pinoleros, Nicaraguans. They were just children, after all, children just like them. Didn't they deserve the same opportunities? Didn't we all?
We visited a small artesania, a jewelry making cooperative run by women in a nearby community. The women spoke to us of their dreams; of going to college and getting an education, but oppportunities are scarce in the communities of rural Nicaragua, and their dream of education would not be realized. Instead, the women formed a cooperative where they make beautiful seed jewelry, utilizing the natural resources available all around them. The jewelry sales will provide important resources like food and clothing for their families, resources that are in short supply.
A visit to a small chocolate producer introduced the students to the concept of fair trade. Fair trade, the gentleman explained, occurs when the entire system shares the resources earned in production, from the growers, to the workers, to the final producers of the product. In fair trade, working conditions were fair and just, a concept that was reinforced as we drove past the windowless sweat shops outside the city of Managua.
One day, in the back of the pickup truck that we rode to and from the worksite, a conversation broke out about Peace Corps. The students had met a Peace Corps volunteer on their first day in the community and they we curious about the program. What did it entail? Where could you go? And what could you do? Having applied myself when I was just a few years beyond their age, I shared my experience with them and my ultimate decision to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, to live for a year in Montana, living in community and working to make a difference in the lives of others. It was an experience that changed the course of my life.
Which brings me back to the parking lot and Lynn, one of six roommates that shared that experience with me over 30 years ago. She'd just come to talk to my college students about the course of her career and in doing so had shared with them about our time as volunteers, the time, as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps likes to say, when we were "ruined for life".
The students might not know it yet, but they had just been "ruined" too. With a little luck, they will never forget their time in Nicaragua. A time when they were given the opportunity to learn lessons that could not be learned in the classroom. Lessons that could only be learned by doing for others.