Entering the small village of San Benito, dust billows around our van crammed with volunteers, blowing into the windows and clouding the view. I had grown accustomed to the dirt, the heat, and the smells. All of these had become part of my journey, having left American luxuries far behind. My eyes grew round and not one of us in the van uttered a word as we slowly made our way through the village, over potholes, ruts and divots in the unpaved road. Village members slowly peered from windows and doors of their primitive, one room homes to see who had arrived. A woman stops sweeping her dirt floor to smile and wave. Children of all ages run towards the moving vehicle, laughing and yelling to our van as if we were long lost friends returning from an extended absence.
We park and exit the van at a community center in the heart of the village. Adults and children approach us with a smile and a friendly “Hola!” A young girl, around the age of five with a dirt-smudged face and beautiful brown eyes, takes my hand and leads me over to see where she has been playing in a small corner of a patio in front of the building. We quickly sit down and she excitedly speaks to me in Spanish. I can only imagine what she is saying and a wave of regret comes over me as I wish I had studied a little harder in my high school Spanish classes many years ago. I smile and respond, “Yo solo hablo un poco de español. Lo siento, amiga…”, one of the few Spanish pharses I remembered. She frowns and nods. I can see she is disappointed but we continue to play with her old and broken doll and stones she had gathered. All of a sudden, she smiles up at me and takes my hand. In this moment, I know this was where I am meant to be. This is just what this small girl needs. My time, my love, my smile. This journey into the small village of San Benito, Nicaragua, had already left an imprint on my heart that would change my life.
That day was filled with playing, serving meals of rice and beans and home visits. Once news had spread that our group had arrived, adults and children filed into the building from long hours of farming and gathering water. Some children still wore uniforms from their afternoon school sessions but many had been working in the fields or home with their parents instead. With Nicaragua being the second poorest country in Latin America with close to half of the population living in rural areas such as this small village, school is a rare privilege. While attending is free, many families are unable to afford uniforms and school materials.
The daily life of these children consists of carrying large buckets of water, cooking and cleaning, and caring for younger siblings and relatives. I quickly realized our arrival had given the children a reprieve from their day to day responsibilities. As a teacher and a mother, I thought of my own children and students, how they often complained of boredom at school, showed a lack of effort at times, and claimed to dislike teachers and so on. I wonder to myself if, when I return, it would even be possible to explain what I had seen in the eyes of the Nicaraguan children that day. Many would give anything to be in a classroom or even have access to a book.
After we cleaned up lunch service, our group made our way by foot down a rugged trail leading to nearby homes made of scrap metal, mud, and wood. The sheer primitiveness of where these families were living, brought tears to my eyes and a feeling of near embarrassment when I thought of my own home. I asked myself, “How is it right or fair that this is the life that has been handed to these individuals while I would soon be home in a culture now seeming excessive and overindulgent?” A perspective long overdue for me. I promised myself I would not forget how I felt in that moment, to reflect on what is really necessary and what is not. Do I even dare to question my own trips to coffee shops and the mall? I knew it was time. Even more importantly, I felt a strong sense of my own need to continue to do something, no matter how small, to give and serve in whatever ways possible throughout my life and to bring awareness to the reality of poverty in this area and others.
Our home visits were filled with checking in on village members who recently faced difficult times such as medical issues, robberies, abuse, and lack of food, all related to severe poverty. Over time, non-profit organizations in the area had worked to build relationships allowing for resources to be shared, such as medical treatment, food, and family education with the mission of improving the quality of life for all. With my own background in Public Health and Education, ideas flooded my mind… outreach, educational, and children’s health programs…I need to be here, I thought to myself. I need to continue to be a part of the growth and improvement of this area and others like it around the world. I couldn’t help but think of how this would play out in my life in the future, asking myself how can I make this type of service an ongoing part of my life and, once I’m home again, how do I communicate with others what I’ve experienced to inspire them to see the world in the way I had. In that moment, I wasn’t sure of how to answer these questions but I did know I had a lot to learn.