Besides the travel logistics, a service learning trip requires a lot of time and in-depth discussions to prepare the students for the experiences that may await them in the destination. One of such sessions was held by Rebecca Fitzgerald from our International Department. With the students, Rebecca explored a variety of impressions that they may gain and be left with to digest upon arrival and throughout their stay. She also introduced the concept of reverse culture shock upon returning home, which can be equally as, if not more intense, and she provided some strategies for coping mechanisms. As it was a service learning trip, we inquired with the local project manager if and which items would be needed. We knew that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, so we knew resources were scarce. The students were taught not to assume what one needed, but to ask. School supplies were on the list, as well as sunglasses for workers in the tourism industry who worked outside, optical glasses (little mishap: my brand new progressive glasses got inadvertently swept up in our donation bin, along with a bunch of my old ones, which was slightly inconvenient as I went on this trip wondering where they had gone ... I swear my arms grew a couple of inches longer on that trip!). Another big learning curve for the students was when we discussed the absence of a proper local waste management. We removed all the excess packaging and anything that could land on the side of the road somewhere and put it in the recycling bin.
We hadn't even left the airport yet when one of the students had already figured out that I love signs. I love taking pictures too, in case you hadn't noticed ... ;) I will write a bit more about our residence for two weeks, Monty's Beach Lodge in Jiquilillo, Nicaragua.
Some of the local projects include a language school for children, built in a former shipping container, a Health Centre that is visited by a nurse once a week, and a community centre that offers English for adults, for moms while their kids are in school, or for those who don't have kids, after they come home from work. One of the projects that was started was a small spa operation, for which we had brought supplies so that they could establish themselves first, before they could then replenish with their earnings. The main project we were involved in was fundraising and building a house (in our case, we were clearing the field for a future house). The entire point of all the support efforts was to give locals a chance to cover the basics like food, health and shelter, so that they could focus on learning and building a career that they can move on from. The start for them in Jiquilillo was in tourism and hospitality service jobs. Hence the English lessons, the spa project, and the skills workers would obtain working at the lodge front and back-of-house, such as housekeeping, cooking, reservations and guest services.
One Sunday, the Sport Management students who were part of our group, organized a family day. We had brought sports equipment (baseball bats, gloves, balls) and lots of games and crafting supplies, and we did nothing but play all day. It was wonderful to see the dads for the first time. They usually leave home early in the morning for work in Chinandega, and come home late at night, so they were never around when we interacted with the community. Besides discovering how much fun baseball is, the big learning curve for them was that girls can play baseball too and win! :) We had also served hot dogs and juice during that day. Once the kids were all fed, we invited the adults to join in. It speaks volumes about how much they loved baseball that after four or five times of trying to invite them to come eat (we are talking families who don't always have food on the table every day!) we had to pack the hot dogs in buckets and bring it to them to third base! Needless to say we left the baseball equipment with the local community manager and have heard that since then, they have kept up the tradition of Sunday = family day!
The housing project was a phenomenal success. On our first service learning trip the year prior, Humber students had started to build the first of what would eventually add up to 30 houses! Even though our second group fundraised for another house prior to coming here (the Nicaraguan government matches it evenly) we first needed to clear the field for the next 30 houses, and so instead of laying bricks or cinder blocks, we got the machetes out (students with machetes??? you ask?) and started hacking way in 38 degrees muggy heat. The locals who get one of those houses have to contribute with a certain number of hours in the building of their house, and with the house, they receive a chicken coup with a rooster and three hens, as well as a latrine toilet. We held evening circles on one of the yoga decks every other night where we exchanged thoughts and ideas. We needed to ensure that the students were processing their impressions from their experiences well. The circles provided them with a safe space to express their thoughts, feelings and confusion, and to ask questions. The talks were very raw and emotional even for us teachers. We learned along our students and from our students just as much!
The experience in El Limonal was most likely the most profound on all of us. El Limonal is the area in the city of Chinandega that is ridden by extreme poverty. Gerry, the lodge owner who always came along on trips to provide our students with the proper learning experience, explained to us that it is called it the Death Triangle - on one side there is a cemetery, on the other side the sewage system (which is not much of a system but a heavy flow of very dirty water), and on the third side the garbage dump. People literally live in the garbage dump, which they had moved to after Hurricane Mitch destroyed the entire coastline of Nicaragua in 1998. Housing projects tried to disperse them to better neighbourhoods, but it turned out that those who had won the housing lottery eventually returned to El Limonal - why? Because their entire support system was still here! Family, friends, people who they had relied on, and who had relied on them. To date, they make money trying to find metals in the garbage to sell. Monty's had set up a soup kitchen here that was entirely funded by lodge guests. The point of the soup kitchen was not to give handouts. Research has shown that kids who are malnourished under the age of five lag behind in intellectual development and will never really catch up in school compared to other kids. The point was to ensure that kids had a warm nutritious meal as often as possible, and thus our students had purchased groceries and prepared a meal for them.
The concept of Monty's Beach Lodge is to benefit the community with 100% of its operations. Locals run the lodge, learn hospitality skills (that they are welcome to further at different properties elsewhere if they so choose), and they live on the premises, and get three meals a day and a stipend for their work, which is a huge privilege in the community. The food is purchased locally, and all proceeds go into funding the above mentioned projects. Tourists are welcome to do nothing but enjoy the magnificent beach, play volleyball, learn surfing, go horseback riding, do yoga, relax in the hammocks, or go on locally operated excursions like volcano sand boarding or explore nearby colonial cities like Leon and Granada. If they wish, they can volunteer in the community as needed and directed by the local project manager, and/or they can sponsor a lunch in El Limonal.