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Summer Suggestion: Vacation with a Mission

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2011, I was wrapping up a three-year tour as development director at the nonprofit high school I had attended, Saint Joseph Regional in Montvale, New Jersey. It was a longer tour than planned; what was supposed to be a quick career move to a higher post had taken on a life of its own through mentoring, creating new charity programs, building a community presence, and working side-by-side with individuals who had once been teachers and had remained inspirational figures.

The passage of time in a job occupied long enough is, like the tolling of years for a family, bittersweet. While the self-named “Dream Team” of some of the school’s most dedicated students celebrated college acceptances, award-winning yearbooks and theatrical performances, the school also said goodbye to long-time faculty members at retirement parties and within a few months, at funerals. While the next generation showed hopeful promise, we buried the heroes of our collective past.

Alongside the students in their most formative years, I too grew up.

Vermont Law School was the next step from the first day the law school’s Admissions department sent a course catalog, detailing upper level courses dedicated solely to sustainable land use, preservation of our nation’s waters, the survival of endangered species, and new solutions for clean power. VLS, with its reputation and rank as the #1 environmental law school, draws a global student population to a small New England village half a century distant from its agribusiness glory days.

But various shocks – academic, social, and cultural – would accompany the journey north.

So with the support and encouragement of the Saint Joseph Regional High School guidance department, its principal and my boss, and alumni, I took other leaps that prelaw summer. The most significant of these came in the form of a parting gift, sponsorship by Saint Joe’s to travel to Nicaragua with a group of alumni to work on a school build in El Cacao. The Seeds of Learning school-build concluded a two-year Container Drive program at the high school. During the program, which was run by alumni and volunteers from the student body, more than 250 boxes of relief goods were gathered, sorted, and sent via container crates to schools and orphanages throughout Nicaragua.

The trip was many things for its scribe. A chance to leave the familiar view from the back doorstep. The beginning of a lifelong dedication to traveling once a summer with a mission purpose. A chance to learn of the struggles outside of the American educational system.

Emily Dickinson once wrote: “The world is too much with us.” In law school, the emphasis could be placed on the line’s final word, “us.” We students focus too much inwardly, entangled in webs of competition, fear of loan repayment, social drama. These reflections followed a trip to Nicaragua in 2011, which has kept me grounded in law school. A service trip, completely unaffiliated with professional development, can be good karma. It can remind of the mission, and of the fact that justice, beyond all borders, is a human entitlement.

Standing apart from the shy 10-to-14 year old children gathered in a small, one room schoolhouse in the hills outside of Cuidad Dario, a young girl hazarded an answer to the first question posed by the gringo outsiders.

As part of an exercise in cultural sharing between the United States and Nicaragua, between the first and third world, the American volunteers asked the young students “What’s your favorite thing about your country?”

The girl waited for a teacher-assisted translation into her native Spanish, reflected for a moment, and replied with a confident smile “la escuela.”

Saint Joe’s Alumni Jim Burns ’67, Chris Burns ’07, myself and eleven other volunteers took our malaria medicine and left the United States for uncertain plumbing, undrinkable tap water, mosquito netting, rooster-alarm-clocks at sunrise, and the heat and humidity of the Nicaraguan rainy season.

We were many things – laborers, backpackers, adventurers riding on the gates of pickup trucks and drinking mysterious brown liquids made of cocoa and corn, and teachers.

Most of all, we were students.

We learned humility as we acquiesced to the leadership of site manager Dimas and the children who arrived at the worksite in rural El Cacao each day, sometimes on horseback, always neatly dressed in white and blue school uniforms, to work side-by-side on a project that would give them a chance to attend school past the 8th Grade.

The students were eager and proud to show their American counterparts the right way to dig foundations, mix mezcla, twist rebar for the school’s earthquake resistant columns, soak bricks, and lay them in rows with handmade cement.

But as host and Seeds of Learning founder Patricio Rickon told us, the mission of the week-long trip was not just to help purchase materials and erect the three-room high school.

“People always ask me “’Have I done enough?,’” recalled Patricio the night before we began our daily expeditions to the site, “And I ask them back ‘Have you learned the names of the neighbors? Have you played soccer with the kids? Have you shared a piece of food with one of the workers? It’s not just about how hard you work. We are here to work together.’”

We learned this and other wisdom from Patricio, an ex-patriot of the United States who visited Nicaragua in the late 1980s as a translator, fell in love with a plighted people and his wife, and never looked back. Today, the couple raises their two teenage sons, who are dual citizens, in Dario. Patricio serves as program director, spokesman, guide, and more for Seeds of Learning and its small staff of educators. He is the cultural bridge between two worlds, and, as one who keeps his groups’ travel itineraries in his own worn notebook, routinely keeps up on e-mails from the Consul General, lifts the hoods of fleet vehicles to check their engines, and can negotiate the special dinner needs of visitors in perfect Spanish, he is also a shining example of how a global nonprofit should be run: transparent, deeply rooted in its past, and eyeing its future.

“Even an ambitious, academically-gifted student couldn’t just leave Nicaragua to study in another country like the United States,” Pat said one day on the worksite. “She wouldn’t be ready with a high school education. The level of work would be overwhelming. We are trying to break a cycle by supporting the country’s school system. It may take more than one generation, but we are hoping to turn things around.”

One of Seeds of Learning’s major moves forward is the SOL Learning Center in Dario, which supplements public and private schooling options with instruction in the trades and a vibrant arts program. The SOL library contains more than 3,500 books available for research by students from the lower grades through University, as well as a technology center with Internet access being used, among other things, to communicate with international sister schools. Older students, on scholarships to provide for their clothes and school supplies, work as interns to learn the use of SOL’s growing academic resources.

They take what they learn with them into their homes, many in barrios, isolated urban districts, or campos, farm communities.

It was with Patricio and our group leader, Nyack, New York-based accountant Bill Paolino, while bonding in sweat equity, cramming in the back of a rickety Toyota Land Cruiser, and savoring nightly meals of beans and rice, fish from the Pacific Coast, and fried plantains, that we learned the greatest lesson of all: gratitude.

The systemic ills of poverty cannot be easily treated.

As we showed pictures from our homes and played Frisbee and futbol with the children, Pat reminded us not to give away toys and gifts, which leads to schoolyard bullying and nurtures a sense of paternalism from the first world. The same lesson applied to our day in the Massaya mercado, where shoe-shiners, palm-shapers, bootleg DVD merchants and a child trying to sell homemade honey all descended upon us.

“We try to encourage groups to not just empty their pockets of spare change when asked, because when they leave, who is left to provide for people who cannot provide for themselves?,” Pat said. “Whenever possible, SOL tries to give people a hand up, instead of giving hand-outs.”

Officially registered as the “New York City Group,” our mission team was diverse, hailing from post-Katrina New Orleans, the Midwest, North Carolina, and Manhattan’s Bergen and Rockland county suburbs. We had among our ranks teenagers who will write about the experience during the college application process, and adult professionals who believed deeply in getting their hands dirty and exposing their own children to vacations memorable not for their luxuries, but for the impact they make on the lives of others.

Although we took many medicines, there is no prescription that can be written for exposure to Central America’s second poorest nation, a place where desperate storefronts selling soda and cerveza spring from the backs of houses, where the handful of wealthy isolate themselves on islands and behind wrought iron gates, where open, generous people with a sincere desire to work face weak or nonexistent infrastructure, lack of opportunities, and lingering economic exploitation by developed nations.

But Patricio and the several groups that visit his dream each summer, whether bound together by geography, familial ties, or matching t-shirts, share a common purpose in helping to improve the outlook of Nicaragua and its next generation, one lesson at a time.

Seeds of Learning forms work groups in Nicaragua, as well as El Salvador, each summer. For more information, contact work group director Dan Plies atpliessol@gmail.com or solnica@seedsoflearning.org

Nicaragua SOL Trip_Photo 01 Nicaragua SOL Trip_Photo 02 Nicaragua SOL Trip_Photo 03 Nicaragua SOL Trip_Photo 04

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