Many people in my life have traveled to other countries, and I have had the opportunity to hear many of their wonderful stories hoping someday I would be able to do the same. This past winter, was my first time leaving the country. It wasn’t to lay out at the beach or to indulge in myself, as much as they sounded great.
Instead, it was to encourage the importance of education and to get children excited about learning. I’d never done a lot of volunteering at home, just the occasional project. For me to pick up and fly to the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere to dedicate a week of my life to volunteer work seemed like a foreign concept to me. I had no idea what to expect, what the people would be like, or how the culture would be–all I know is that I wanted to go. And that was enough.
The Start to the Change
On New Year’s Day of 2016, I packed up my belongings from my home in Illinois and flew down to Nicaragua. Two of my friends from school were our team leaders and coordinated the entire trip. This was their third year on this trip, so I had no problem trusting in their ability to get us there. Our first day we spent gathering up our group from the airport, and groups from other colleges. Being in an airport all day wasn’t really the first impression I was thinking of when landing in Central America, but I can’t complain too much about something that was out of my hands. Finally, after waiting for what seemed like days, we hopped on a school bus and made the three hour drive from Managua to Jinotega–“the city of mists.”
What would unfold that week was something I could have never imagined. I had seen so many of my friend’s pictures of the kids he taught from previous years and the beautiful city and the amazing food. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine myself there, and suddenly I was.
On Monday, we started teaching, and of course I was nervous about it all, but at the end of the day you’re not there for yourself–you’re there to teach these wonderful kids. Our days were broken up into morning and afternoon sessions, and on the first day we barely had 15 kids show up. And since we also had four stations going, there were only about three to four kids per group which made for an easy first session.
The following afternoon we had almost 50 kids show up. And for the remainder of the week, we continued to have only a few kids in the morning and then a flood in the afternoon. The one thing I remember the most about my trip was turning the corner into the neighborhood where we taught at and we could see the pile of children waiting for us. Their faces were always lit up with smiles and many of them would wave at us while we pulled up in our giant school bus. And the same thing would happen when we left every morning and afternoon session. They would run after the bus, waving and smiling and it really brought smiles to all of our faces. One of the days, a couple of the kids even jumped on the back of the bus, trying to be funny, but it really spoke measures about their feelings towards us.
How I Grew
By the end of the week we sat down for a closing meeting. We were told early in the week that our group of kids rarely saw volunteers, but it was never really stressed to us how rare until that meeting. The kids in that neighborhood hadn’t seen volunteers in over a year and a half. They were not used to seeing regular volunteers like some of the kids in other neighborhoods. We were told that it was a privilege to be able to teach these kids because we could encourage their love for learning or inspire new kids to learn English in the future. For me, it felt special to be able to talk to these kids in the prime age of learning a new language. I can only hope that at least one of them felt inspired to continue learning.
Ultimately, I learned a few things about volunteering in another country that helped me grow as a person:
- Enough is enough. I learned that what people in Nicaragua think is enough for them, may not be enough for us in the U.S., but they are satisfied and happy with what they have. Most houses we saw were very basic and many people in the U.S. may look at that and think of poverty. The truth is, though, these people don’t think of it like that. They don’t see their situation as being poor because they work for everything they have. They work hard to have every piece of clothing in their closets, every meal, and every dollar in their pocket. They’re also very resourceful and don’t waste a single thing. This is something that I’ve put into perspective and now consider when going through my daily life.
- I truly am lucky. I was reminded of how good my life is. I have lots of clothes, I have a job to support my bills, and I’m able to get an awesome education at a big university. Sometimes I still feel like I have too much stuff, when people in Nicaragua live off of one or two dollars and are still happy. Since returning to the U.S. I try to avoid complaining about trivial things. I try not to focus on materialistic things or clothing brands or the car I drive or the shoes I wear. Of course it’s nice to own expensive things, but that’s not what life is about. It’s about being able to appreciate the things you own because some people do have less.
- New cultures bring new perspectives. Being in a new country only means the introduction of an entirely new culture. There’s no comparing the culture of Nicaragua to the U.S. It really brings a new perspective and encourages me to think about things differently. It’s easy to be narrow minded when living in the U.S. It’s easy to think that the rest of the world functions like we do. Fortunately, the world doesn’t, and that’s what makes this life amazing. It’s amazing to be given the chance to be a bit more worldly and expand my horizons a little bit more. It makes me really respect the new culture I got to endure. For example, life is not as serious down there as it is in the U.S. People work to sustain themselves, but they make their own hours and it’s acceptable to take breaks mid-day. Children don’t go to school all day because it’s expected of them to work with their parents. Just things like that opened my mind up a bit more.
So why did I go on a volunteer trip in the first place?
Prior to visiting Nicaragua, I had no clue why I wanted to go. Since my visit, I really discovered why I became interested in the trip in the first place. I wanted to go not only for the experience, but because I had been yearning to connect with new people and new adventures and new cultures and ultimately, find a passion for volunteering. I have always wanted to be more actively involved with volunteer projects, so I believed that if I opened myself up to new opportunities that I would begin to follow my aspiration of volunteering more. In a way, it has. Although, it isn’t always easy finding time in college, it has opened me up to joining a volunteer club and even landing an internship with a non-profit organization.
I would tell anyone who is considering a volunteer trip to go. There are worlds that exist outside of the U.S. that are very different from our own that you can only experience by volunteering in these beautiful, less-touristy cities. I would have still been stuck in my own little bubble had I never visited Nicaragua and I’m grateful for the opportunity that was given to me. Finally, I hope that every child I met is able to go on and learn English in the future. And if I’m ever given this same opportunity in the future, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would go again.