In May 2015, I ventured for my first time outside of the United States to embark on a 3-week study abroad experience throughout Nicaragua. Traveling with the College of Social Work, my group was set to gather insight about the social issues and human rights of the citizens of this developing nation. Through lectures at small, local universities, extensive visits with non-profit organizations, in-home stays with Nicaraguan families, and exploring the historical sites of this country, we were able to develop a greater understanding of Nicaragua and those who work to make this country stronger. It is also important to note that although Nicaragua is a developing country, we were able to identify hardships that affect both Nicaragua and the United States, as well as recognize strengths that Nicaragua holds and the United States lacks. While financial stability and wealth easily defines a country’s success to the rest of the world, the everyday leaders who work to make constant change also shape what makes a poor country strong.
Before this study abroad experience, I was unsure of how capable I was of being put so far outside of my comfort zone, surrounded by individuals speaking a language that I have never known, in an area of the globe that is much less prosperous than the country in which I was born. I have always understood myself to be passionate about the developing world and the experiences of those who are affected by widespread poverty, climate change, and globalism. However, my interest in the issues that affect the individuals in countries such as Nicaragua grew exponentially after meeting so many selfless individuals who work endlessly to provide for the poorest communities of their country.
Aside from being continuously inspired and motivated by the community leaders who work for the betterment of their home country, I was also awed by the resilience of many citizens who faced very difficult circumstances but continued to work to move forward toward a better life. Interactions with individuals of the LGBTQ community, women, pregnant youth, impoverished communities, and HIV/AIDS advocates proved to me that hard times do not have to break you, but rather they can shape your passions, goals, and power. Before traveling to Nicaragua and meeting these strong, resilient, powerful individuals, I might have never considered Nicaragua a place that I could fall in love with. After this experience, I am able to see both: the struggles, economic hardship, and climate effects that have shaped this country, and the everyday leaders who won’t stop working to make change.
Specifically, I found myself very impacted by my experiences during the 3-night home stay. Myself and two other Ohio State students from my group were assigned to stay with a family who was associated with a local university, and I couldn’t believe that I would be living in a home outside of the United States unable to communicate with my host family. I was incredibly anxious, but also thrilled because this was an experience nothing like I had ever previously done, and I was eager to work through the language barrier. Upon meeting our host family, I knew that they would be incredibly patient, welcoming, and interested in our lives as their American students. While the other two Ohio State students had backgrounds in Spanish, they translated basic conversations for me, while I immediately took to our host mother’s granddaughter, Briteny. All of the challenges of being basically non-verbal in this home and sleeping in a 100+ degree room that my body had not yet acclimated to, were nonexistent when I was able to connect with a child so full of life. While our host mother, Sandra, once expressed to us that she understood that we were able to see how poor they were as a family, they were rich because they have family. This is a lesson that I know I will remember as I grow through college and into my own family life in the future.
About a week into our trip, our group visited NicaHope, a children’s foundation that offers programs for the communities that work in and around La Chureca, the Managua city dump. This foundation provides educational programs such as technology classes, as well as trains teenagers to make jewelry and art as well while developing their business skills to sell these pieces. The income that these children earn from selling the jewelry and art pieces exceeds the small amount they earned from collecting recyclables from the dump. Here, these children are able to identify with mentors, and recognize the importance of receiving an education in hopes of eventually emerging from poverty. We were able to visit the dump as well as the small community of houses built by volunteers surrounding La Chureca. It was very difficult to see the realities of these children and families, and try to understand the desperation and systematic poverty that forces families into work such as this. NicaHope is a tremendous project that is changing the lives of children in poverty everyday. Without NicaHope and the Fabretto Children’s Foundation, the effects of widespread poverty would continue to grow and steal away the great potential from these children who are capable of so much more.
As a social work study abroad program, our ultimate goal was to understand the effects of systematic, inescapable poverty, and learn about the programs and individuals who are providing services to combat issues of poverty. While HIV/AIDS awareness is lacking greatly and the stigma is enormous in the United States, it is decades behind in Nicaragua. ANICP + SIDA is an organization that supplies individuals with HIV/AIDS with medications, works to give out condoms to the youth and public, holds support groups for those who are fighting this disease as well as families who are coping with the deaths of their loved ones who lost their battle, and spreads awareness and education for HIV/AIDS. The director of this organization told us of his story, and how while he was fighting for democracy for Nicaragua, he lost blood on the battle field and received a contaminated blood transfusion from his friend in an attempt to save his life. He was not aware that he was HIV positive, and lost his wife and daughter to AIDS after transmitting the disease unknowingly. While listening to his story and feeling numb to the fact that these were his realities, I couldn’t look past the strength and resilience that now defined him. Being able to find your passion after such incredible hardships, and working through the strong stigma surrounding him and his efforts, is a story of power.
After returning from this study abroad experience, I found myself unable to explain what I had seen and done, whom I had met, and what I had learned to anyone back in the United States. I felt that there were no words that I could use to explain how life-changing my experience truly was, and in no way could they understand the impact that Nicaragua will forever play in my life. While I tried, and spoke of my travels constantly, I know that in order to do the most justice to everything I experienced in Nicaragua, I need to utilize what I learned there in my daily life and professional future. As a future Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I am passionate about the therapeutic healthcare for children with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities. In Nicaragua, we were able to visit La Mascota children’s hospital as well as Cafe’ de las Sonrisas, a hammock workshop/restaurant that is one of the only job opportunities for youth with disabilities (mostly deaf and blind) in the area. Because of these experiences, it was made clear to me that throughout the world, awareness, understanding, adequate transportation and healthcare are not available for people with disabilities. As a Disabilities Studies minor, I was very aware of this fact before my adventures in Nicaragua, but after seeing the issues that persons with disabilities face in Nicaragua, I am firmly responsible for making a change in any way I can as a student, advocate, and citizen of the world.
A sign at the Cafe’ de las Sonrisas restaruant that provided customers with general sign language words and phrases so to eliminate the language barrier between deaf workers and customers.