Local Church Group Builds Houses in Nicaragua
18 Jul, 2014
By Loop Contributor
Submitted by Linnet Tse
Using little more than shovels and trowels, a 20-person group from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Larchmont constructed two cinder-block houses in just under a week in the impoverished Nicaraguan community of Campuzano. But the trip was not just about building houses. As the volunteers toiled in the hot sun alongside local masons and villagers, they formed tentative new friendships. Amidst broken Spanish and English, and a lot of smiles and gestures, volunteers and locals both gained a new appreciation for each other’s cultures.
It was the ninth consecutive year that members and friends of St. John’s partnered with Bridges to Community, an international non-profit community development organization based in Ossining, NY, to travel to Nicaragua on a building and cultural exchange trip. Bridges to Community, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013, focusses on housing, medical, education, and economic development projects in poverty-stricken areas of Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Its two-part mission is “to improve the lives of impoverished communities in developing countries through volunteer service trips, and to simultaneously educate and transform those volunteers to be more aware of the connections we all share and the ways we can all impact our lives for the better.”
This year, the St. John’s group included a mixture of students and adults, veterans and first-timers, and friends and family members from as far afield as London, Virginia and California. The volunteers were assigned to Campuzano, a small rural community just outside of Managua. Many of its 261 families live in extreme poverty, often in houses constructed of scrap wood, rusted tin roofs, and dirt floors.
During the week-long trip, volunteers lived in the community in rudimentary conditions, without running water, using bucket showers and latrines. They ate food that was prepared by local cooks, consisting primarily of rice and beans, the local staples. Volunteers also gathered for a daily “reflection,” a time to consider and share their experience and observations. The reflections are an important part of the Bridges program, as are interactions with the local community, both on and off the worksite. Volunteers enjoyed informal conversations with the beneficiary families and daily pick-up soccer games with the masons and locals. To the delight of all the volunteers, the young local children were always eager to play.
It doesn’t take long for first-time volunteers to figure out why Bridges runs these trips. As high school sophomore Kimberly Ellis, a Scarsdale resident, expressed, “I came to Nicaragua not knowing what to expect and it was better than I ever could have imagined! Everyone was so grateful for the bit of help we brought to their community.”
Another first-timer, Greg Steinmetz, a 52-year-old securities analyst from Larchmont who went with his 15 year-old son Axel, summed up his experience: “One day I found myself covered in sweat and concrete dust, hauling yet another wheel barrow full of gravel, when I thought to myself, ‘I’m having the time of my life.’ I guess it was the combination of being far away from everything while at the same time being engaged in a common cause with people I liked and doing something completely different in an exotic location.”
The volunteers completed the week with a great sense of accomplishment and developed tremendous admiration for the Nicaraguan people with whom they lived and worked. As recent New Rochelle High School graduate Hira Shahbaz marveled, “even though they had little material possessions to boast of, they seemed more fulfilled than us and not as weighed down by worldly affairs.”
All volunteers were impacted by their experience and shared the sense that they had benefitted more from the experience than they had given. Many hope to return. Why? According to Larchmont resident Paul Cantwell, who has been on multiple trips with his son Simon and daughter Freya, “we came down the first time to do some good, but every other time has been just because it is so much fun! Hard work, good company, new experiences, tasty food, great scenery and time with the kids, it is hard to get that any other way.”
In the end, Bridges’ goal is for its projects and experiences to be sustainable, not just for the beneficiary communities, but for the volunteers as well. Bridges hopes that the trip experiences will make a lasting impression and cause participants to think more deeply about cultural connections and humanitarian issues.
First-time volunteer George Dalton, a Larchmont attorney who made the trip with his wife Ellen, captured the Bridges spirit as he reflected, “it makes our world more meaningful and not so intimidating to understand different cultures because, for me, it always reaffirms that we are not so different and all strive for the same goodness in life – family, health and happiness. It may take different forms but those fundamentals seem constant.”
Until next year!
Trip participants: Freya Cantwell, Paul Cantwell, Simon Cantwell, Ellen Dalton, George Dalton, Elizabeth Ellis, Kimberly Ellis, Keiley McCarthy, Megan McCarthy, Shannon Roper, Gillian Rosh, Robin Rosh, Hira Shahbaz, Harry Sober, Axel Steinmetz, Greg Steinmetz, Carly Strauss, Josh Strauss, Toby Strauss, and Linnet Tse. More information on Bridges to Community may be found on their website: http://www.bridgestocommunity.org/.