By Carissa Chen
“On April 24, 2013 I went to Nicaragua,” I wrote in my journal.
A friend I made in Nicaragua told me this was the most important thing to write down — the day, the year and where I went. Despite being an award-winning teacher in Colorado, he explained to me that experiences like the one I was embarking on were more memorable than any award, plaque or promotion.
Sixteen of us traveled to Nicaragua to beautify the grounds of an after-school house Club Hope and hold a two-day camp for children. The effort was through the nonprofit Love Light & Melody which serves communities in need by amplifying their stories of social and cultural injustices through networking and documentaries and inspires hope through art, music and athletics. I only knew two people on the team and at age 19, I was the youngest person by a few years.
My team spent most of our time in La Chureca, a trash dump community in Managua where more than 250 families have lived for the past 40 years. As part of a development project started by the Spanish government in 2007 the families were relocated into houses outside of the trash dump. Although the neighborhood may not be considered beautiful, days are looking brighter for La Churecans.
Families who were used to sleeping on the dirt floor under tin roofs now sleep on twin beds that lie on concrete floors. I met families undergoing the transformations of the development project that are beginning to enjoy their new neighborhood. While it appears that most are happy about the housing changes, others still try to make their living in the dump by scavenging through the trash. Some families did not receive a home because they were not present for the 2007 census.
I also saw another trash dump community starting to form. Tipitapa is a neighborhood on its way to becoming what La Chureca once was. Children play in the trash while their parents scavenge for food, supplies and “valuable” materials such as plastics and scrap metals.
I encountered much juxtaposition while in Nicaragua. Quite different from the trash dwellers in La Chureca and Tipitapa, I also saw the Gran Pacifica Golf and Beach Resort and enjoyed the sun out on the beautiful black sand beach. I saw American families with children who wear uniforms and go to private school. Yet I had children approach me to beg for money and the silver necklace I wore. I walked into homes filled with sadness and met a 12-year-old girl whose mom puts her up for child prostitution.
Out of the many conflicting things I witnessed, the most important thing I took away from my trip came from the children of La Chureca. While these girls and boys lack wealth in terms of money and physical goods, they are rich in the endless amount of love they are able to give to strangers.
On the first day of the camp we put on for the children, I walked into a room full of 30 girls with bright eyes and eager to learn how to dance. Within the first five minutes I felt completely adored by them, more than I have ever felt in my life. Never have I felt such overwhelming and overpowering love — not from my family, friends, a boyfriend or other students.
I began with a warm up and a stretch as the girls gave me their bright eyes and undivided attention. I taught pirouettes and classical ballet and in exchange, the girls taught me how to shake my hips like Shakira. I led a dance class with as much confidence a teacher could have without being able to verbally communicate and in return the girls taught me how to be humble and fearless.
For the first time I forced myself to be in a place and time completely out of my comfort zone. The kids of Nicaragua showed me how to become present in the day, live in the moment and embrace the discomfort that could have kept me from witnessing and feeling the love and hope I felt throughout the trip.
I became immersed in the life and the relationships cultivated in Nicaragua. I didn’t mind sweating every minute of the day in the sweltering weather or having dirt on my face and wearing the same smelly clothes everyday. I didn’t miss my regular smell of perfume or the nice things I had back home.
The discomfort of the poverty and brokenness I saw still remains heavy. The physical materials I have are worth more than what the children of La Chureca have, but I could never put a price or a weighted value on the love and the relationships made in that short week. It was truly the first time I have witnessed so much selflessness in one place and the feelings are ineffable.
On the flight home from Nicaragua, I realized my week-long trip was the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done in my life — more so than my confirmation into the Catholic Church, more than graduating high school or getting into college.
Ironically, in the weeks leading up to the trip I happily and ignorantly smiled as I told people I was about to go on an amazing, life-changing adventure. However, the night before I left, I had nothing short of a panic attack. I felt like I did not want to go at all.
I was scared to go to a place where I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t understand how I could make a difference in the second poorest place in the Western hemisphere. Thoughts such as “How can one week of my effort affect those who have been living in poverty for years?” raced through my head.
However, in reliving the memories of my trip, I can only look forward to the time I have the honor to step back into the classroom of Club Hope and see the smiling faces that taught me so much.
Carissa Chen is a junior at the University of Colorado studying news-editorial and computer science. Her greatest passions are writing and dancing. She dances for a professional company in Boulder, is a company director to a children’s competitive dance team, writes for the Coloradan magazine and continues to serve as an intern for Love Light & Melody. She hopes to travel with them to Nicaragua again soon.