Janelle Nodhturft didn't feel right just lounging on the beach in Rio de Janeiro among Brazil’s elite society while just a few miles away so many of the country’s people were living in squalor.
Knowing she was surrounded by such stark contrasts, the Bucknell University alumna felt compelled to do more on her vacation this month in Uruguay and Brazil. So she arranged to visit the favelas – the infamous shanty towns where about 20 percent of the population of Rio de Janeiro lives.
"I didn't want to spend the entirety of my time in Rio enjoying the tourist attractions, the beach and the comfortable privileges that aren't a reality for so many people," said Nodhturft, Class of ’07. "There is a really large split in the way privileged people live and the way people live in the conditions of the slums."
Now pursuing a master's degree in international peace and conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C., Nodhturft has remained rooted in a social consciousness she developed during her years at Bucknell. She began to build that foundation as a first-year student in 2004, when she joined the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, a biannual service-learning trip. She returned to Nicaragua as a student leader in 2007, solidifying her drive to help those less fortunate than herself. Like many of the 434 other Brigade alumni, she said her experiences in Nicaragua shaped her ways of thinking about the world.
In October, the Bucknell Brigade will mark the 10th anniversary of an effort to build a sustainable way of life for residents of Nueva Vida, a resettlement community formed after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The storm killed thousands and displaced thousands more living along Lake Managua. About 10,000 survivors settled in Nueva Vida.
Bucknell alumna Jamie Cistoldi Lee, who had spent a previous semester in Nicaragua, worked with the Hispanic student group Cumbre to collect donations for hurricane survivors, said Janice Butler, director of the Office of Service Learning. Lee, Class of ’99, later proposed a brigade to LaVonne Poteet, an associate professor of Latin American studies, and former University Chaplain the Rev. Ian Oliver.
The first brigade traveled to Nicaragua in March 1999. Since then, students, faculty and staff members have visited Nueva Vida twice a year – and every other summer since 2005 – to address continuing needs. The focus has changed over the years from emergency repairs to working with a host agency, Jubilee House Community, to build water lines and sustainable businesses and to improve health care.
When the brigade first went to Nicaragua, the displaced residents were living in shelters consisting only of black tarpaulin and wooden sticks. Under the direction of Jubilee House, student, faculty and staff "brigadistas" dug pit latrines, cut telephone poles and built more sturdy shelters. They later helped build a health clinic, which opened in 2001 and is supported by Bucknell-solicited donations. Engineering students in 2007 initiated a water-line project to serve a mountaintop co-op community. The brigade also formed a business partnership with a coffee cooperative through which participants sell coffee in the United States for fair trade value. On the latest trip in January, participants plastered walls of an emerging factory for a spinning cooperative.
As much as Bucknell has made an impact on this community, the community has changed the lives of the participants, each of whom made at least a yearlong investment in learning about Nicaragua, raising money and building awareness. In addition to learning about the poor conditions of Nicaragua, brigade participants visit tourist attractions, including an active volcano. The trip also brings together a cross-section of Bucknell people from various disciplines who form significant bonds as they work together, eat together and sleep in a one-room dormitory, noted Butler, who has been on the Brigade six times.
"It's really a transforming experience,” she said. “It's a catalyst for opening their eyes to so many things, not just in the country they are visiting or the service they are providing but a better understanding of their home culture and values that we often take for granted."
Associate Professor of Geography Paul Susman developed a summer course, Nicaragua Grassroots Development, after joining the Brigade as a group leader. He also has conducted research about worker cooperatives and created maps for semi-literate and illiterate farmers who are converting to organic growing.
"Much more learning goes on during this one week than occurs in some courses over a good part of a semester," Susman said. "It has been extraordinary for me in many ways. It has given me the opportunity to have some of the most wonderful learning and teaching experiences I've ever seen."
During the Brigade's January trip this year, participants visited La Chureca, the largest garbage dump in Central America, where more than 5,000 people live, searching for discarded food to eat and items to sell for money. Ramshackle houses have been built and a primary school has been established amid the heaps of discarded waste.
"Frankly, it's the closest thing I can imagine to hell on earth," Susman said.
On the January brigade this year, fourth-year student Norah Patrick stocked supplies in the clinic and plastered walls with women who have worked for two years to build a spinning cooperative where they hope to work one day. The experience has solidified Patrick’s drive to study at a law school with a focus on public interest programs. Patrick is a chemistry major at Bucknell.
"It was just very impressive, because these women gave up the jobs they had before and are working for two years to build this building without pay," Patrick said. "Most of them go home and bake goods to sell for a living. A lot of them want a place for their children to work that pays fair wages."
Dennis Tirri, a third-year student majoring in neuroscience, was moved by the strength of people amid sometimes horrifying conditions. In contrast to the despair of the dump, Tirri was impressed with the hopefulness of the women at the spinning cooperative.
"In the initial stages of the co-op, they didn't have the support of their husbands, because it was more a dream than a reality," he said. "I asked them if they ever considered leaving. They said, 'No, because I'm trying to build a better future for my children.' … There are horrible things you will see and wonderful things you will see, and you will come back a changed person. It was probably the most humbling experience of my life."
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