In February 1998, Bucknell student Jamie Cistoldi Lee '99 moved in with a Nicaraguan working class family near Managua, and spent her spring semester taking classes at a local university and doing research in the community. When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in October of 1998, Nicaragua was one of the countries hardest hit by Mitch. The natural disaster devastated the people and paralyzed the country. Flooding and mud slides killed thousands of people, and lack of food and water killed hundreds more.
As a result of the relationships she had built and her fondness for the country, Jamie felt strongly about helping Nicaraguans affected by Hurricane Mitch. Days after the disaster, Jamie began to work with Cumbre, a Hispanic student group on campus, to disseminate information about the aftermath of the hurricane and its effects on the already poverty-stricken population of Nicaragua. They also began to collect material aid and donations for relief agencies in Nicaragua, but realized that many members of the Bucknell community wanted to do more to help. It was then that Jamie posed the idea of a brigade to LaVonne Poteet, Professor of Latin American Studies at Bucknell, as well as to Reverend Ian Oliver, University Chaplain.
In January of 1999, Jamie and Professor Poteet traveled to Nicaragua for the first time since the hurricane. During their stay, they searched for an appropriate location and project for volunteer service efforts and worked with staff at the Center for Development in Central America. This was the birth of the Bucknell Brigade. Jamie sought faculty and administrative collaboration and recruited adventurous Bucknellians to support the cause. The first brigade to Nicaragua consisted of thirty-six Bucknellians and community members including the medical director, two nurses, bilingual students, and undergraduates from different classes and majors. The group spent spring break 1999 in Nueva Vida, a tent city area of 12,000 displaced Nicaraguans. Volunteers operated a make-shift health clinic and helped to build temporary shelters for Hurricane Mitch refugees. Working alongside the Nicaraguan people, the group sparked solidarity between Nueva Vida and Bucknell that still exists today.