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MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- Jamie Cistoldi Lee, Class of '99, gazed through the wrought iron fence toward the smoking mountains of trash, dirt and the cobbled-together homes. In the distance, figures of men and boys bobbed up and down on moving dump trucks as they foraged for discarded items to sell.
Lee turned to her husband, Andrew Lee, Class of '99, clearly disheartened by the scenes of desperation at the Managua municipal dump, where men, women and children live and work for survival.
"Children should not be living like this," the mother of two daughters said.
It was difficult to be hopeful in that moment, surrounded by such clear reminders that poverty persists in Nicaragua, and that there is more work to be done. Lee recalled how she felt 11 years ago when she visited the dump as a Bucknell University student studying abroad and how she was inspired, with the help of Associate Professor Bonnie Poteet, to start the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua.
As the week went on, however, the Lees and 21 other alumni, community members, family and friends who returned to Nicaragua March 28-April 4 for the 10th anniversary of the brigade were encouraged to see the far- and wide-reaching effects of their efforts. Over the past decade, 445 people have traveled to Nicaragua on the brigade, working with the host agency Jubilee House Community to construct a health clinic and sustainable businesses for residents of Nueva Vida, a resettlement community formed after Hurricane Mitch hit Managua in 1998.
When the first brigade arrived in Nicaragua in 1999, the displaced residents of Nueva Vida were living in shelters consisting only of black tarpaulin and wooden poles. Neighborhoods since have taken shape with homes made of concrete block and metal roofs. Schools have opened, and the clinic provides medical and dental care to about 17,000 patients.
The alumni brigade included another married couple, a father and son, mothers and daughters, friends and community members all somehow connected to Bucknell. For many who had been to Nicaragua before, the trip was about recapturing a feeling and drive to focus their lives more on making a difference or to share the experience of the brigade with another.
Alumni who had been to Nueva Vida before were encouraged by the progress there, in particular by the completion of the clinic they had helped build several years ago. They noticed subtle differences, such as the growth of shade trees and a medicinal garden, and greater changes, such as a dental suite, a new laboratory.
The trip to the Managua dump highlighted ongoing struggles with poverty in Nicaragua, but there were signs of hope even there. The brigade visited with a group of young men who escaped the life of the dump through an outreach program to feed, clothe and teach job skills to children who live there.
Later in the trip, as Lee sat on the yellow school bus that is the main source of transportation for the Bucknell Brigade, she looked around at names and inspirational messages, inscribed by brigadistas on the ceiling and walls of the bus with black Sharpie pens.
"Some of my most inspiring moments that I experienced this week were spent during the hours on the bus on the unpaved and bumpy roads of Nicaragua, reading all of the names and writings of past Bucknell students," Lee said. "To see what we have created and what has transpired over the past 10 years has been amazingly gratifying. This is what I could have only imagined and dreamed of. I wanted others to come to this country, see this for themselves and to feel what I felt, so they, too, would be compelled to do something about it."
The brigade has become known for bringing together a cross-section of Bucknellians from various disciplines who work together, eat together and sleep in a one-room dormitory. It also is known changing lives. The experience resonates, and Brigadistas come back from Nicaragua with an enhanced consciousness about world issues and the devastating effects of poverty. They also are inspired by the irrepressible spirit of ordinary Nicaraguans.
Many brigadistas have found a calling in public service after their experiences in Nicaragua. Some join the Peace Corps or Teach America or go into public health or international development fields. The group on the alumni trip was no different.
Several on the trip said the brigade influenced their career paths. Blakeley Lowry, Class of '99 and an original brigadista, works for a community-based organization in Harlem helping patients with HIV and AIDs find homes and other resources. Ben Colby, Class of '03, and Ashley Wilhelm, Class of '04, plan to attend medical school. Colby plans to dedicate part of his time to outreach in developing countries.
The JHC partnership
Jubilee House Community, Bucknell's host agency, has been working in Nicaragua for 15 years. Three of the original members: Mike Woodard, Kathleen Murdock and Sarah Junkin Woodard, moved from North Carolina to Managua to identify community needs in some of the poorest areas of Nicaragua and help residents build sustainable businesses.
The not-for-profit arm of JHC, the Center for Development in Central America, identified the immediate needs as housing, a hospital and schools, and the brigade has helped address those needs through several projects.
Woodard and Murdock are discouraged at times that their efforts were only discernable in small measure. But the cumulative effects of JHC's work and the partnership with Bucknell are nearly monumental. The clinic is probably the most prominent example of this. The first brigade, which included Bucknell's director of student health services, Dr. Don Stechschulte, independently identified a health clinic as a priority. The clinic now is supported by about $40,000 in donations from Bucknell.
"The two buildings of the health clinic would not have happened without our relationship with Bucknell," Murdock said. "That was Don Stechschulte and Bonnie Poteet's vision. The Bucknell group came and we said, 'We're committed to building a clinic."
The brigade also helped build a dormitory and has assisted in construction of a spinning cooperative to make yarn for cotton clothing. And a group of engineering students in 2007 secured a $10,000 grant to construct a pipeline to provide water to a coffee cooperative in the mountaintop village El Porvenir.
Another delegation secured a similar grant to film a documentary about the plight of banana workers who are sick and dying after exposure to pesticides.
Bucknell now serves as an example for others interested in starting service learning and outreach programs with JHC, Mike Woodard said.
"We're contacted by lots of groups, and we say, 'Call the folks at Bucknell and ask them how they do it,'" he said.
Work during the alumni brigade ranged from treating patients and doling out medication at the clinic to digging a large cube-shaped hole and laying a stone-block floor for a septic tank. Brigadistas mixed concrete by hand, shoveling gravel, dirt and cement mix into large piles several times then adding water little by little to create a heavy, slush-like adhesive.
As much as the brigadistas give, they take home with them. Colby, who had been on the brigade three times before the alumni trip as a student, student-leader and alumnus, said each experience has been different.
"The first time it hurt. The second, I got to help people through it, and that helped me. The third was renewing," he said. "This time was entirely new because I'm here sharing it with my father. The experience makes me want to give back."
Seeing it for themselves
Recapturing the feeling of his first brigade was more difficult this time. Colby said midway through the trip he wanted to be "hit in the face" with the shock and outrage he felt the first time he went to Nicaragua. Colby also wondered how he could explain to others that it was worth the expense to travel to Managua rather than directing that money toward a donation to the clinic or another cause.
"I've always felt in my heart that I was doing the right thing by going on the Brigade, that my money was well spent," Colby said later. "Something always happens on the Brigade that makes the problems in Nicaragua personal, and that's what burns in me and drives me to stay connected and share the stories with everyone who will listen."
Woodard argued that going to Nicaragua to experience the poverty and difficult conditions first-hand is the only way to truly understand it. And sharing that experience with others is part of what a brigadista gives back.
Encouraging others to examine their own consumption and to consider how they spend money and whether they should buy fair-trade clothing and coffee is all part of the impact of the brigade.
"I tell people Nicaragua is a full, five senses experience," Woodard said. "You have to see it, hear it, touch it, smell it and taste it. Very few people are able to maintain that level of clarity. That's why it's worth spending the money to come here."
Jeremy "J.J." Snyder, Class of '06, said the brigade taught him that little things can make a big difference.
"It's really an organic creature," he said. "Something so small can make a big difference to 450 people. You're not going to keep it to yourself."
Jim Ritter, Class of '04, is a financial advisor whose job includes estate planning. He makes a point of emphasizing the value of clients setting aside 10 percent of their estates to charity.
Wilhelm said her spending habits have been influenced by the brigade. She also has become "a disciple" of fair trade.
"Whenever I go to a restaurant, I ask if they have fair-trade coffee. I know they don't, but I say, 'You should get it. And I'll have an ice water.'"
Bringing it home
Cara Anderman, Class of '03, made a friend the first time she went on the brigade. Eliseo Garay was playing with a high school band during the March 2001 clinic dedication. After the ceremony, Garay, who knew some English, approached Anderman, and the two exchanged addresses. They have stayed in touch and reunited on this trip.
Knowing Eliseo brought the experience home for Anderman. Garay and his wife have been directly affected by the economic struggles in Nicaragua. They both were working at a Levi Strauss & Co. denim clothing factory across from JHC before the factory closed indefinitely during the alumni trip. The couple's second child was born less than a week later.
When Anderman, a French teacher in Massachusetts, returned to the classroom, she told her 5th-grade students about her trip. Anderman's students live in a fairly affluent area outside Boston and couldn't imagine that children their age didn't have cell phones, let alone food and proper housing, Anderman said. But they seemed to understand the bigger picture.
"At the end of the class, a girl came up to me and asked if there was some way she could send things" to the children in Nicaragua, Anderman said. "I said, 'Probably,' and that we should talk about it later. She came to me about an hour later and said she had talked with her class, and they would like to do some sort of donation drive in the 5th grade."
Later, the girl returned to Anderman and said she wanted to extend the fundraiser to the whole school.
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