By Julia Ferrante

 

Andy and Jamie LeeOn her third day in Nicaragua in spring 1998, Jamie Cistoldi Lee, Class of '99, was dropped off at a busy intersection in Managua, where dozens of children were washing car windows or selling food.

Lee, who was conducting an independent study on child labor through the School for International Training, had asked a local human rights worker to connect her with children working on the streets.

"I met with him in the morning, and he offered me a ride home," Lee said of the worker. "Then, literally, at a stop light, he leaned over me, opened my door and said, 'If you want to know about child labor, here's where you want to be.'"

Lee spent the next few months getting to know a 7-year-old girl named Carla and several other children who worked to help support their families, living in makeshift homes along Lake Managua or at the city dump.

Two months after she returned to Bucknell University, Lee was watching CNN when she learned that Hurricane Mitch had plowed through Managua, leveling neighborhoods, killing thousands of residents in vulnerable areas and displacing thousands more.

"I was just paralyzed, and I knew I had to do something," Lee recalled. "I remember thinking, 'One person can make an impact, but a whole bunch of people can make a big impact.'"

The revelation was the spark that began the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, which this year marks its 10th anniversary. Lee approached her mentor, Latin American Studies Associate Professor Bonnie Poteet, about the idea of a brigade, and Poteet suggested she meet with then-Chaplain Ian Oliver and then-Bucknell President Bro Adams. Adams agreed to allocate enough money to help 36 students, faculty and staff travel to Nicaragua - some paying their own way and others receiving scholarships. Lee worked with the student Hispanic group Cumbre to collect donations.

In January 1998, Lee and Poteet traveled to Nicaragua at Poteet's expense to find a host agency. The two arranged to have the first Brigade stay with Jubilee House Community, a nonprofit group working with Nicaraguans on sustainable development initiatives. Meanwhile, faculty members, including Geography Professor Paul Susman, pulled together reading material to provide context to the trip, and the group and Dr. Don Stechschulte, Bucknell's director of student health services, coordinated medical donations.

The first Brigade, which included Lee's now-husband, Andy Lee, Class of '99, arrived in Nicaragua in March 1999 and set up a temporary clinic in Nueva Vida, a resettlement area for hurricane survivors. The group also helped construct permanent shelter for people living under black plastic tarpaulin and wooden poles and visited Carla's family, whose home was flooded but not destroyed.

Lee, who graduated from Bucknell with a degree in sociology and Latin American studies, has continued her commitment to Nicaragua. In 2002, she received a master's in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin after conducting a three-month study of sex workers in Nueva Vida. She received her Ph.D. three years later after conducting a comparative study of computer education among poor women in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico.

The Lees, who met at Bucknell and married after graduation, later started "School for All," a program to provide scholarships for computer education and job training and micro-enterprise loans to female sex workers in Nueva Vida. Of the 13 participants in that program, just a few women are known to continue to work in the sex industry nine years later, Lee said.

"Part of what I do as a sociologist is not just report on issues but work with people to find solutions," she said. "Together the women thought if they had a marketable skill, they wouldn't have to resort to prostitution."

As Lee has continued her work, she has watched the Brigade grow. In 2001, she attended the dedication of the first health clinic building, built and supported by Bucknell donations, in Nueva Vida. The Lees give to the Brigade each year as part of a commitment to keep the program going. And in March, the couple, who now have two young daughters, joined a group of alumni, community members and friends on a weeklong 10th anniversary Brigade trip.

Seeing how the program has grown was rewarding in many ways, Lee said.

"Rarely, when you plan something, do you expect it to go on so long - for a couple of years, let alone 10 years and have such a lasting impact on both the community and the participants," Lee said. "For Andy and me, it was a really good way to reconnect and refocus. Nicaragua is part of our kids' vocabulary. This was a way to instill in our kids volunteerism."

The trip also reminded Lee of how the Brigade has changed the lives of more than 450 faculty, staff and students who have traveled to Nicaragua, many of whom have been inspired to change the focus of their lives and careers.

"The most impressive thing was seeing even on an alumni brigade that people were willing to take time out of their lives to give of themselves and grow as a person," Lee said. "We built this bridge of humanity with our Nicaraguan friends, but it doesn't end there. Each time you come back a changed person. This time, for me, I thought about my children and the disparity between their lives and the lives of most Nicaraguan children."

Before the alumni trip, the Lees sold a software company they started together. Jamie Lee wanted to get back to her roots of outreach and philanthropy. She recently accepted a teaching job at a private high school in Houston, where she hopes to start a service-learning program.

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