THAT JUST HAPPENED...these three words ring through my ears loudly when I stop to think about the last month and a half of my life. I am sitting here staring at a blank page as my restless mind once again tries to sort out where to begin. With so many things that happened, big and small, what words could I possibly fill this space with could bring to life to all of the intangible emotions that I have experienced over the last six weeks? The entire experience is so personal that the thought of not doing it justice, is unlike anything else. I have returned from Cambodia and been back in Nicaragua for four days. Not a minute has passed that I haven't been thinking about how much I miss that place, the student volunteers and chaperones that I moved mountains with, and the energy of the children at the orphanage. We were able to make remarkable progress while falling hopelessly in love with the 50 children and staff who live there. I am completely overwhelmed with pride!
We began our quest to drastically improve the living conditions, health and self-sustainability options at the orphanage by funding and facilitating running water for the first time ever. It took about a month to get together and was a moment that was bursting with so much joy and gratitude that it will be permanently etched in my brain. No more milk jug tied to a string that went down a well, 50 feet before you would hit water...success! We were then able to repair and extend the roof over the stage area where they all sleep, eat, study and play so they won't get soaked every time that is rains. We got full swing into manual labor mode and weeded, repaired, and cleared out the garbage and scrap piles that had taken over the chicken coop. We constructed a huge pig pen built from the ground up with bricks and mortar, a new roof, and imported a big pink pig named "Lola." There was a massive effort in cleaning the orphanage and 10 years worth of trash that was removed from the yard and replaced with a permanent clothesline. This had enough room to hang laundry for 50 people and created a solution for their clothes hanging on the fence and barbed wire all around the place. We dug rows and planted a crop of vegetables to nourish their bodies and provided fruits and veggies from the market to enhance their daily meals until the crops are ready to eat. We cut the grass for days on our hands and knees with handheld machetes in 100 degree heat to clear all the areas for the projects. Then there was our daily uphill effort to promote hygiene, a life without a head full of lice and introduced the idea of using soap in the shower. We repaired and rebuilt a fence, all the way around the property that was sagging and broken from them previously having to hang all of their clothes on it. The fence also had gaping holes where people from the neighborhood had been throwing their garbage for years. We distributed clothing, shoes, books and medical supplies to seven different orphanages and made a lot of friends along the way. We also danced with them in the rain, painted their nails, made sure the little one's ate all their vegetables, read them stories, sung songs, washed their clothes and bandaged their cuts and bug bites. We made our mark. We were examples to people we had never met of the transformation that is possible with some hard work and a whole lot of love. We gave the student volunteers a priceless example of DOING....not just talking about it, throwing money at it, or wishing for it, but actually seeing what all of their effort, fund raising, and time was going towards and DOING IT. Every day was an opportunity to do better than the day before, to work harder, give more and to never stop until we had given all we had. In return, they gave us their most prized and sometimes only possession, their love.
This orphanage was different than any place we have ever worked. They weren't really sure what to think of us, they don't see a lot of volunteers, it is the same way in Nicaragua. We have to ease into all of the projects and earn the right to be there. The challenge of these types of places, intrigues me because when it all comes together and it is something you have to earn, it is that much sweeter. Change is never easy, the majority of people who live in the rural areas of Cambodia and Nicaragua still live the same way they did 100 years ago. This is their home and we are strangers, we had to work for the right to be in their home. I would equate it to making someone fall in love with you who has had there heart broken almost every day of their life, not easy. You know it's in there and that they are capable of it, but it gets harder for them to trust each time because of their past. When they observe you doing manual labor for eight hours in extreme heat and rain, that is when they realize you aren't just stopping by to spoil the kids, on your tour around Cambodia, never to be seen again. They begin to learn your names and squeeze back when you force your hugs upon them, to the point they stick to you like glue. I arrived a week before the first group of student volunteers to give these awkward hugs, finalize our plans, and confirm where we would be working. Things change in an instant in developing countries so the unexpected is the only thing you can absolutely count on. After days of visits to 15 other projects with only glimpses of hope, I pulled up to the CPO orphanage in the middle of nowhere and knew it was where we belonged within 5 minutes. Once the first group of students arrived we dove in, head first. The thrill of seeing these two polar opposite world's collide will always amaze me and make me completely giddy. I feel like I get a front row seat to the way life should always be, giving and loving with no expectation for anything in return. Teenagers from the U.S caring about so much more than they ever thought possible, and actually taking pride in their work when they see the gratitude of the people they are helping, it's beautiful.
Children's Global Alliance is about so much more than kids helping kids, it is also about kids helping themselves. The expectations begin when the students are chosen for the trip. I feel that every moment of every day is an opportunity for change and growth, even when you are 12-15 years old. This is why they are held to another standard and it doesn't ease up the entire trip. There are rewards and consequences and their behavior on the airplane ride over is just as important as their behavior in front of an audience of fifty kids at the orphanage. They are role models and must act accordingly. If they leave something behind, it is confiscated and they have to pay to get it back, with the proceeds going to our party on the last day at the orphanage. If they don't keep their hotel room clean, they miss out on trips to the market and scrub toilets at the orphanage instead. We show them how important it is to give 110%, even when nobody is watching...that is having integrity. Teaching them that the measure of being a good person is how you treat someone that can do absolutely nothing FOR you....not just in a foreign country, but every day, every person you come in contact with. To not fall into the trap of craving the attention that you get for volunteering, but falling in love with work you are doing and the children you are helping, even if nobody ever finds out that you were there. We even touch on properly fueling your body for all of the intense labor we are doing and how important good nutritional habits are for your mood and energy levels. To teach and enforce the rules of a whole different level of integrity and respect, this is one of our major goals for our volunteers. As you can imagine, this is exhausting, but means enough (everything) to me and my chaperone's and we are constantly and consistently searching for ways to make them better people. We have them as a captive audience for two weeks in a foreign country, which is a rare honor, and we squeeze everything we can from it. You always hear that kids secretly crave boundaries, this also involves giving them the freedom to make decisions, think for themselves and not enable them to be anything except extraordinary. We promote thinking for themselves about the next step, taking initiative and not waiting to be told what to do. I have a tremendous amount of respect for parents. To love, feed, educate, provide for your children and to teach them to be good people is a lifetime of work. This program enhances the work you have already done while also changing their perspective on the world.
I received a letter this morning from a student who just returned from Cambodia. The tears rolled down my cheeks as she detailed beautifully exactly what this experience meant to her and how it has changed her life forever. I am not sure I have ever felt more at peace. The reward of seeing all that we accomplished at the orphanage along with all that the students accomplished personally, is more than I could ever ask for. I wholeheartedly believe that this program is a giant stepping stone to a more fulfilled life for these students and a rare opportunity for them to gain a perspective on life that most adults never even get to experience. It is also a much needed relief for children born in developing countries, that struggle through every day of their lives because of the circumstance they were born into.
16 students and 5 chaperones all working together to make life better for those who need it most. I am so proud of you Anna, Jack, Creek, AJ, Gena, Haley, Nicole, Keavy, Schariar, Ava, Alex, Bret, Camryn, Mallory, Nikko, and Zoe for opening your hearts and minds to this experience. You each inspire me and it was an honor and privilege to work with you and witness you taking yourselves to the next level. The kids at the orphanage will never forget you and neither will I. You each own a piece of my heart and I will be here for you, forever. To your parents, thank you for believing in this process and valuing this experience enough to trust us with your children. Thank you for your time and every ounce of love and support along the way. To all of our friends and family that supported us along the way and continue to support us, your generosity is what fuels this program and none of it would be possible without you, thank you! To Jen, Jamie, Jana, Jenna and Johnny.... the greatest, most passionate team of volunteers I could have ever wished for. Thank you for each sharing your individual strengths with the team of students and for giving your hearts over to the children at the orphanage. I am so grateful for the time and energy you took away from your lives and families and put into making these trips so successful, I love you all so much.
Our next group of student volunteers arrives in Nicaragua on July 27th, I am more than looking forward to this experience all over again! The need and emotion is so much greater here, but I am confident in the team we have assembled for the job. More blogs to come, thank you for your support!