CIPUSA is always excited to work with our Affiliate Office, Empower International, to send university students abroad to learn more about social work practices on a global scale! Past trips have taken students to Amsterdam and Ireland. CIPUSA hopes to be able to foster similar programs in the future!
SERVICE TRIP IN NICARAGUA: SOCIAL WORKERS ABROAD
by Stacy Moreno, Executive Director of Empower International
Empower International is an affiliate chapter of CIPUSA, based out of Phoenix, Arizona. For the past three years, they have been channeling the large student interest to be involved and “go global”, and have been creating and leading unique short-term trips abroad, at times in cooperation with CIF branches.
Social Work is rooted in service, understanding the needs of the vulnerable from their perspective, and using our own strength to empower and provide areas of need where able and appropriate. It is with this vision that the most recent international trip was created. From May 13th to the 22nd, 2017, thirty participants traveled with Empower International to Granada, Nicaragua for a service trip.
What is amazing is that this was a family friendly trip—one BSW (Bachelor of Social Work) student was accompanied by her husband and 12 year old, another BSW student had her 13 year old, and the trip leader had her husband and 5 kids ages 1 to 11. One participant, Samantha, is Dutch and came all the way from the Netherlands to join our group. She has an intertwined history with Empower International and supports some of the abroad programs as a second lead. She provided an insider's perspective to this trip, which you can read below this intro. In addition, below Samantha's story, you can read about the trip through the perspective of Kyle, who is studying Public Administration / Social Work in Phoenix.
Our amazing partner was Viva Nicaragua!, a center for social justice and cultural understanding. They are an NGO based in Granada that served as our amazing partner! Without a doubt I would recommend this organization and would go again.
Our week was scheduled to perfection, with a perfect balance of interning in the community, host family living (families are well-vetted, friendly and provide all meals!), Spanish Language classes (or English Conversation with Nicas for our bilingual participants), Cultural Excursions (Masaya Market, Zip Lining at Mombacho Volcano, Night tours to see lava at an active volcano, boat tours through Crater Lake, beach excursions, and more!)
The NGO organized six volunteer sites, and our groups had an opportunity to choose where they would go do their service for the week. The options included local schools (where on the last day students painted a wall mural), kids club (where family violence and sexual exploitation is prevalent), after school community centers (located in an impoverished community), nursing homes (people without economic resources, for those who have been abandoned or neglected), home for teen boys in care, and a health clinic (women’s health education). At each volunteer site we had a local community member / staff member, who accompanied us on each volunteer day acting as walking guide, cultural navigator, insider providing insight to our questions and observances, and friend as they were all just amazing! We celebrated 3 birthdays during this trip and the Viva Nicaragua! team surprised us with a piñata and party at the lake, inviting local kids from our volunteer site!
A PARTICIPANT’S PERSPECTIVE: A DUTCH PERSPECTIVE WITH AN AMERICAN GROUP
Hometown / Country: ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands
Occupation or area of study: Manager in tourism
My love for travelling, exploring and other cultures started seven years ago with Stacy Moreno, the director of Empower International. I was her au pair and lived with her family in England for over six months. I took care of her children and became a big part of the family, to which I am still a part of today.
After my time in England as an au pair, I started to study tourism. I got offered a great job at my local au pair agency here in the Netherlands and I have been working here for many years now. I just love cultural exchange programs because I truly believe you gain so much life experience from it. You really see the culture in a way that is different than when you are just a tourist.
I helped with the Empower International trip to Amsterdam a couple of years ago and was blown away by the amazing students who traveled all the way to Amsterdam. Their lives, stories and enthusiasm really motivated me to come along on this trip to Nicaragua as well.
Since I am very much interested in exploring the world, and learning about and immersing myself in another culture, the decision of attending this trip was easily made. What a great opportunity for all of us!
This was my first time in Central America and I was actually a bit nervous about the language barrier since I do not speak Spanish very well—or actually not at all. I was not really prepared for the emotional part of the service trip. I had just gotten back from Australia a week and a half before, and was still so much in the travel mood that I did not really have the time to emotionally prepare myself for the Nicaragua trip. In the end, though, I think that it worked out well because the more time you have to think about certain things, the more you tend to worry.
I helped with the Solidaridad project and loved every minute of it. Solidaridad is a project for the kids in that community. They go to school in the afternoon, so in the morning they come to Solidaridad to play. We played soccer, did yoga, colored together, and received lots of hugs. We also visited an elderly home with the children. I just loved seeing the kids and elderly residents connect.
Besides the volunteering project, there were a lot of other activities planned for us. We went to the Volcano, went zip-lining, had some Spanish lessons, went to the beautiful beaches on the other side of the country, and had a lot of fun together with Carrie (from Viva Nicaragua) and her team. What I really liked about the trip was the combination of volunteer work in the morning where we helped out in the community, and cultural trips in the afternoon where we got to see more of the city and the country.
The whole experience made such a big impact on me—from the girl at our volunteer site who was so happy to just have some coloring books and color by herself in her dirty clothes, to our host mom who really made us feel like a part of the family. I also enjoyed getting to know the other volunteers and really getting to know my amazing roommate, and also seeing my host kids after 5 years!
This trip impacted me both personally and professionally. I did notice that I do take a lot for granted here in the Netherlands, and I really have a different feeling about those kinds of things now. Sharing is their way of life in Nicaragua…you share everything with your family and others. That is something we can learn a lot about.
It was a trip of a lifetime, with great new memories and stories to tell. I met some amazing and inspiring people and would love to thank all of them for this opportunity.
A PARTICIPANT’S PERSPECTIVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH KYLE FROM THE U.S.
Hometown / Country: Phoenix, AZ (USA)
Occupation or area of study: Public Administration / Social Work
Why did you decide to participate in the service trip to Nicaragua?
I decided to participate in the service trip to Nicaragua because I enjoy traveling, learning about different cultures, and being of service. I am bilingual in English and Spanish so I have participated in other service learning trips throughout Mexico and Guatemala. Those experiences enriched my spirit and I knew that I would have the same experience in Nicaragua.
What were your thoughts leading up to your trip? (Your expectations, concerns, emotions, etc.)
Leading up to the trip I was feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. I am juggling a full-time career, full-time school, an internship, and relationships. I felt as though I had lost my compassion for others. I was feeling numb and disconnected. I knew I needed a break from all of this but I also knew that being of service to others really helps to strengthen my compassion. I also experienced feelings of excitement and curiosity. I was excited to form relationships with others and my curiosity had me on the internet until late at night researching Nicaragua.
What organizations/agencies did you visit/observe during your stay?
Viva Nicaragua! Was instrumental in connecting our group with a variety of organizations that provided services to youth and family in Nicaragua. Each of the participants were assigned to a specific location for service work. Some of us went to the local clinic, some went to the center for boys, some worked with senior citizens residing in an assisted living facility. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with a group of youth living in the town of Adelita. There were a total of 4 participants that worked with the youth at this site.
Many of the youth have experienced social obstacles including poverty, domestic violence, sex trafficking, and a variety of other issues. One of the community member opened her home to these children. The youth come to the home before and after school. The home is a safe space where the youth can form social bonds with other youth while being mentored by volunteers and other supportive community members. Building protective factors is difficult because the community has a limited amount of resources. The home has also become a sanctuary for women living in domestic violence situations. A psychologist is currently providing group counseling, support, and education for these women.
We have decided to continue our communication with the youth but we had some barriers to overcome. We were not able to connect with the youth via internet because internet can be costly. We decided to develop a monthly pen-pal letter that we will send them. We are going to take some pictures of our daily life and write a little about our experiences with them. Then each month we will have a topic that they choose and we will write back to them about that topic. Some topics may include healthy relationships, self-respect, boundaries, having fun, etc. Our goal is to maintain the social connection with the youth but also to mentor them by offering different perspectives on life issues.
What was your biggest “takeaway” from the sharing of knowledge and your discussions on social work systems in Nicaragua versus in the United States?
Nicaragua is a country that has many strengths. Nicaragua is working towards a renewable energy revolution. During one of our excursions we were able to see the wind turbines that provide a significant amount of power to Nicaragua.
Another strength is that there is access to transportation. Taxi’s and busses are easily accessible which helps community members obtain better paying jobs in nearby cities. The family that I stayed with explained that they use the bus to travel to and from work. Another family member uses a bicycle to travel to and from school. Having transportation to jobs, libraries, schools, and medical services is a protective factor.
Sitting down for dinner every night with my host family was my biggest take away. The family took the time to get to know me and they made me feel welcome in their home. Having dinner as a family is something I have never experienced. It was beautiful to enjoy a meal with such amazing people. We talked about life, spirituality, politics, what it means to be a family, how to be a good steward in society, and how to thrive through struggles. I have continued this connection via Facebook and I am currently mentoring one of the young family members to help him learn English. I check in with them every other week and I look forward to visiting them soon. They have become life long friends!
What cultural activities did you participate in?
I participated in a dance class which was so much fun. The dance class was held inside of one of the schools in Solidaridad. We were all exhausted from a long day of volunteering and touring las isletas (the most beautiful cluster of islands…and I got to feed a monkey). When we arrived for the dance class, the music expelled all of our exhaustion and we danced like we have never danced before.
There were a variety of other cultural activities that we participated in which included touring museums, going to an English/Spanish school, talking with locals, and just being fully immersed in the culture. One night our host family taught us how to cook Gallo Pinto which is a delicious dish that is common in Nicaragua. I will never forget the taste of Gallo Pinto and now I know how to make it at home!
Any favorite memories or meaningful moments from your trip?
I am so grateful for the amazing group of participants that went on this trip. We formed a strong bond during the time we spent in Nicaragua. My favorite memory was going to church early on a Sunday morning. A small group of us met at the plaza and we realized that we were confused by the time that mass was being held. We were two hours early. So we made the best of it. We grabbed some coffee from a street vendor and we sat in the park and talked. We got to know eachother and we discussed some serious topics. After that we all went to mass inside of a beautiful cathedral (which by the way has a bell tower that offer stunning views of the city of Grandada). The mass carried a message which reflected the importance of serving your fellow man/woman because we are all connected. Feeling the connection to something greater than myself in a foreign country is a beautiful memory.
Impact of your trip – How do you plan on using your experience in Nicaragua in your life back home? How did the trip affect you personally and/or professionally?
I want to stay connected to Nicaragua. I have formed some valuable relationships and I look forward to doing more. When I came back to Arizona, I felt overwhelmed with emotions. I even broke down while I was talking to friends about my trip. Words could not convey the dose of humility that this trip gave me. I was immediately rocketed into gratitude and empowerment. I never realized how many opportunities we have in this country. One of the youth told me “hay muchas oportunidades en tu pais…es tu decision…puede usar las oportunidades para ayudarse a sí mismo o puede usar las oportunidades para ayudar a otros” (there are many opportunities in your country…it is your decisión…you can use the opportunities to help yourself or you can use the opportunities to help others”.
My goal is to complete my education in Social Work and Public Administration. I want to provide micro level and macro level social work services to communities local and abroad. I want to leverage the strength of existing service providers by bringing them together to create larger impacts. I believe that helping professionals should experience a full cultural immersion as part of their cultural competency studies. I am currently working with Empower International to develop an opportunity for healthcare providers and social workers which would blend cultural immersion and service work.
Any other comments / advice etc.?
Going to a foreign country can be overwhelming. Be patient and take a breath. Meditate and remember what you came for. Don’t leave before the miracle happens. There was one point at the beginning of the trip when I thought to myself “What have I gotten myself into?" I had to sit down and meditate. It became clear that I went to Nicaragua to learn and have an open mind. As soon as I found this clarity again, the miracle happened! I had the time of my life and I would not change anything about it!