It has been a difficult and challenging month for most of us, with the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and the drama of the national elections consuming our physical and emotional energy.
And, still, this is the season of Thanksgiving, and most of us have so very much for which to be grateful.
For my own part, I had the opportunity in early October to take a service trip with Janet Canepa ’82, director of Alumni Relations, and five other Fairfield alumni to work with disabled children in Nicaragua. It has been a long tradition at Fairfield University for our students to go on service trips to work in places in the United States, Mexico, Belize, Ecuador, and Jamaica. To the best of my knowledge, this was only the second service trip organized for alumni. Taking the time to step out of our familiar culture, routine, and agenda was so important—more important to us, I feel sure, than it was to those we came to serve. It was a transformative week for all of us. (Click here to view photos from the trip.)
A Beautiful Country
Nicaragua is approximately the size of New York State, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, with ample lakes and rivers, a temperate climate, and a majestic backbone of still-active volcanoes.
But great natural beauty often hides great human tragedy. Nicaragua is also the land where an earthquake, two days before Christmas 1972, totally destroyed the national capital, Managua, and where slow-moving Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 killed thousands and left millions homeless across Central America. In between these cataclysmic events, Nicaragua suffered through the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and the civil war between the Sandinista and Contra forces.
As always, it was the poor and weak, especially the children, who suffered most during these natural and man-made disasters.
Mustard Seed Communities
In 1978, Father Gregory Ramkissoon, a Diocesan priest in Kingston, Jamaica, founded the first Mustard Seed Community (MSC). The purpose of the community was to serve as a home for abandoned and handicapped children. MSC headquarters is now in Massachusetts and much of their funding comes from generous Americans.
Mustard Seed’s objective is to promote the enrichment and empowerment of the spiritually, psychologically, and financially poor who live in urban communities, and assist them in finding a way out of the cycles of frustration and hopelessness that dominate their lives.
Through the years, Mustard Seed Communities have spread across the Caribbean nations and recently into Africa, building additional facilities in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe. The majority of MSC programs are dedicated to the care of children with serious physical and mental disabilities—such as Down’s syndrome, hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy. MSC also cares for children affected by HIV/AIDS and for pregnant teenagers.
In Nicaragua, there are two MSC programs: Hogar Belen – Managua, which cares for 23 children ranging in age from six months to 16 years, and Hogar Belen – Diriamba, which provides a cottage-style setting for children who are able to live semi-independently and dorm-style living for those who need more care and attention. There are approximately 24 children living on the Diriamba campus.
The Children of Hogar Belen
Julia Castillo, the director of the two local MSC programs in Nicaragua, met us at the Managua airport, and after an hour’s drive we found ourselves at our new home for a week: Hogar Belen – Diriamba (Hogar is Spanish for “home;” Belen is the word for “Bethlehem;” and Diriamba is a town approximately 20 miles from Managua). The Hogar is located on the edge of Diriamba.
The building where we stayed, with the exception of cold showers, was quite comfortable and wonderfully quiet at night. We ate most of our meals in the same room as the children, although at a separate table with a menu that was a bit closer to what Americans like. There was still sufficient rice, beans, excellent fruit, and tangy tomato salsa with cilantro to keep a Central American happy.
Our first day on the campus was Sunday. We took the van with the children to the local Catholic Church where a very kind Franciscan friar said a beautiful Mass in Spanish. The Mass included a First Communion and a living tableau of children dressed as angels receiving the soul of St. Francis of Assisi into heaven. As Americans, we wondered how we would be accepted and, more especially, how our physically and mentally challenged children, would be accepted. We had nothing to worry about. The children’s presence at Sunday Mass is taken for granted by the local parishioners, who also received us kindly.
During that first Sunday afternoon, Julia gave us a tour of the Diriamba campus, showing us where the children lived and worked. The amount of care which the children receive from the loving staff, who are continually feeding, clothing, washing, and teaching them, is a wonder to behold.
Working, and Playing
On Monday morning we drove an hour through the lovely Nicaraguan countryside and at least two small towns to reach Hogar Belen – Managua where we would help to build a new dormitory for the continually expanding number of children. Our task was to bring in wheelbarrow loads of dirt to raise the floor up to the correct height. (I personally love manual labor, and doing it for three days a year is just about my speed!) We worked for 45 minutes, rested for 15, and then returned to work. Lunch was brought to us, and then it was back to work until 3:00 p.m., when we played with the children for an hour.
When I say “play,” you have to remember that these children are under 12 years old, and some of them are very limited by lack of hearing, vision, or physical mobility. There was one little fellow, probably five years old, almost blind. He fell in love with my Fairfield University baseball cap and kept pulling it off my head and then throwing it away. I would pick it up, put it back on my head, and the game would start all over again.
There was a hydrocephalic baby, Mario, only eight months old who was so adorable that we all fought to hold him for a few minutes. Lola, who is about five years old, appeared to be exceptionally bright and independent, but for reasons no one can explain she was not able to speak. Just watching her play was a delight.
About 4:30 p.m., we packed up our shovels and wheelbarrows, gathered our knapsacks, and went back to Diriamba. We joined the older children for supper and then a quiet evening of reflection, possibly Mass, and to bed.
During our final two days in Nicaragua, Julia took us sightseeing to Managua where we saw the MSC school for future seamstresses and learned something of the troubled history of the country. The following day was pure vacation as we traveled from Diriamba to the city of Granada, stopping to view the markets, shops, and restaurants of the towns we passed through. The high point of that day was being able to relax and, for some, swim in a crystal-clear volcanic crater lagoon.
Saturday morning the seven of us gathered for a final Mass and then boarded the van to the Managua airport. We arrived safely back at Fairfield University late that afternoon.
In this season of Thanksgiving, the faces of those wonderful children stay with me. I am so grateful to have had this opportunity, and I hope to return to Hogar Belen to visit them again.
And my prayer for all of you in this season, in spite of the losses so many have recently suffered, is that each of us can experience God’s love and the generosity of those around us, and be grateful.
Blessings to you and your families,
Charles H. Allen, S.J.
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