Editor’s Note: Six Niagara University students spent a week during winter recess constructing a home for an impoverished family in El Sauce, Nicaragua. Rachel Bailey, Selena Cerra, Jake Eberth, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Briana Neale, and Amy Wnuk — all members of the university’s Bienvenidos Spanish and Hispanic culture club – joined forces with the 4 Walls Project service organization to build the home. The students were accompanied by the Rev. Vincent J. O’Malley, C.M., M.S.’80, university chaplain, and Dr. Abigail L. Levin, associate professor of philosophy. Kelly is the president of the club.
At the end of the 2015 fall semester, I, along with five other members of the Bienvenidos club and two faculty advisors, took on the task of building a house for a family in the impoverished village of El Sauce, Nicaragua. The family, Carlos, Daisy, Neysi, and Derwin, collect an annual income of around $1,200. During our time in El Sauce, we learned that a family of four requires around $8,000 yearly to have everything that they need, but still live a pretty minimalist life. Our family makes about 13 percent of that amount.
This level of poverty was certainly evident each day at the worksite. We saw poverty all around El Sauce, but it seemed to worsen significantly when we headed away from the main part of town into the neighborhood in which we were building. Our family was living under a tarp that they had attached to their neighbor’s house. Their bathroom was a doorless hut with a hole in the ground. They bathed and washed their clothes in the same river from which they got their drinking water.
The conditions in which this community lives are absolutely unimaginable. We were heartbroken when we saw the way that they live, but these feelings are what sparked the Vincentian response in all of us. We asked the million-dollar Vincentian question: What must be done?
The answer was plain and simple: hard work. The eight of us, a few masons, and the family started working each day around 8 a.m. We took on such tasks as making cement, moving and laying bricks, forming rebar, and filling in mortar. We were told several times by the masons that we were “como una máquina” (like a machine)!
It is uncommon for 4 Walls groups to see the completion of their project before heading home, and we were told on the first day that we would not see the completed house. That made it even more satisfying when we laid the last brick on our final day of work. We had finished all but the roof, which the masons have to do themselves. The hard work paid off, especially knowing that so many loving hands and hearts went into its success. Seeing Derwin walk around the inside of the new house with a smile on his face and a stuffed Monte in his hands was a real-life image of what we were all feeling in our hearts. It was a reminder of the Vincentian mission and our call to answer it. It was a reminder that even though there is so much injustice in the world, small acts can add up to change it, even if it is just for one person or family at a time.
The absolute perfect touch was Father O’Malley’s blessing of the house and the family. All of the workers and the family stood in a circle inside the house, and Father gave a few words before inviting everyone else to do the same. Carlos thanked God for giving his children a chance for a better life, and thanked us for leaving our country to lend a hand in this life-changing opportunity for him and his family. His wife, Daisy, who had worked tirelessly all week, began to cry, and we found out that this was the sixth time she had applied to get a home from 4 Walls. Niagara University Bienvenidos club helped to finally make it a reality for her. There were few dry eyes as Father blessed the family, the crew, and finally, the house.
We also gave the family a suitcase full of clothes and toiletry items and invited them to a farewell dinner later that night. Their economic and material discomfort, as well their appreciation, was evident when we saw that both Daisy and Neysi were wearing some of the donated clothes to dinner. The kids also received a little touch of an American Christmas when we presented them with stockings full of toys, books, and school supplies. We switched gears after dinner when the evening turned into a Latin American holiday and we all took turns swinging at a piñata. The whole night was the perfect send-off as we were heading back to the States in the morning.
The evening proved to be many things: a crosscultural exchange; a casual celebration of the week’s physical labor; children innocently enjoying gifts during the holiday season. Engagement in those simple universal pleasures reminded us that despite place of origin, socio-economic status, language, or any of the other factors of our lives that tend to separate us, we are all human and we all deserve the same level of justice.
In addition to the building experience, we were also able to put our Spanish to use, spend time learning from locals, and experience what life is like in a developing country. It was a truly humbling experience, and we hope to return next year with enough people to build two or three houses!