With its lush greenery, clear blue sky and a shore that runs along the Pacific, El Manzano Uno, Nicaragua, looks like paradise. And for vacationers, it is. But the reality for the 206 people who live there is a life of extreme poverty.
“Outside the shoreline, it is a very poor community,” said George Washington University junior Michael Wasserman. “Large families live in these very small homes without electricity or running water.”
Mr. Wasserman and his fellow classmates recently returned from a nine-day stint in the community as part of the university’s Alternative Winter Break program. Including the Nicaragua trip, more than 100 students and staff members swapped time off for extra work and learning on five service trips. Other locations included San Juan Comalapa, Guatamala; Los Angeles; New Orleans; and Las Marias, Puerto Rico. Service varied from working with at-risk youth to building schools and beautifying communities.
In El Manzano Uno, students worked with the local nonprofit Waves of Hope. The organization was the main reason student leaders chose that community, participants said.
“This organization is very different in the fact that they work alongside the community, getting members of the community involved in the day-to-day activities,” Mr. Wasserman said. “It’s the perfect model of what a good nonprofit should be.”
The students broke ground on what will become the community’s first high school, repainted an elementary school and provided some much-needed fun for the local kids, playing soccer, reading, and doing arts and crafts with them.
Junior Andrea Edman, an international affairs major, said the trip has once again—it’s her third alternative break—reminded her of the “sheer power a little bit of service can have.”
“Those children will sit in the classrooms we worked on and use the high school we began to build, and there is no greater feeling than knowing the direct result of the service you are doing,” said Ms. Edman.
Students on other trips had similarly gratifying service experiences, they said.
In New Orleans, students volunteered with the nonprofit Rebuilding Together, which repairs homes and completes neighborhood projects for low-income community members. Projects ranged from repainting and repairing rotten siding to cleaning out drainage pipes. They also worked with the Knowledge is Power Program at a charter school, helping students with homework, administering reading tests or serving in an administrative capacity for time-strapped teachers.
“While making copies or printing a poster seems silly, it’s really not,” said sophomore London Clark, a journalism and mass communications major. “The amount of time we saved those teachers and the extra pep we gave the school just helps the children and the teachers have pride in their school. And that’s all a part of the main goal to get these kids to college.”
Ms. Clark said she took away a couple of crucial points from the trip: the importance of service, of course, but also that post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans still needs help.
“We must not be fooled that time heals all,” said Ms. Clark, who added her time in New Orleans has already sparked discussions and research topics in her classes back on campus. “It takes the combined efforts of government, residents and volunteers to rebuild a city and its sense of community.”
Meanwhile, students on the Guatemala trip worked with Long Way Home, a local nonprofit that recently began constructing an elementary school out of recycled materials. During the weeklong trip, they helped with a retaining wall and a large well to supply water to the town.
Junior Patrick Cero and sophomore Jenlain Coyle, the trip’s leaders, said their work abroad has reminded them about the importance of recycling, giving back through charities and participating in eco-challenges on campus to encourage sustainability.
But they said another important component was learning from their classmates.
“The biggest thing I took away from this trip is really the recognition that it’s as true as it can be that you can’t judge a book by its cover,” Ms. Coyle said. “We didn’t know all the participants going in, and you really just watch them grow. It’s really an inspiring thing.”
They’re confident they’ll carry the experiences with them for the rest of their lives.
“The things that you learn and the experiences you have on these winter break trips really impact you for years to come,” Mr. Cero said.