I recently had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Nicaragua with my daughter and 12 other students from North Greenville University, a Christian college in South Carolina. When my daughter asked to go, she suggested that I go with her. I don’t like change, so my first reaction internally was no way.
As a teenager, I had traveled to Germany to visit family, but going to a Third World country was intimidating. However, I realized I’m not getting any younger, so I decided to take the plunge and mailed the deposit. Two days later, I was wrapping a used baseball book that I had purchased as a Christmas present for my son. Three Nicaraguan stamps fell out of the book. From that moment, I was at peace with the decision to go.
Our group worked with Chosen Children Ministries, which travels to Nicaragua to minister to adults and children through construction, Bible lessons, church planting and humanitarian aid. The group has a secured campus there.
For three days, we went into a neighborhood (barrio) and conducted a vacation Bible school for the children. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. The children lived in small metal huts without electricity. Each day we sang, did a craft, told a Bible story and played games with the children. Their smiles were contagious.
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Each day the group became larger, and by the third day the children sat on a hill waiting and came running when our bus arrived. I sensed how much the mothers loved their children. I often saw the families take care of what little they had by sweeping the dirt outside their homes. I never once saw a child complain, whine or fight. When we passed out bread and lemonade, they waited patiently for their turn. I did not see one ball or toy, but the children seemed content. On the last day, some children gave us handpicked fruit as a token of their appreciation. I knew they were happy to see us by the sparkles in their eyes, but I wonder whether they realize the blessing they gave us.
Before going, I tried to mentally prepare myself to meet malnourished children,
but I was pleasantly surprised. The children were happy and healthy looking. The animals were the exact opposite. The dogs, horses and cows had no muscle tone, and their ribs were extremely visible. It was heartbreaking and shocking.
We also went to a nursing home. It was clear that Nicaraguans value their elderly. The home was extremely nice and clean, and the employees went above and beyond to care for their patients. I have been to nursing homes in America where this is not the case.
I was worried when I was told there would be no hot water for showering. I also didn’t know how I would handle not having access to emails, the Internet or social media for an entire week. But after working outside all day in 100-degree temperatures, the cold shower felt great. Not having access to my cell phone was surprisingly refreshing, too. I was able to enjoy the task at hand without distractions. I realized how the constant interaction with information often crowds out other more important things in life.
On the last day, our group went zip lining. I am petrified of heights and had no intention of participating. However, when 12 college students, who had called me “Mom” all week, begged me to go, I didn’t have the heart to tell them no. What a thrill it was.
When I arrived back in the United States, I turned on my phone, and it instantly started vibrating as it filled up with a week’s worth of emails. But the person holding the phone had changed. In fact, on my first day back to work, my husband called at 10:30 to inform me that I had left my cell phone at home. Prior to my trip to Nicaragua, I would have noticed before I even got out of my neighborhood.
Sometimes travel, not only to a foreign country but across the border of one’s comfort zone, is the best way to learn what matters most.
Caroline Willingham, a mother of two who lives in Garner, is The News & Observer’s vice president for finance.