July 3rd, 7pm.
The sun has just set and the haze from the volcanic ashes make the few stars that much more enchanting. There are eight American children standing in a makeshift church in the outskirts of Managua, Nicagura; surrounding them are several dozen children from the small town of El Crucero. An observer can easily separate these children into two groups by the color of skin, the language they sing and their quality of their clothing, albeit these differences, there is something that all of these children share in common, a dedication to make the streets of El Crucero safer, healthier and a more promising place. That, and their love for the Lord.
This isn't the type of church that includes a Sunday school and a choir, there is no crowded parking lot and brunch at the Pancake House afterwards. A small dirt road will carry you thirty minutes into the mountainous terrain of El Crucero, the lush hillsides are misleading, with a population of only several thousand people, the poverty is fierce. A town running twenty kilometers long has less than a handful of homes with running water. This is the second poorest country on earth, and this is its poorest town. This is the stuff you find on the Discovery Channel.
Between the hurricane in Houston and a faulty engine at DIA, the fact we arrived last night is a miracle in itself. Two vans took Sean and Laura Tonner with kiddos Regan and Hunter in two, Then there is family number two; Sara and Jamie Hendren with kiddos Taylor, (along with her friend Jen), Abby, Jaelyn and Ellie… and cousin Ryan from Dallas. Then there are those from Phaseline, who have as much commitment to this project as the Tonners; Monica Owens, Liz Ryan, Jess Leyba and then there is a journalist, Ak: moi. For most on the trip, this is a familiar airport, they hug the van drivers hello, and for several on the trip this country, and the people are foreign… We lug the duffel bags into the motel, with its simple layout and picnic tables outside, we're eager to crawl into a bed, hopefully not an infested one. However, two of the girls (age 10) discovered a worm in their bunk… again, this is no first class accommodation. We're here as a group to provide medical care and hopefully some infrastructure in a struggling community. That said, these kids know that their idea of work is a few hours during a summer vacation, the kids that we'll see tomorrow morning live in an unending summer where school isn't an option and while some work for a meager penance, many go to sleep in dirty beds, unfed, some with fevers, and many don't know their parents and many will become parents far too soon from when they're ready.
While the photographs depict paradise, I've realized this is anything but….
So, I'm a journalist. I was brought on this trip after editing an article about The Project in El Crucero last summer for Denver Magazine, and since I've been intrigued, albeit the tragedy in Haiti, the sores in Nicaragua didn't occur over night, but have worn through the corruption, the poverty has withheld a civil war and the Red Cross handouts, but for some reason this village doesn't seem hopeless. So not in an attempt to save the world, but rather to quench some curiosity I packed my bags and my bug spray and prepared myself for the unknown.
At The Clinic: Inside the small square building there is exposed brick and cement, and not the type people pay half a million for lofts in Lower Downtown…. and there were holes in the ceiling, a toilet that needed to be replaced, measurements and moldy dry wall to be torn down. But Sean, Jamie, Ryan, Taylor, Abby and Regan went after it and accomplished more than they planned. With some of the children of El Crucero helping carry the bits and pieces out to the trash, today they're rebuilding one of the walls.
At the Feeding Center: It took no time at all for Hunter to find his friends, many of the children whom stare at us, the white Americans with confusion… but when they see Hunter's open arms and kind eyes, they rush to him to play soccer and to have fun. The small children, the little girls and boys, those who needed laps to sit on, and hair to be played with, took quite a liking to Monica, Liz and Jess. I hung back with the teenage girls who took turns trying on my sunglasses. They devoured the rice and beans with hungry tummies and packed away more in plastic baggies to bring back to mothers and fathers.
Back At Church: After showering and putting on fresh clothes we all made our way back to the small town of El Crucero where we were greeted with Spanish music, a kid on a keyboard and another on the drums made harmonious music that yes, was quite Christian, but I'd be a liar to say it didn't entice me to dance some salsa. The elders held our hands and greeted us with the most grateful gestures as we left the small building, a square building put together by bricks I don't think we've felt closer to God.
As the day closed and we put the last of the cheese and pepperoni pizzas in our mouth there was a sense of peace and serenity. Far away from the bustle and stress of our day-to-day To Do lists, the highways and the car pools, the conference calls and deadlines, we're glad. But never for a moment are we not grateful that we can return to the chaos and the safety that is the United States. So as we embark on a 4th of July in the poorest country in Central America, and nearly the world…. we're never prouder to be Americans.