After months of discussion and preparation, we had finally arrived in the community of El Toro in Nicaragua.
Along with 10 other Panhellenic Association women from Indiana University, I had committed to building a school in a Nicaraguan community. The IU Panhellenic community had spent months of hard work fundraising for Circle of Sisterhood, a foundation dedicated to providing education to girls around the world. We were the 11 lucky women who got to attend this Circle of Sisterhood partnered trek with the organization Build On, which promises to build and complete schools in developing countries.
I stepped off the bus and walked toward the welcome ceremony, where community members awaited our arrival with prepared speeches and Nicaraguan dance performances.
I was fully prepared to experience a wave of emotions. I knew I would be living in these poverty conditions with a host family, building a school for children who did not have the opportunity for education, and adapting to the culture and customs of the people of El Toro. I was ready to discover unknown strengths within, and motivation to help others.
What I was not prepared for was discovering an abundance of weaknesses within myself.
My first full day in El Toro was overwhelming.
When I awoke in my cot, surrounded by a mosquito net, it took me a minute to remember where I was. The dirt floor, two-bedroom, wooden house was alive at 5 in the morning with my bustling host family as my host mom and sister-in-law prepped for the day’s long list of house chores, and my host brothers readied to get to work on the building of the school.
The hours we spent every day at the build site were by far the most difficult parts of my days in Nicaragua. Learning to use pick-axes and shovels without power tools or electricity was a true test of my strength. I was 125 pounds of pure determination, but I severely lacked muscle and upper body strength.
My trek group and I spent hours digging trenches and carrying cement blocks up the giant hill to the build site. We often turned to each other to boost morale and motivate ourselves to stay strong, because the kids of El Toro deserved this school. I found myself getting fatigued halfway through the workday, just in time to turn and see the women of the community arriving to help after their long morning of housework. They spent their mornings doing the physical labor around the house, cooking, cleaning, and caring for their livestock, and they still found the time to join us at the build site, working harder than some of the men. As I watched these women carrying two bricks at a time up the hill, I realized how weak I was.
I had spent my entire life living in the comfort of privilege. I woke up every morning in my air-conditioned home, took for granted the opportunity to go to school every day and achieve a higher education, and never once had to worry about putting food on the table for my family. During my week in El Toro, I saw incredible physical and emotional strength in others that I had not known existed before then.
They had nothing, yet they gave us everything.
In a village where food was sparse and electricity was a luxury, these families welcomed us into their homes and did everything in their power to make us feel welcomed as special guests. They served us food before they ate themselves, taught us how to dance and cook the Nicaraguan way, and introduced us to a way of life filled with pure love and joy.
The people of El Toro were happier than anyone I’ve ever met, and the women were stronger than any women I’ve ever known. I may have discovered limitations within myself, but I learned from those around me how to harness these weaknesses into strength: the strength to persevere.
I left El Toro with overwhelming appreciation and love from and for the people. As our bus drove away on that final day and we watched our host families wave goodbye to us, I realized that we may have given them a
school, but what they gave us was so much more valuable. They had taught us what it truly meant to persevere. We learned that no matter how much or how little you have, there is always something to give to others.
I have been back home now for a few weeks, and it has been a hard adjustment to the life that I knew. I am so fortunate to have an abundance of opportunities, from receiving a higher education to being free to choose my own path in life. Because of this, I believe that it is my moral duty to give what I can to others and to help provide greater opportunities for those who aren’t as lucky as I am. I see the world as changed now.