In June of this year, Bridges to Community staff visited a family who would be the next beneficiary family of the housing program in Campuzano, Nicaragua. As they approached, a young girl ran to greet them. “I’m going to get a new house,” she declared. Her mother, Esmelda Hernandez, ran after her, smiling. Esmelda applied for a home with Bridges to Community in 2013, the first year that Bridges began working with her community, located in the municipality of Nindiri.
“It was very difficult for us to get the title to our land,” she explained. Esmelda reached out to Bridges who consulted with a lawyer who was able to expedite her case. After eight months, her family was granted an official title to the land, and shortly thereafter they were selected to receive a house through Bridges to Community’s housing program. Esmelda lives with her husband, Marvin, and their two daughters: Daniela, who is six and had greeted the team, and Carla Vanessa who is 10 and attends 5th grade at the nearby primary school.
“My husband and I had worked for eight years to acquire little by little the materials to build the house we currently have,” Esmelda said of her humble home built mostly of corrugated tin. Esmelda and her husband Marvin both work at a nearby Okra farm where Marvin picks the Okra and Esmelda packages it up for shipment. “It is such a blessing to be receiving this home. It will be such a huge help for our family.”
No more than a month after that visit, Esmelda and her family were moving items into their new home, made of concrete blocks, with sturdy doors and windows. Esmelda was so grateful for all of the help she received from the Bronxville High School volunteers, who had constructed the home alongside her and her family. She says that she is planning to use the materials for the old house to attach another bedroom to the house.
Bridges to Community focuses on families in many ways. Our trips help to create a sense of family among volunteers and community members, while the projects themselves benefit families in need. But Bridges also provides the opportunity for families to get to know each other better, and grow as individuals side by side while volunteering on a project together, with Bridges Family Trips.
“These trips change you,” Marie Taylor pointed out while reflecting on the Bridges trips she has done with her family. “You learn and grow more than you could imagine in 8 days. What a blessing to grow together.”
Marie began taking her family down to Nicaragua with Bridges a few years ago, after seeing what effect the experience had on her own life. Her husband and two sons have now each been down on 2 trips with Bridges. Working with them on projects in Nicaragua has helped her see her family in a new light, especially her sons.
Marie Taylor with son
“It helps me realize what strong and independent adults my sons have evolved into. We spend the week interacting as peers, not parent and child. For all of us, we spend this week of profound emotion and growth witnessing what it was that moved each of us, and I believe that helps us understand each other far more fully as people, and allows us to support each other better when we return home.”
Mike Lahn came to Bridges Family Trips when he volunteered to be a chaperone on a trip his sons were going on. “The sponsoring organization needed chaperones, but didn’t want any parents of participating teens,” he recalled. “However, as an Emergency Room Physician, I offered certain potential skills that made me a chaperone they couldn’t refuse.” While on the trip, Mike remembers feeling guilty that he was able to see the positive influence his own children were making in the community of Derrumbadero in the Dominican Republic, but other parents couldn’t.
Mike Lahn and family
“When I returned, I discussed this with my wife and we started planning a trip open to any parent and child.” With that, the Lahn Family and Friends trip was born and that year his three children, wife, nephew, and a few of his children’s friends and their parents, including Bridges Executive Director John Hannan and his son headed down to the Dominican Republic. He describes the trip as having the “feel” of a family vacation, but “with so much more going on.”
“I think the time spent together in the DR gives us a common theme to talk about and common goals. Our trips are a common bond that we all have and will always have.” Mike is planning another family and friends trip for next spring.
Bridges offers the opportunity for families to join a trip made up of other families called Friends and Family trips, or to form their own trip like the Lahns did. Contact Bridges to Community at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how to join or start your own family trip today!
We have a wonderful variety of trips lined up for fall and winter: Fair Trade Trips, Professionals Trips, Friends & Family Trips, and more!
Plus, we can customize trips for volunteers of all ages. If you’ve been thinking about getting yourself out there and making a difference in the world, now’s the time and we have a trip for you! Email us today! info@bridgestocommunity
Robert Ganse from Derry Presbyterian Church shares his group’s Bridges to Community story from earlier this month. If you’re interested in volunteering with Bridges to Community with your church, family, school, or by yourself, email us today at email@example.com!
Michelle Morgenthal (in the middle) and Lauren Simons (on the right) with locals in El Campuzano, Nicaragua (February 2016)
My name is Michelle Morgenthal and I am a 16 year-old rising senior at Byram Hills High School in Armonk, NY. I do a lot of theater, work with special needs children, am taking the post-confirmation class at my temple, and engage in a lot of other activities in and outside of school. Bridges only entered my life in the middle of this past year, but it’s impact on my life has been huge. I wanted to intern with Bridges because of their amazing mission and my overwhelmingly positive experience on one of their service trips. I traveled to Nicaragua with my temple, Temple Shaaray Tefila, alongside the Bedford Presbyterian Church in one of their annual trips. In my sophomore year, I was in the confirmation class at my temple. All I kept hearing about was how amazing the Nicaragua trips were, so I figured I’d go and see what all the excitement was about.
My trip was over February break. After our day of sight seeing and night at the Nicaraguan-style hotel, we split up into our three communities and headed off to start building. When my group arrived in El Campuzano, it felt like I entered a different world, definitely different than I was expecting. The sense of community in Nicaragua was overwhelming and admirable. In this place where people have the least, they seemed the happiest. You couldn’t tell whose children were whose because the Nicaraguans are all so close and together, taking care of each other in whatever way possible. At the work site, everyone who stopped by would lend a hand and be completely selfless. I came into the trip thinking that I would feel bad about the amount of poverty that exists in the communities. I came out learning that poverty does not only refer to money. Nicaragua made me appreciate the amount opportunities that I have more, but also see that there is great poverty where I live in Westchester in terms of community. In Westchester, materialism seems to override the hardworking spirit and selflessness that exists in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, nobody is a stranger and people are thankful for the little things, as well as each other.
Although the trip was filled with demanding physical labor, when looking back, all I see is the time spent getting to know the locals, the millions of card games with the Nicaraguans and our nightly reflections where lifelong friends were made. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, language wasn’t a barrier when all you needed was a smile to communicate. It made me see that when there is a good reason inspiring you to work at something, it doesn’t seem so much like work. We focused on the impact we were making and what we wanted to leave behind.
Being in Nicaragua helped me come out of the “bubble” of Westchester life. I was amazed at how much we accomplished with Bridges. My small group built six houses in less than a week for families in desperate need. After my trip, I was inspired at the goal of Bridges and wanted to be more involved to see how everything works behind the scenes in organizing these life-changing trips. I look forward to my trip next year to Nicaragua and seeing how Bridges works to make such a difference.
This is a freshwater lake that is known for being the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest lake in the world. On my second trip, we took a boat tour of this lake, and we were even able to take a break to swim in the water. The boat tour left from a restaurant that also had a pool, as well as beautiful scenery, and we ate lunch while admiring the breathtaking nature- as well as the monkeys- around us.
There are several species of monkeys in Nicaragua, and it’s very likely that you’ll be able to interact with a few of them at some point during your trip. After our boat tour, we arrived back at the restaurant and found a monkey waiting patiently in a tree. Our tour guide laughed and put out his arm, and the monkey immediately came climbing down to greet him. He had been waiting for him to come back and give him some of his soda, and we all watched with delight as the monkey drank some up, then scampered back up into the tree.
Spencer with a parrot in Siuna
Nicaragua’s rainforests provide safe places for migrating birds to stop on the way up to North America, and these can be easy to spot, especially in the part of Nicaragua where we were. Over 152 species of birds have been identified in the country. We were lucky to spot several beautiful green parrots, with animated mannerisms and vibrant colored feathers. We even managed to get one to perch on a stick so we could really see him. But most of all, we all wanted to see the national bird–the Turquoise-browed Motmot or Guardabarranco, as it’s called in Nicaragua–a truly magnificent and unique bird. We finally spotted a bunch of them while visiting the laguna.
#3: LAGUNA DE APOYO
This huge lagoon spans over 21 square kilometers, with a depth of 175 meters. It was declared to be a nature reserve in 1991, and is now a protected area, which means the water is beautiful as a result. The area surrounding the lagoon possesses over 500 types of plants and trees, and a wide variety of fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Bordering it are 12 hotels and restaurants with beautiful beaches which contain opportunities for swimming, hiking, boating, scuba diving, kayaking, and bird watching. On both of my trips, we spent our last day here, swimming, eating, lounging in beach chairs and hammocks, and soaking up the sun.
#2: CITY OF GRANADA
Located about 40 kilometers away from the capital city of Managua, Granada is Nicaragua’s 6th most populous city. A Spanish colonial city with a brilliantly yellow cathedral, it is a popular destination for tourists drawn to its history, busy cobblestone streets and many shops, markets, and restaurants. However, Granada still maintains its traditional culture, with museums, folkloric dance groups, and an abundance of local foods being sold on the street. We spent a morning here during my second trip, and it was a lot of fun to be able to see this amazing colonial city with its dynamic colors and many shops and points of interest.
#1: THE PEOPLE
Without a doubt, the most beautiful thing about Nicaragua is all of the incredible people that live there. They have so much to share, so much to teach us. They are strong, friendly, caring, and open. One of the best things about Bridges trips is how much time you get to interact with people–from children to adults. To play, listen, share, work, eat, and become friends with so many people is really the most beautiful thing there is.
If you’re interested in going on a Bridges trip but are concerned that it’s going to be all work and no play, don’t worry! Here is a list of the top ten fun things I’ve done on my two service trips.
1. Spending time with the kids
Annabelle with some of the kids from Las Conchitas
If you talk to anyone who has ever been on a Bridges trip, they will tell you that one of the best parts is being able to get to know all of the amazing children. On my two trips to Nicaragua, I met kids like Raul, Tatiana, Jose, Noami, Milargo, Valeria, Marisol, Fernando, and David (a.k.a. Davicito), all of whom never failed to make me smile. We spent time coloring, playing games, knocking mangoes down from trees, and working together at the work site. It’s amazing to see how determined the children are. They will spend hours on the work site, working as hard as you allow them to, intent on helping as much as they possibly can. Many of the tears on our trip were because of those kids- leaving them behind was so difficult, especially after forming such strong connections with them.
2. Playing games
Griffin, Lili, Nick, and Kate during a heated round of Kemps
On Bridges trips, you won’t have your phone with you, and even if you do, you won’t be using it. All free time is spent playing card games, hand games, word games, and any other type of game you can think of. On my second trip, it became a ritual that we had a Kemps tournament after dinner every night. Kemps is an intense game that involves cards, partners, secret signals, and lots of screaming. Everyone had the same partner every night, so we quickly developed many alliances and rivalries. One of our trip leaders, Mr. Albano, became involved as well, developing a tournament bracket complete with seeded teams and double elimination.
3. Eating the delicious food
Emily and Gaby during lunch
Many people go into a Bridges trip not knowing what to expect in terms of food. We discovered right away that we had nothing to worry about. Groups are treated to three flavorful meals a day, and it is the freshest, most satisfying food I have ever eaten. Delicious and plentiful plates of rice and beans, juicy mangoes and pineapples, and crisp plantain chips were always waiting for us after a long day at the work site. At every meal, there was a new type of fresh fruit juice, whether it was watermelon, coconut, papaya, guava, cantaloupe, or some mixture of them all. There is an amazing group of women who are the chefs for the group, and they work very hard to make sure that nobody on the trip goes hungry.
4. Relaxing on hammocks
Cam taking a lunchtime nap in a hammock
In between the morning work session and the afternoon work session, there is typically a “siesta” period that’s about an hour and a half of free time. During this time after lunch, we usually either played with the kids or took short naps in the hammocks. On my first trip, we had four full-length hammocks, and the feeling of stretching out on one of those after a tiring morning is indescribable. On my second trip, the school we stayed at in Las Conchitas had nine hammock seats, and we had a lot of fun lounging in these while talking, laughing, and playing games with the kids during our breaks.
5. Nature walks
Mrs. Sarna and Mr. Albano leading us on a nature walk in the early morning
My trip leaders, Mr. Albano and Mrs. Sarna, would wake up at dawn every day and go for a bird-watching walk. By the third day of our trip, a group of us students decided to join them, and enjoyed it so much that we continued every day. These walks were an extraordinary experience. Being able to see the still beauty of Nicaragua in the early morning hours was breathtaking. Though our large group scared away most of the birds we might have seen, we had so much fun seeing the local community from a different point of view. We even got a glimpse of the Masaya volcano through the early morning fog, and the beauty of the landscape was stunning.
6. Truck rides
On my recent trip, the work site was a drive away from where my group was living. To get there, we would all pile into the back of a pickup truck and ride the short distance to the site. The truck has a metal guardrail around it and the driver goes very slowly, so the rides are completely safe. This quickly became one of the most fun parts of the work day. You get to see the local area, all while feeling the wind blowing through your hair and standing beside your friends, who have quickly become your family. My group would bring speakers with us on the trucks and play country music while we rode through the scenery. One thing that’s very pleasant about Nicaragua is that every stranger you meet is genuinely happy to see you. People passing by on the street would smile and wave at us as we rode by, and many little children would run along behind us, laughing and shouting hello.
7. Playing sports
When your group goes to Nicaragua, I highly recommend that you bring whatever sports equipment you can. I’ve participated in pickup baseball, soccer, frisbee, and basketball games with my groups, and we were always quickly joined by men, women, and children of the community who wanted to play, too. I’ll never forget how in a baseball game on my first trip, my friend Julian spent hours pitching to the kids, who couldn’t get enough of the practice with a real varsity baseball player. These games were a great way for me and my fellow volunteers to spend time with community members, despite the fact that there was often a language barrier holding back our conversations. With sports games, we didn’t need to be able to speak the same language- we just needed to be able to have fun playing together.
8. Eskimo ice cream
Daniela, Kerry, Rachael and I with the ice cream man in Siuna
At the end of every day at the work site in Masaya, an Eskimo ice cream man would come to our site, and Bonnie, the site coordinator for Masaya, would treat all of the volunteers and children to ice cream. The kids were delighted at the chocolate and vanilla cones they could buy, while we volunteers were excited for relief from the hot sun, and we would all have dance parties while we waited on line for our ice cream.
9. Being tourists
Kathryn, Lili, Liz, Kate, and Tallulah sightseeing in Granada
If your group completes its project on schedule, there will be a day or two at the end of the week for relaxation. Activities that I’ve experienced on these days off include visiting local markets, going for boat rides, swimming in lakes, and sightseeing in the cities. Granada is an amazing Spanish colonial city, and it was very fun for us to be able to have some free time to walk around, purchase souvenirs, and see the beauty of the city. In addition, on my first trip, we spent an afternoon at the Laguna de Apoyo nature reserve, and had a great time swimming and relaxing as a final goodbye to Nicaragua.
10. Celebrating the new house that you built!
My work site group and me with Walter and Berta’s family at the house celebration
At the end of the week, regardless of the type of project your group was working on, there will be a celebration of the community to celebrate what you accomplished together. The beneficiary families attend, as do many members of the community. There will be music, dancing, a piñata, food, and speeches given as you and your group say your final goodbyes to the families that have become your own throughout the week. This day is very bittersweet. It’s amazing to see how grateful the family is for what you have helped them to do, but it is also very sad to have to say goodbye to all of your new friends. Many of us spent this entire day crying as we repeatedly hugged each of the children we had befriended throughout the week. It’s difficult to explain the impact that these families will have on you during your trip, and the only true way to understand is to go and see for yourself.
Bridges to Community is proud to be contributing to many of the 17 goals laid out by the United Nations in its Agenda for Sustainable Development. In just the first few months of 2016, Bridges volunteers have built 29 houses, performed 2 house repairs, installed 10 latrines and biodigesters, and built 7 smoke-reducing stoves, impacting the lives of 50 families and their communities.
In honor of this holiday, it’s time to celebrate all of the families in the United States, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic who contribute to our global Bridges community! You can read here about some of the families we’ve helped, with the incredible stories of Idania, Karelia, Margarita and Karla, and Jacqueline and more.
Bridges works to help all types of families by providing a safe and secure home for those in need. With help from dedicated Bridges volunteers, beneficiary families go from living in houses made of rotted wood and tin roofs to houses made of cinder blocks and cement. It may be difficult to understand how life-changing this upgrade can be, but the difference between an unstable shack and a sturdy, weather-proof structure can completely alter the lives of generations to come.
International Day of Families is about more than just celebrating those who share DNA with you- it’s about celebrating all of the people you love, whether they live down the street, across the country, or even on another continent!
My name is Alicia Bracco, and I am a senior at Fox Lane High School. I live in Mount Kisco with my parents and older brother, who is a student at George Washington University. I was introduced to Bridges during my sophomore year when I went on a week-long volunteer trip to Nicaragua. At the time, I had no idea what to expect, and was excited to be trying something so foreign to me. My group traveled to Siuna, where we worked alongside community members to complete a maternity hospital. This was my first service trip experience, and it completely changed my life. Seeing the intense poverty in Nicaragua was not the only thing that shocked me- experiencing the compassion, determination, and hardworking spirit of the people there was what made my trip so unforgettable.
After this trip, I became very involved with my school’s Bridges to Community Club. Our club organizes fundraisers, car washes, and silent auctions throughout the year to raise money for the trip, and each spring break we send around twenty students to Nicaragua. I was selected to be an officer of the club for my senior year, and went on my second service trip, this time to Masaya, this past March. This trip was very different from my previous one because now we were working to build houses instead of a hospital. Our group of eighteen was divided in half, and we completed two houses alongside the people of La Ceibita, a small, welcoming community in Masaya.
In addition to my work with Bridges to Community, I am also a tennis player and a runner. I have played varsity tennis for my school since my sophomore year, and joined the track team for the first time this spring. This fall, I’ll be going to college, and am planning to study International Development in order to continue in this field. I am very excited to be interning with Bridges this spring, and can’t wait to learn more about the amazing work done by this organization.
Carnegie Mellon University has partnered with Bridges to Community since 2010, bringing dozens of volunteers down to Nicaragua to engage in meaningful service-learning. In this video, CMU explains how their service-learning partnership with Bridges has worked for them, and they look forward to their upcoming trip in July. This video also forms part of their fundraising effort, which they do through crowdfunding. You can see their page here.