Is the stress of the holidays or getting ready for year-end 2015 getting you down? While it is a busy time of the year for us, both personally and in business, it’s also a good time to think about those who are less fortunate and who need our help.
With that in mind, while most of us were enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday with our families, Emma Yu and Cecilie Sorenson of Host Analytics participated in a mission trip to Nicaragua with an organization called buildOn. I recently had a chance to interview the duo about their trip, and here’s what they had to say about their experience.
John: Can you tell me about buildOn and how you got connected to them?
Cecilie: BuildOn’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations in the world through service and education. They are breaking the cycle every day through service learning programs in some of the nation’s toughest high schools and by building schools in some of the world’s poorest countries. Emma and I attended their annual fundraising gala in June and were inspired by the speakers, including local students and volunteers.
We have both wanted to get more involved with philanthropy and our local community. BuildOn is the best of both worlds because it allows you to help locally as well as globally. We decided to start a committee at work to encourage colleagues to help out and introduce them to volunteer opportunities.
Emma: To add to Cecilie’s answer, it has been important for us to volunteer and give our time to efforts outside of ourselves. This seemed like a perfect outlet. Especially living in the Bay Area, it can be easy to “live in a bubble” and be unaware of the rest of the world’s hardships. Our world is so interconnected now in countless ways – so working with an organization that has both local and international initiatives was extremely important.
John: What was the mission of your trip to Nicaragua?
Cecilie: Our primary mission was to start the construction of a primary school in a remote village that would otherwise not have access to a properly built building designated for primary education. And secondly, while there, to recruit and work with local villagers, who would then continue and complete the project once we departed.
John: Wow, sounds challenging. How did you raise the funds to make the trip/build the school?
Emma: We did a few different things. We had an online auction with items donated by small businesses in SF, as well as from friends and colleagues. We also held a couple of fundraising parties where the venues donated a portion of the drink sales, and we received an overwhelming amount of donations from friends, family, and colleagues. It typically takes 6-12 months to fundraise for a trek. We tried to do it in 3-4 months. Thus, it was a ton of work, but once we arrived in Nicaragua, we knew it was worth all the stress, sweat, and tears.
John: What was life like in Nicaragua? Where did you stay?
Cecilie: It was pretty exciting. After arriving in Managua, we drove about 6 hours inland to a remote village in the mountains called Guapinol #2. The village has a population of roughly 300. The houses were usually constructed from wood. Some were better constructed than others – and depending on the family’s wealth, some had cement floors and indoor toilets and baths. And by bath, we mean a tub of cold water where you scoop out the water and pour it over yourself. There wasn’t any running hot water in this village, and toilets were manually flushed by a bucket of water.
To our surprise, the village had some electricity, and some people even had cell phones and TVs with cable. The area we were in was known for its coffee, and the majority of the villagers worked in the coffee plantations. The family we stayed with owned acres of land used to grow coffee. They were well-off compared to the other villagers. For example, they had a cook, an indoor toilet, and a few electrical outlets they used for lights or their TV.
John: What was your typical day like in Guapinol #2?
Emma: Every morning by around 5:30, we would wake up to the sound of tortillas being made – basically, the loud pounding of the dough against the table. And pretty much every meal consisted of Nicaraguan-style rice and beans, or “Gallo Pinto.” We would meet up with our group every morning at 7 a.m. for breakfast.
After breakfast, we would go to the school construction site and work until lunch. After lunch, we would do a cultural workshop to learn more about the area and people. We toured a coffee plantation for one. For another, we were able to interview separate panels of men and women from the village. The villagers were able to ask us questions in some group meetings. We also milked cows in the morning – it’s a lot harder than it looks.
Cecilie: Yeah, Emma actually got knocked over by a cow she was milking due to a competing hungry calf, and we have it on video. In the afternoon, we would hang out with our host families. Emma and I would help them cook dinner and play with the children. All the food we had was amazing and so fresh – “farm to table” as they call it in the U.S. Families there don’t have refrigerators.
Our host family had kids in the house – two of them were the cook’s children. Despite not having very much materially, compared to our standards, the villagers were some of the most generous, kind, and happy people we have ever met. We believe traveling humbles you. You realize that all of your problems and concerns at home are silly things to stress out about. We live in a culture that never seems to be happy with what we have and that always wants more. This experience was life changing because it puts needs versus wants into perspective.
John: Wow, you really got a taste for life in that area. What kind of work did you perform there?
Cecilie: Believe it or not, I worked with rebar a lot. We had to make 16 columns for the school structure. I also dug holes for the rebar, mixed cement with a shovel, and moved bricks on the worksite. Luckily, the weather was perfect for this kind of work. Because we were in the mountains, it wasn’t humid, and the temperature was around 70 F during the day.
Emma: I did the same work as Cecilie. It was all manual labor since there wasn’t any machinery to mix the cement or build the rebar. It was great to be so physically active all day and work with our hands and the strength of our physical bodies – versus sitting in an office all day. By the time lunch and dinner rolled around, we were so famished that even the simplest of foods, like rice and beans with their local coffee with sugar, tasted amazing!
John: I’ll bet you slept well at night after all of that hard work. How were you received by the locals?
Cecilie: It was amazing. As we pulled up to the village, the whole village had come out to welcome us. We were sat down and greeted by leaders in the village. There were a couple of speeches, and the kids put on a few performances. We ended the welcome ceremony by signing a covenant. Everyone in our group and all the villagers signed it. Those who couldn’t write their own name could use their thumbprints. The covenant was an agreement between us and the village that we would work together on this project and that the school board would have equal representation of women and men.
John: What was the biggest surprise to you on this trip?
Cecilie: I was pretty surprised with how well I adapted to the community. The living conditions didn’t bother me. I was a bit surprised that some of the villagers had cell phones and TV as well.
Emma: I was very impressed by buildOn’s ability to organize and lead this trek. I knew they were supposed to be very good, but I witnessed and experienced first-hand the ability of a well-run NGO. For example, the local Nicaragua buildOn employees were very effective and good at what they do – they really fostered and facilitated the building of a solid relationship with us and the villagers.
John: What were your key learnings from the trip?
Cecilie: Good question. This trip really gave me a greater appreciation for life. I think I speak for both Emma and I when I say the trip humbled us. Every time I’m about to freak out about something at work or in my personal life, I reflect back on the trip and tell myself – my problems aren’t really problems. We traveled with an amazing group of people and have made friends for life. This is by far the best way to make a small difference and travel and learn about new cultures at the same time. I’m already planning my next trip to Nepal for New Year’s 2016/2017. I would recommend this experience to anyone.
Emma: Yes, a trip like this really gives you a greater appreciation for what we already have. It was one of the best experiences I have had in my life – so it reminded me how important it is to make time to volunteer and give time to your community – both locally and globally. I would like to build more schools and plan to volunteer regularly. Also, I’m inspired to bring my son when he is old enough to volunteer. The family we traveled with brought their two young kids, ages 8 and 6. I was really impressed by the couple’s commitment to this cause by bringing their kids along to contribute and work alongside us at the site.
John: Nice work, ladies. I’m sure your story will inspire others to consider participating in mission trips like this. How can people learn more about buildOn and support their mission?
Cecilie: You can go to http://www.buildon.org/ to learn more about their mission to break the cycle of poverty through education. Half of their effort is spent locally, working with inner-city high school students. The other half is spent internationally building schools in third-world countries. They do a lot of local volunteer work and operate in multiple states. I would encourage you to sign up for their newsletter, so you can get notification about any upcoming events. It is a very transparent organization and ranked highest on charity navigator – one of the reasons we also decided to partner with them.
John: Awesome. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and for taking time away from your families at Thanksgiving to do this important work. It is truly inspiring!