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Students volunteer over winter break in the village of Samulali, Nicaragua

By Tara Pokras, Special to The Chronicle

I swish around in my sleeping bag as I hear the roosters crowing in the distance. I pull myself out of my slumber, throw my old jeans and t-shirt on and head to the latrine and sink outside. Eventually, we head down the dirt-covered road to our host Myra's, house, where a lovely breakfast sits of rice and beans, eggs and fresh fruit. We make conversation with her children and laugh when someone makes a mistake in Spanish. After that, we head to the worksite where I participate in the hardest physical labor of my life.

This past winter break, seven University students volunteered in the village of Samulali in Nicaragua. Hofstra University Hillel was selected for the first time by American Jewish World Service to run an Alternative Break program. American Jewish World Service, also known as AJWS, is an international development organization dedicated to fighting hunger, poverty and disease among people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality.

"Hillel wanted to do this trip so we could continue to be a resource for students that want to do community service. Many people questioned why we were going to Nicaragua, but people don't realize that Judaism tells us to help anyone in need, not just Jewish people," said Abbii Cook, the Wohl Engagement Coordinator for Hofstra Hillel.

They partnered Hofstra Hillel with the Nicaraguan non-governmental organization La Fundacion Denis Ernesto Gonzalez, or FDEG. FDEG works for the youth and peasantry of Nicaragua through projects in sustainable agriculture, sports, culture, drug-use prevention and the environment.

From January 10 to 17, University students lugged rocks, sand and bricks as well as dug the foundation for a cement path to connect the preschool to other school buildings. During the raining season, the ground where the school buildings lay become extremely muddy and children track mud into their classroom. The path that we helped construct will prevent this from occurring.

"What surprised me the most was how the community was so appreciative and welcoming of us," said Lilly Goldberg, a freshman Drama and Speech Pathology major. Every day, teachers, parents and their children would come to work along side us and take part in our effort. One teacher and her son, who normally walk two hours to get to the school, came to help us on their vacation time.

After doing many hours of physical labor we would meet with community members and get tours of the area to understand the social problems of Samulali and how they are trying to fix them.

"The lack of access to education was extremely surprising to me. Kids have to walk miles and miles every day to get an education," said Miranda Sulley, a junior Anthropology major.

Once children in Samulali get through public primary and secondary school, there is no option for public high school. They have to either take the bus to the closest city of Matagalpa or they can go private school, but both options require money that many families in Samulali do not have.

We also met with a non-profit organization that has built a cafeteria near the school where we worked. They provide over 600 kids a day with a warm lunch that for some may be their only meal of the day.

Another problem we came across was the lack of government support. Myra, our host, explained to me one day how her and many others have written to the government for government funding for teachers for a public high school. They have non-governmental help, like FDEG, that could help them build the school, but they need government funding to pay the teachers in order to make it public so that all children can attend. It amazed me how the community has acknowledged their problems and are trying to fix them despite the lack of support from the government.

As our week slowly came to an end, we all had a new found perspective of Nicaragua, international development and the true meaning of necessities. The families that we met throughout the week had such an optimistic view of life despite that they have very little. All they want is to be able to provide is food, shelter, and education to their children. This is something that we as Americans often take for granted.

Although going back to Nicaragua may not be a possibility for many of us right now, we have all been inspired to help other communities in need. Cook said, "This experience has been extremely powerful and inspirational to everyone. I think that the students have a new found energy for community service that hopefully they will share with Hofstra upon their return."

As a group, as well as individually, we have been asked by AJWS to do a project upon our return from Nicaragua. The idea is that our commitment to social justice is never going to be complete and this trip is just the beginning of it.

"I would like to come back to Hofstra, and begin educating my peers on how to take action against poverty starting with our own backyard of Hempstead. It is our duty to bring this experience to people's attention, and to not let it fade away," said Sulley.


Students volunteered over the winter recess in Nicaragua (Photo courtesy of Abbii Cook)

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