Greene County High School seniors Karter Ruzicka and Kate Beyerink give donated school supplies to a rural school in Granada, Nicaragua.

‘Less money and less stuff, but much more love’

Local Spanish students get a glimpse of life south of the border on Nicaragua trip


More than two dozen Greene County High students still feel the effects of trading the cornfields of Iowa for the volcanoes of Nicaragua during a school trip in April.

“The one thing that I really got out of it — it just really makes me appreciate what we have here,” said senior Justine Lawson. “Sometimes we take things for granted.”

The 25 juniors and seniors voted on Nicaragua for the annual trip out of other Central American countries such as Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica.

The students spoke only Spanish during the majority of their time in Nicaragua, which they said was a difficult but beneficial learning experience.

Students studying Spanish begin raising money for the $1,000 trip during their freshmen year.

Those who decide to go on the trip pay the difference of what they raised.

A scholarship fund — created from the money of students who decide not to follow through with the trip — allows for a few other students to take part in the experience.

Both students and teachers said the willingness of the community to buy an extra tub of cookie dough or a roll of wrapping paper goes a long way toward helping students expand their education.

“A student grows so much by getting out of the country,” said Amy van der Meer, who has taught Spanish for 20 years. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bridge that cultural gap and see how many things we do have in common with them, and how many things that are different.”

Stepping off the plane into hot and humid Nicaragua — much like Iowa summer weather, students said — brought at least some differences to attention.

Kate Beyerink, a senior who’s now thinking of minoring in Spanish in college, said she was not prepared for how Nicaraguans treat the abundance of monkeys on city trees and streets the way Iowans treat squirrels.

Gabe Bardole, a senior, said he was pleasantly surprised by the way Nicaraguans greeted the students.

“People always talk about ‘Iowa nice,’ ” Bardole said. “They take that tenfold. You walk by someone, you always say ‘hi.’ Everyone is just so nice there.”

The trip to Nicaragua took students to the smoking summit of active volcanoes and the ocean, where many of the students from land-locked Greene County had never been. Many students also said rocketing down a zip line was a highlight of their trip.

While in Nicaragua, host families housed two students at a time, which students said was a valuable experience because they realized they had to relearn or adjust to the cultural differences they talked about in class.

Bardole said he had to learn to get friendly with the native cockroaches.

Beth Vander Wilt, the other Spanish teacher on the trip, said she noticed the experiences paying off when she heard students comparing what they experienced just while staying with host families.

“The conversation that I would hear as we were together was, ‘What did your family serve you last night? Well, we got this. What’s your family’s living room look like? How many brothers do you have?’ ” Vander Wilt said. “Then I think, ‘Yes, that’s what I want. I want them to have that culture.’ ”

Despite the other activities, the students said the most eye-opening and rewarding experience was traveling to a rural and impoverished school, where local students delivered school supplies donated by Jefferson community members and served students a snack of milk and cereal.

Extras were given to the children around the community whose parents could not afford to send them to school.

“It’s nothing like what you see on TV. They glorify it on TV,” said junior Stacy Mears. “You get there and then it’s, like, way worse. The houses around the school are literally dirt. I wasn’t expecting that.

“I didn’t realize people could live in those conditions.”

Lawson said she noticed another sign that alluded to the condition of the rural Nicaraguan community.

“We have cows, and our cows are really fat because we feed them,” the senior said of cows in Iowa. “I saw a lot of cows roaming around and they were so skinny, and I saw stray dogs everywhere. It just made me really sad.”

However, Vander Wilt said while it was rewarding to see high school students want to make a difference in the community, they also learned about the Nicaraguan culture as a whole.

“The thing of it is, they weren’t malnourished,” Vander Wilt said of the children. “They just don’t have the extravagant things that we have. But are they loved? Yes. Do they enjoy their childhood? Yeah.”

Bardole agreed that while the difference in lifestyles was obvious, there is no reason to solely pity members of the rural Nicaraguan community.

“A lot of things people were saying when we get there is, ‘This is sketch.’ It’s different, it’s not a bad different,” Bardole said. “People were talking about how poor they were all the time. Yes, they might have less money and less stuff, but they have so much more love.”

Vander Wilt said one of the prominent goals for the trip was to also open students’ eyes to a different culture and to denounce previously held stereotypes.

“The parents of these kids would remember, not too long ago, Nicaragua was in a civil war. The home where we stayed in, the man actually fought in the war. The United States was their enemy back then,” Vander Wilt said. “Now it’s just so different because they welcome us with open arms.

“I hope that by actions like what we just did, it unites people and dismisses stereotypes and bad feelings. Hopefully, these kids share that information with their parents, and that makes a good effect.”

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