Tag Archives: Ecuador

Defining Normal

define normal

During my stay in Ecuador we participated in nightly reflections. Each time there would be a theme, a reading and a series of questions or statements to prompt discussion. Towards the end of the trip, the question was asked, “What is something that has changed for you during your journey?” A number of answers and stories were shared by the group. Billy, our service leader host shared with us, “I’ve been here for a few months now and the thing that has changed the most for me is the definition of what is normal.”

In the past week, I’ve seen people’s capacity to do a lot of different things and it has really raised this question again in my mind,

How do we define normal? Can we even do it?

I haven’t written for a while and that is because on October 15 I took a job as a Triage Worker for an organization working to end homelessness in a growing region of Massachusetts. Whenever I met people in the organization who asked about my background of school and work, I’d answer, “English and Art”  resulting in the same strange look. But two weeks ago, an employee I hadn’t met yet introduced himself and we got to talking. He was also an artist who flat-out just enjoyed helping people. But when the question of my background came up, he didn’t give me any strange looks, he thought it was awesome and asked very casually why I loved being here. My response,

“I’m a writer, I love characters.”

He laughed all too knowingly of his next statement,

“We have plenty of those here.”

Because working in a shelter, you see and meet a LOT of characters. You meet people with stories that simply couldn’t be written. I’ve wanted to write a lot of them for a while now but due to confidentiality and the fragility of starting my first career, being cautious was my first move. But after getting my boss’ permission (who is a wonderful boss if she is reading this) to write about my work and some of the cases I deal with,  recent events in particular have pushed me to the keyboard.

When I first joined the organization, I went through a rigorous two-week training program. I had to learn every in and out of this organization. Two months later, I haven’t stopped learning for one day. But those two weeks were crunch time. At one orientation in particular, directed by the organization’s COO, she told a story about why our organization is different from others. Her words were,

“We don’t give up.”

My first reaction to this statement was a positive one. Of course I had no interest in giving up. As a fresh young graduate starting small in a large non-profit, giving  up on anything was the farthest thought from my mind. But over the past few months, things have proven difficult with this motto holding firm in my head. Because the people who come to me everyday are the ones who have been given up on by everyone else in their lives. And unfortunately, many show and explain legitimate reasons to be given up on. But my job description doesn’t include judgement, it includes getting them to the point of self-sufficiency so that there is no need to be given up on again.

But getting there is no easy journey.

When you are sitting at home, warm, comfortable, satisfied with life, is that normal?

When you are sitting across from a man strung out on heroine and alcohol,  is that normal?

Most that I know would said no to the latter. But consider that for that man, that is his normal. His world populated by drugs and alcohol is all he knows.

The difficulty is not in defining normal, but in tolerating it and even more, respecting it.

Because while we grow up in a middle class lifestyle sharing in the common differences that is human nature, we lack the knowledge of the vast and rare differences that the world is populated with. What is normal for some unfortunately is seen so poorly by others.

What sparked this concept in my head were multiple instances last week. Each dealing with a different scale of normal.


The first was talking to a friend who was upset about her boyfriend and his actions of late. She expressed her frustration with his lack of knowledge of seemingly obvious boyfriend etiquette. I asked how many girlfriends he had in the past. She stated none, she was the first. Being objective, it seemed clear that of course he didn’t know “obvious boyfriend etiquette”, he had never been a boyfriend before. But her definition of normal wouldn’t let her accept this answer. But his concept of normal wouldn’t let him to understand her frustration.


About two weeks ago a gentleman came into the shelter with bloodshot eyes. We drug tested him and he came up positive for heroine. I told him there wasn’t a penalty, it was more for liability we needed to be aware. He seemed lost and confused and I handed him my card and said come here in two days and I’ll help you. He returned in two days and had been sober for all of 2 hours and withdrawals had begun. We went to my office and began calling detox centers all over. One after another they said they were filled and the look of disappointment swept over his face. I told him we were going to keep calling. He asked “Why are you helping me? I’ve never done anything for you.” I looked back and before I could answer, he saw a bracelet on my wrist which I have worn for years. He spoke up again, “What does that say?” I responded,

“Mitakuye Oyasin.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“We are all related.”

He smiled and sat back. I called the next detox and sure enough they had an open spot. I drove him there, shook his hand and explained to find me when he was clean and we’d take a next step. I felt proud until the next day he stumbled into the shelter smelling of alcohol. But I didn’t see him for quite a few days after that. Until mid last week when he came pounding on the front door. I happened to be there and answered asking how he was doing. He was clearly intoxicated and said confidently,

“I am going to go jump in front of a train, I’m going to go kill myself.”

My heart sank and I felt myself go into shock. I had him sit down inside to run to my boss and ask what to do. Within the hour we had him sitting with a counselor talking. When they were done, he went to bed. The counselor who was from outside the organization asked me his story. When I explained it she was surprised we still helped despite the self discharge from the detox. She seemed judgmental. I had this moment of clarity when I realized that despite this being her job, she would have given up. Because something I was taught early on in my training was that you must suspend your judgement when working. But  more importantly, you must suspend your definition of what is normal. Because if you sit in silence with anyone thinking, that isn’t normal, then the barriers to the relationship will never go away.


Last night I was at a family Christmas party and we decided to get a fire going in the backyard. One cousin who is 25 and another who is 19 went out to the back to start it up and I joined. We huddle around the small but growing flames chatting and catching up. When two of our little cousins, ages 7 and 10, ran out to join us, they wanted to throw everything they could find into the fire. My older cousin and I assumed the parental roles in the situation to make sure our littlest cousins weren’t about to be barbecued. He, a teacher, got very stern and strict with them. I, a case manager, took the more casual and relaxed route.

My other cousin of 19 stood back laughing at the two of conducting different parenting styles and stated he enjoyed not being one of the “older cousins” quite yet. He openly continued to comment on our personality types busting out as we tried to prevent the little cousins from burning down the property. Eventually when it came to putting out the fire and having the little ones go inside, it was young parenting at its finest. His teacher voice was in full discipline mode while I quickly understood that these two had no intention of obeying him or I in a parenting duel. My response was walking over and tossing them both over my shoulder and taking them inside. When I put them down inside, half the family was laughing and half was appalled. I explained the situation and my uncle, their grandfather, stated “did what you had to do.”

I walked back outside and helped put the fire out. My younger cousin still laughing at how the two of us handled it in our different ways. And it made me realize how someday my older cousin, who I refer to as my older brother, will have kids. And I’ll have kids. And those kids will be very different from one another. They will be raised, like we were, by two very different sets up parents. But he will love mine and I will love his, unconditionally. Because while we all have our own particular definitions of normal, it makes no one else’s wrong or bad, it makes it their own.

There were a lot of instances from the past week that made me think of this concept. But with each one I tried to stop myself and ask, “Is it just someone else’s normal?” And I think it’s a valid question to ask when dealing with the things we don’t understand. Because that’s just it. We don’t understand them. I think there is a lot we don’t understand in this world. About each other, about different cultures, about the world. And instead of thinking it is wrong or weird, we should strive to understand and appreciate why is it someone’s normal.

Webster’s Dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” And I guess you have to ask yourself, how do you define normal?


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If you really knew me you would know…

My last written post was a talk that I had given on my senior retreat. Before the talk, my friend Bri introduced me. She said some very flattering words and then gave me a photo of the two of us and a jar. Written on the jar was the following, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” -Ralph Waldo Emerson. Inside the small sized glass jar were what seemed to be a few dozen slips of paper. She knew that two of my passions were writing and taking photos. Each slip of paper had either a journal or photo prompt. The jar sat on my desk for the last few months of school and after I had graduated, moved home and unpacked, I took the jar and placed it on my desk. I don’t like to put meaningless things on my desk, that way whatever sits upon it has my focus.

With the first few weeks of summer spent doing little besides working out, relaxing and recouping after a very busy semester, I found myself sitting at the computer with blank word documents struck with writer’s block. I really wanted to write. I wanted to do nothing but write. I hoped that perhaps in the first few months of post-grad I could spill out the great American novel. But as a lot of writers know, sometimes the words just don’t come. Finally I forced my hand to reach into the glass jar and pull out a prompt. The slip of paper read,

Journal Prompt: “If you really knew me you would know…”


I thought a lot about the prompt. What did it mean? I put it aside and walked away. But as the week went on, this idea kept coming up in my head.

“If you really knew me…”

Who is you? Who am I answering? Who is it that knows me? Is it my friends or family? Is it people I’ve known for days, months, years?

“…you would know…”

What would you know? How do I sum up who I am in ONE entry? I think its impossible, but I also think that isn’t what Brianna wanted me to do. Last week was a really long week. It seemed like day-by-day I was getting hit back and forth with unfortunate circumstances. So by this morning, it finally hit me. How could I describe myself in one post? So I thought of the top 5 things most pertinent to who I am today and why I find them to be so important in knowing me.

(In no particular order)

1. Time is irrelevant.

In four years of college, I came to admire many people. I had a lot of inspiring professors and mentors over the course of my education. But one stood out. Him and I were often spotted bickering back and forth about silly nonsense. He was a priest and campus minister named Father Dinh. Many on campus knew Dinh. He was a very loving and gentle man. His words were often very inspiring.

An example of his wisdom? One time in conversation he stated, “Your heart is your home. What do you see when you walk into a home? Pictures, photographs, memories of loved ones. In your heart rests the images of those you care about most. You choose which photos you hang up, which ones you take down, which ones you throw away. You choose which ones get the best light and which ones sit in the darkest corners.”

He is a very prophetic man. But one of the most common things you will hear come out of his mouth is, “Time Does Not Exist”. Anyone who knows him well has heard him say this. It is something I agree with. Perhaps not 100%, but I believe there is a lot of truth in it. Last spring I spent some time working in Pine Ridge, South Dakota on the Oglala Lakota Native American reservation. While we did a lot of good labor work to help them during our time there, we also spent a good portion of our timing learning about their culture. Something that was stressed to us upon our arrival was to leave our watches and our phones in our rooms, basically any device that could tell time. The Natives of the land strongly believed that there was no need to follow the strict rules of time. Time is constraining. The length of a conversation does not make it a good conversation. Spending long hours doing hard work doesn’t mean it is good work. It is purely the quality of things that make them good.

I am a big believer in this concept that time is irrelevant. As a journalist, I have to adhere to deadlines. I am not speaking about time specific to one idea. This world is so wrapped up in time, always needing to know how long its been, how long they have to wait, or how long things will take. I like to believe that there is a beauty in timelessness. Especially after just graduating, time is simply the greatest commodity one can have. Why waste time counting it? Why not just be timeless?

2. I HATE social media.

When I publish a new post from this blog, it gets sent to my twitter account and followers of the blog. I can count on one hand the amount of times I go on twitter a week. But there is no Facebook in my life. In September I found that I was traceable via my Facebook. At first I didn’t think this was a big deal. But when people knew where i was ALL the time, it creeped me out. When it started affecting my relationships to the point that I couldn’t go out with a friend without someone asking why they weren’t invited, it got very irritating. At one in October, my roommate and I sat at our desks and were on our laptops. We were both on Facebook and he commented how much time we waste on the site. We sit down at our computers and the first thing we do is check to see if we have a notification and then get caught up in browsing the newsfeed. I took it to heart and started considering deactivating my profile. I talked about it with a few friends and the consensus stated I would probably not do it. I heard comments along the lines of “you won’t be able to see pictures of yourself and how will you keep up with your friends?” These things made me want to deactivate it more. Do they really think I am that conceited that I need to constantly check pictures of myself? I have over 600 friends on Facebook, I talk to maybe 10 percent of them. If we are really friends, we’ll still keep in touch. So one night I finally deleted it and it felt so free.

A few months later I found out I needed to get a Facebook for a class I was taking. It was a student run show and we needed Facebook accounts to keep in touch with one another. I agreed and said I would make a fake one. I didn’t want a Facebook. I had a life free from it. Why was I going to let it tie me back down again? So I created it. I loaded ONE picture and posted a status that said it was a fake page that I was using to stay in contact for my class. Well the kids in the class friended me so I accepted. Then mutual friends of theirs started finding me. Quickly all my friends started finding this fake page. I started getting accused of hiding from them. People actually got angry at me for not friending them with my FAKE FACEBOOK PAGE. Some people grew suspicious as to if we were friends at all because we weren’t Facebook friends.


To quote one of my favorite films (Zoolander), “Does no one else get it? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

In the last two weeks of school, I started saying to people that I would be deleting the fake page soon and they were all surprised. Why are you deleting it again? Clearly they didn’t understand that I was serious when I said it was fake and I would be deleting it when I was done with the class.

While my posts have been scarce in the past few months, I love having a blog. Because as a writer, I feel like I’m actually expressing real emotions as opposed to depressing one line lyrics via Twitter (which I am guilty of). But I hate what texting, Facebook, twitter and other social media have done to human interaction. People don’t know how to interact anymore and that is just sad. When you can’t hold a conversation, write a letter or just express emotion without the help of technology to do so, something has gone wrong.

3. I LOVE wearing suits.

Since my last post was about hating something, this can be about loving something. I love to wear suits. My roommates and close friends used to tease me because if an event was ever slightly upper scale at college, I suited up. Quoting one of my favorite characters of all time, Barney Stinson, “Suits distinguish”.

When I was in high school, I participated in an extracurricular called Forensics. It was the process of speech giving. We competed locally and nationally. These competitions were judged and we were ranked based on presentation of both speech and self. Our coach who was one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met, taught me more than anyone ever has. He drilled this concept of professionalism into our heads. Our school was known as the black suits. As long it was a black suit with solid colors, he approved. For six years, I sported solid black suits with an assortment of shirts and ties. While at first it was an irritation, I came to find that this level of professionalism paid off. Not only was I winning competitions, I found it to be a highly respectable choice of attire.

The concept of professionalism never really left me. In my last year of college, I was very strict to separate my personal and professional life. A close friend commented once about half way through the year that despite trying to consciously separate the two, we were at college. This didn’t really offer a huge opportunity for keeping two separate. So if I had to pick one over the other, I was going to pick professionalism. While this is not a fact that I want to bullet as a fact one might know about me, it deserves mentioning. I hate being intoxicated. When I got to college I had no desire to drink. I didn’t for a year and a half. I started it because of personal insecurities and hardships I was going through at the time and it got out of hand. But when I started realizing more and more that I was going to have to choose either a professional lifestyle or a reckless one, I was going to choose professional. Any problem I’ve had in the past two years has involved alcohol. Professionalism has always lead to scholarship, never problems. Suits are merely a metaphor for my personal preference to appear and preform on a professional level, and I love them.

4. I define the word PROBLEM different than most.

When I came back from Ecuador, I had seen a lot. If you aren’t sure what, read my Ecuador stories. I had been living in one of the poorest cities in the world. Between that, living on a suffering Native American Reservation in South Dakota, WHICH IS IN OUR OWN COUNTRY, and dealing with poverty and disability in Washington DC, I had seen a whole new scale of what problems were in the world. Ecuador had the biggest effect on this scale for me. When I had landed in America after the trip I turned my phone on for the first time. I had many messages from the week. Most of warm wishes hoping I was doing well. But then I started getting messages reading, “PROBLEM, get in touch as soon as you get back”. Obviously this made me nervous. I had just come from a place where if someone came up to me and said they had a problem it probably meant a loved one just died or they lost their home in a fire or they didn’t remember the last meal they had eaten. The problem I had been messaged about was in regards to planning a spring break trip.

As the past few months passed, I noticed it became something of an issue. One major problem was with my sister. She is a teenage girl in high school. Being a male, I don’t understand what a crucial and stressful time this is for women. I would come home and hear about her problems from my mom and laugh at them. I would get mad and say that her problems weren’t problems. The suffering I had just witnessed in such a desolate land was an actual problem, that is what needs solving, that is what needs to be fixed. When I would hear people muttering about problems at college, I would get angry and frustrated that they couldn’t see how meaningless their problems were. A professor once quoted a famous historian whose name escapes me saying “It is a sad day when the comedians of the world are the one’s speaking the truth.” One of my favorite comedians, Louis CK, stated “If you are white and American, you cannot complain about life. You have such a leg up the world.” I agreed with him a lot. Especially since in Ecuador a very formidable woman sternly spoke about how we had no right to fail at life or let the issues we witnessed go unnoticed because we were white, American and had an American passport. It took a lot of patience and discipline to learn and respect that people have very different definitions of the word problem.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a very close friend and she asked how I can be so nonchalant about life. I don’t think I said it in so many words, but I am about to dedicate my life to trying to solve major social injustices in the world through whatever means I can. Fretting over insignificant matters is a waste of time and energy.

5. I fall back on my faith, A LOT.

If you read my senior retreat talk entitled, “Fall Forward”, you might know the concept the one should never fall back, unless it is on their faith. When I first heard this statement, I quickly took it to heart. I think that is a beautiful way to define faith, something we can fall back on. I remember since I was very young up until last night at dinner, my grandmother has always pushed myself and her other grandkids to fall back on God’s love when we need it. When I talk about how I let a lot of problems go because I consider things like poverty and hunger to be the more pertinent issues in the world, I don’t do it without faith.

I’ve been asked many times to define faith. I believe faith is knowing that when something positive happens, it is a blessing. When something negative happens, it happens to teach us a lesson. Ever since I developed that definition and committed to believing in it, I have found myself more informed of who I am as well as to be more grateful for a lot of things. The simple warmth of a home and comfort of a bed is such a blessing. The complexity of friendships and relationships has taught me so much. Faith in God is a vehicle to learning what we are meant for in this world. I believe there are many who are meant for greatness. I believe that faith is the most powerful force one can have. I believe that it is the only thing we should fall back on. As Denzel said “everything else is waiting for us to fall forward.”


That is my list. If you really knew me you would know those five things. While there is probably more, those are the ones that mean the most to me. Thank you for the prompt Bri. I hope much more comes out of this tiny glass jar.

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Fall Forward

My good friend Briana Murphy introduced my talk. She gave me a photo and a jar of photo and story prompts. She was the rector on the retreat.

In February, I went on a retreat designed for my seniors. I was on the team having been on other retreats at my school. I gave a talk about growing in your faith. A few friends afterward requested I share the talk. While some of it might be repetitive if you have read the other posts about Ecuador, it is the story about how I have gotten to where I am in my faith today and how much it means to me. The picture with the talk is of my good friend Briana Murphy. She introduced me and my talk before I gave it. Afterward I chose the song “Indian Moon” by State Radio to play for reflection.


Last semester I was in class and in the midst of doing an assignment I came across Denzel Washington’s 2010 commencement speech to the graduating class of Penn State. And he said one of the most inspirational things I have ever heard in regards to starting your life. He said,

There is no passion in playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living. I’m sure in your experiences in school and applying to college and picking your major and deciding what you want to do in life, I’m sure people have told you, make sure you have something to fall back on, make sure you have something to fall back on honey, but I never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward, so that way I know what I’m falling into.

This talk is about growing in your faith. I did not want to give this talk. I wanted to give a talk, but when looking at the options, this was not my number one. I circled it saying I would be interested. The reason I didn’t want to give it was because let’s face it, as a senior in college; it is hard to be questioned about faith. It is sort of like being asked what your plans are after graduation. Not many of us know yet. While some of us are fortunate to have a plan for what happens after May 12, the day we graduate if you weren’t sure, some of us just don’t know. And I think the same can be said for faith. Some of us are fortunate to know what it means to be a person of deep faith. Some of us have had the defining moments in our lives that dictate who we are or how we act when it comes to faith. One of the questions I was asked to think about was how I have taken leap of faith. So I had to think back, back to August of 2008, where along this four year journey have I taken my leaps of faith.

I feel confident saying that I am a person of deep faith. I was raised in a very strict Roman Catholic family. It just happened to be my path. When you grow up one way and are introduced to others, you perceive them differently. When we come to college, for the majority of us, it is our first time living away from home, with new people, with new lifestyles. Our parent’s spent 18 years molding us and teaching us and now we are in a place where we are constantly bombarded by different living styles and tendencies. But one of the biggest differences I noticed in tendencies was when it came to faith. I remember the last week of August in 2008 when we all were freshmen, moving to school and I had this awesome realization. No one was going to wake me up on a Sunday and say time to go to mass.

I look back and chuckle at stupid Nicholas, but at the time I thought it was awesome that no one was forcing me to go to church. But something that dawned at me at this young age was that none of my friends really had any perception of being excited about not going to mass. We had all been raised in our faith lives differently. The strangest was when I became very good friends with a girl who was an atheist. But despite not believing in any kind of God, she taught me a lot about my faith. Her and I were very close and occasionally faith would come up in conversation. I would ask her how she could be an atheist and she said the same thing I would say if someone asked me why I was catholic; it’s how I was raised.

When coming into college, how much do we do that is really of our own accord? How much do our lives just relive the tendencies that our parents taught us? There were a lot of different things that sparked my interest in reconnecting to my faith. But to reconnect, I had to start taking leaps of faith, doing something with blind belief that in the end it would be for the best. My first leap was going on Start 1 retreat. Chris Cirilli, my roommate of today four years convinced me to go the spring of our sophomore year. I agreed since he and my other roommate Joe Grivers were on the team. Part of the structure includes confession and I remember spending most of my time talking to Father, at the time brother, Dinh who was supervising the retreat. I shared with him how forced I felt in my faith. He said it was good I didn’t involve myself right away, had it been to appease my mother that I was going to mass on Sundays, I couldn’t say I was a strong person of faith. I was doing it for the wrong reason. He did not push me, he just said, take your time and don’t be a stranger.

The next leap was going on Start 2. This retreat is about focusing on your own relationship with God, focusing on the things that hold you back and how to let them go. I had a long talk with the head of Campus Ministry James Rizza about things that I held onto, bad things, and he said don’t worry about it, believe it or not you have a lot to learn about life experiences and soon enough, you’ll learn to let them go. After that I finally felt like someone had flipped a switch. I finally felt my own connection. And I decided to not let go.

I knew I needed to take that next leap of faith. I filled out an application and quickly found myself as a part of the Camp Min Core Team. In choosing my focus area, it was pretty easy. I wanted Start 2. It had given me a second chance and I wanted to give that chance to someone else.

It is human nature to want recognition. When I was on start team a year before I gave a talk and was told by multiple individuals that it was inspiring and I loved that feeling. I wanted to inspire again. But this time it was much different. By the end of the Start 2 retreat I felt like I hadn’t inspired or taught anyone anything. I felt like I had failed at my job. After three months of preparing and hard work, it seemed to end so abruptly. But at the end of the retreat we had a passing prayer. My good friend, our junior helper Ashley was on the retreat. She had just been rector for Start 1 and had some experience with what I was feeling. She said thank you to my wonderful partner Colleen Harrigan and I because she knew how much behind the scenes work went on and how very few people see it. Her comment got me thinking. I spent three months with my partner working to put this whole retreat together and only we knew it. And that made me finally get it. I was serving God selflessly.

Now I have to admit something. At this point I had taken many leaps of faith, but it took a lot for me to wake up and realize the differences that I needed to make in my life. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been stupid. I’ve had horrible judgment. I’ve been an ass. I’ve been inconsiderate. I’ve been drunk. I’ve been careless. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been angry. And I’ve been a drunk a few more times. How many of us can say we haven’t experienced any of these instances while in college? And for a long time I held such a grudge against myself. I judged myself. I hated myself.

In reflecting on what to say in this talk, I read, “Some of the saints share the fact that often times before they came to a leap of faith, they experience a dark night of the soul, a time when they seemed to be going nowhere in their faith. Sometimes it is the crises of life that serves as the springboard for faith,” I found this statement very relevant to my life. About a month ago, I visited a therapist. I had been having a really difficult time dealing with something and felt like I needed to talk to someone, a professional. After talking to him for a little bit he said what I was hoping he wouldn’t. He told me I was suffering from depression. My first reaction was naw, that’s ok. Let me explain why he was saying this.

The first week of January this year, I found myself taking the biggest leap of faith I have ever taken. I found myself in Duran, Ecuador on my second SEND mission trip. Similar to my mindset before Start 2, I was not prepared to learn so much. My first SEND trip was in South Dakota living on a Native American reservation. Some of you who have been on these trips with me might be able to attest, when you immerse yourself in these different worlds, you see a lot of poverty and start to become desensitized to it. You begin to have a certain expectation. But Ecuador was different. I went down thinking I couldn’t do much in a place like that, because of the invisible barriers, the language barrier, the racial barrier and social class barrier. I went down thinking I couldn’t learn something. I went down thinking I would be desensitized. I went thinking I couldn’t be touched. I was wrong on all three accounts.

I could go into the details of the trip, talk about all the beautiful people we and the extraordinary places we visited. But I’m not going to. I’m going to tell you three stories from the trip that slapped me in the face with a few realizations.

Remember how I said I thought I couldn’t do much because of the invisible barriers? Well on the third day, this thought was proven wrong. I visited a leprosy house and after 45 minutes of talking to the most caring and sweet people I have ever met, I found myself dancing with this sweet little blind leper woman named Mercedes. She was a little bit of a player because after I stopped, she moved right on to Zack. After that we visited a school called Nuevo Mundo where we met a woman named Patricia who built this gorgeous school on swamp land and after asking her questions about her work she wanted to ask us about ours. She asked if any of us had intention of being a teacher. Just a few hands went up and she gave us a look. She said that we were all to be teachers. If we had the privilege of traveling to Duran and experience life amongst the people residing there, we had no right to not teach about what we saw. She told us if we were American, had an American passport, had an American college education, there was no reason for us to fail and no reason for us to not do anything about the problems that we were seeing. The last stop of that day was to a school called Chicos de Calles. This was a school for boys living on the street, either homeless or abandoned by their families and they were brought to the school told that if they did well, they would be trained to play soccer. After a tour we were asked if we wanted to join in a soccer game with the boys. We jumped in. It happened to be raining that day so if you can picture a huge field consisting of nothing but mud and about 30 Ecuadorian boys and us running back and forth, just trying to score, just sharing in the fight to defeat the other team.

Dancing with a blind leper woman, being bluntly told that I have no right to let social injustice pass me by, fighting through blood, sweat and tears to work with people who couldn’t understand me and who I couldn’t understand to achieve a common goal, my belief that the invisible barriers would prevent me from being able to do anything, was immediately proven wrong.

My next belief was that I wouldn’t learn something I didn’t already know. On the second day, we went to an afterschool program called Manos in a town called Antonio Jose Sucre. This community known as ASJ was built on trash. After 30 minutes of driving by tattered homes and monstrous piles of trash, we came to a stop. Our guide named Julia told us we had arrived.

We all stood in front of a massive concrete wall with a tiny gate door. I walked in first and looked around and what caught my attention was raised concrete in the ground over to my left. I walked over to see a pool. It was empty. At first I was surprised to see a pool at all. Then I let out a depressing laugh to myself because it was just one more sad sight. In the midst of all this heat, a swim sounded amazing, cold water or not. But even though it was built for such a use, it sat there empty. Until Julia walked up and proclaimed, “Oh God, the kids are going to want to go swimming today.” I quickly became confused. She said it in such a tone that can be related to by any camp counselor. When they know their kids are going to love a new activity, but the second they see it’s available to them, they go crazy making the counselor’s job harder. But I didn’t understand; the pool was empty. What were they going to go swimming in? I did a double take and starred into the empty pool. It wasn’t exactly empty. There was about an inch of collected rain water resting at the bottom.

Everyone knows that phrase, optimists see a glass half full, pessimists see it half empty. These kids saw an inch of water in a large concrete hole as a swimming pool. I saw it completely empty. What does that say? That moment quickly would be one that would change me forever. Because while I still was hesitant to believe Julia that these kids were going swimming, the second they got there it felt like I was defending a celebrity from screaming fans. Except these screaming fans were a bunch of tiny children who just wanted to go swimming in an inch of water. They were sneaky too. When we said no they took their shoes off and threw them in the pool. Then their excuse was they needed to get them. It was not hard at all to say go ahead, because the second their bare feet hit the water, they were filled with happiness. Thinking I couldn’t learn something new in Ecuador was just proven wrong. How could I ever be unsatisfied or take something for granted again?

The last thing I thought was that I wouldn’t see something I hadn’t seen before. Again, I have done service trips before, I have seen poverty. There comes a time where you become desensitized to it. You don’t think you can see something and be as shocked as you were the first time you had a service experience. I was so terribly wrong. The very first day we were there our guide Billy told us we were going to an after school program called Semillas. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area.

My group had about 10 little ones in it. We were given a book to read to the kids and then gave out paper and crayons. Molly came back over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and doing well. She explained how all the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny, neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. I asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two neighbor houses. The 7 year old got out.

The 4 year old did not.

The gut wrenching, heart breaking, tear jerking scene I found myself in can’t really be put into words. It is something that I can’t fully relate to you or explain. But it certainly proved me wrong when I thought I wasn’t going to be emotionally touched on this trip.

In the few weeks since I’ve been back to America, I’ve been stuck in this funk. I remember getting back to school and just feeling alone. I felt disconnected from everything and everyone around me because it seemed like no one could understand what I had just seen. I just didn’t know how to handle it. It became most apparent to me when I was at a party one of the first weekends back at school and my close friend Jeremy that had been with me in South Dakota and Ecuador and who will be co-leading a SEND trip with me to Washington DC sat next to me. We were reminiscing about our trips and he asked, “Do you ever just feel depressed, that we are sitting here, in a warm apartment, drinking beer, laughing with friends and then you think about all the people we just lived with and became close with, and they are still there. They are still suffering. We left the suffering, but they are still in it.” It sounds depressing because it is. But it was the happiest I had felt since I had been back to school. The concept of feeling alone finally seemed to drift away. The therapist I spoke with asked if I wanted anything to help me through it and I said confidently, I’m not that kind of guy that needs something to get me through depression. And he told me that was fine, but this was not something that was going to go away by just ignoring it. So I told him I was giving this talk and he said use that. Let that be your drug. Let that be your vehicle.

All of my experiences have come from taking a leap of faith. It all comes back to serving God in one way or another. And while I can’t literally make you feel the heartbreak that I felt while in Ecuador, I can say to you the things that I realized upon coming back and the things that seem to just make so much more sense.

We are going to graduate soon. We are going to be out of college. We are going to lose touch with people, people we probably refer to as close friends. We will find that we can’t just skip work like we skip class from time to time. We can’t drink excessively because it’s the weekend. We can’t say “next semester” anymore. There is no more “3 strikes and you’re out”. We are not going to be able to be young and reckless and make up excuses because its college. We are going to lose that bubble. And that is ok. Because if there is one thing every leap of faith has taught me, it is putting things in perspective. The problems we thought were problems in college are going to become meaningless. The things we get angry about now are going to seem petty when we are trying to buy a house or raise a family. Why do you get angry? What do you define as a problem? I’ve learned to put things in perspective. And I think that is what God would want. Because while he sees the things we see as suffering in our lives, he sees the suffering of the whole world. And like I was told in Ecuador, we have no right to be angry, we have no right to do nothing about the injustices of the world, we have no right to fail. I’ve grown to learn that in the end, it truly is what we do with our lives from the day Prez Chez hands us our diploma that matters. We have the power to change the world, why linger on what has already passed.

My song is about having that one rock for you to fall back on in life. I chose, like Denzel, to fall back on my faith, you might choose differently. Whatever it is, let that be the only thing you look back on, because in 3 months it should be the only thing we ever look back on, everything else is waiting for us to fall forward.


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Ecuador: Be Humble

The second day started the same as the first. I woke up to obscenely loud animals filling my room with noise and the mid equator sun filling my body with heat and blinding me with light. Nonetheless, I got up. I stumbled out of my room as did everyone with such stressful nights of sleep. We gathered around our table and Billy strolled in with a big grin on his face. He announced to us that today instead of 3 pieces of bread, we would get 4. Now I know that we had barely been in Ecuador for 24 hours, but already we were jumping for joy as if we had just been liberated from the poverty we were immersed in. It might sound sad, but 4 pieces was a big deal to us. Imagine the suffering that other individuals went through in the area if we got excited over 1 extra piece of bread. We had begun to appreciate our food a lot more after just 1 day. I could think back to American dining when bread was nothing but a precursor to a meal. I scarfed it down not considering that it was even really food. But when bread is your meal and there are no free refills on the bread basket, you begin to ration your bites and take your time eating it. Every bite became significant.

Billy told us to all get ready and put on some nicer clothes. Nicer clothes consisted of jeans and a t-shirt. We filled up our water bottles and headed into the tightly crammed van. We drove around Arbolito for a little bit and then we realized we were leaving the area. We started going back towards the airport. It was interesting to drive back the way we came because this time it was light out so we could see the city. The first thing we noticed, there were people, everywhere. Unlike American cities and small towns that we were familiar with, there were people outside, congregating and being with one another. We need to incorporate more sidewalk sitting into our everyday life. Keep people informed and happy. It’s the healthy version of Facebook.

As we drove we passed the airport, the curiosity crept into our minds. Where were we going? Well soon enough we figured it out. We pulled up to a long wall on the street with a gate that opened into what looked like a mini town behind the wall. This was this establishment’s security from the world, a huge wall around it. As we unloaded from the van and walked in, all we knew based off of context clues was that we were at a place called the Damien House. It was a hospital ward for people suffering from Hansen’s disease. Also known as leprosy. Excuse me? You brought me to a leprosy house?   My American ignorance kicked in as I quickly grew fearful of if I would be leaving Ecuador as a leper. I looked upon the faces of other’s in my group and it seemed clear I wasn’t the only one with this fear. But they quickly reassured us that while it is a common belief that leprosy is transferable by touch, it is very much a false fact. It is actually known as the disease of the poor. People who suffer from the disease have lived in circumstances so stricken by poverty that the disease becomes common and transferable because of high bacteria levels in the area.

We met with many different patients. But what was a nice realization was that while at first we looked at them as lepers. By the time we left, we looked them as beautiful people. We met a man named Raul who was 101 years old. He was such a sweet heart. But when we left the nurses warned the girls to be careful because he was handsy. This 101 year old man was handsy. What a playa. This man was so cheery to be alive and happy for visitors. I have unfortunately had to visit family and friends in the hospital with terminal illnesses. When I visit, one of the hardest parts is being around the gloomy feeling that is death. Everyone is sad. The patients, the nurses. People know that they are going to the hospital for their last stop. Nurses are not happy because their jobs are constantly dealing with people who pass away. Who can blame them for seeming a bit dreary. The have to watch grieving families, that is their job. At Damien House, it is not the case. While these are possibly the sickest people I have ever been around, they are happy. Because despite the fact that this is most likely their last stop in life. They do not perceive it as such. They look at it along the lines of a new chapter opening up. The medical professionals there are not sad because of the patient’s outlook. By looking at what is left of life and trying to make the most that they can with it, they can be happy until the end. This provides a pleasing outlook on life for those working there as well. And again, these are the sickest people I have ever met.

After that we went back home and started cooking. I may have mentioned this before, but we lived constantly on tuna, bread, warm water and a vegetable base. Vegetable base consisted of diced tomatoes, peppers and onions. The second day was my cooking day on the chore list rotation.  I stepped up to the counter and as the girl’s feared away from the onions in hopes to avoid tearing up, I manned up and took a few. After about 5 slices into the onion,  I was crying like a baby. Something we learned about food in Ecuador was that there was no form of it being processed. It was all fresh. If we ever went to the market, the food we bought had been picked that morning. The vegetables were much more potent, specifically the onions. After that meal, I cowarded away from them as well.

After lunch, Billy had us all gather at the table and introduced us to a volunteer who was new to us. Her name was Julia. She was a small, very sweet girl. He told us she would be taking us to our next site but was going to talk with us a little bit first. Her talk was about invasion communities. The community that we were in, Arbolito, and the one we would be going ASJ, were invasion communities. What this meant was that these were lands that the people that were housed on them had literally invaded them. The land was no good. Most of it was either swamp land or old landfills. These were towns literally built on trash dumps. She explained how these people were constantly living in fear because technically at any time the government could come in and take them over, wipe them out, and do what they wanted with the land. Arbolito was a much more progressive invasion community. When we heard this it shocked us a little. We had been living in a mud based community with falling apart homes and hungry citizens. How was this a more progressive town? Well we found our answer.

When we loaded into the bus for our next stop, Julia told us that similar to when we first arrived in Ecuador, at a certain point in our journey, we would have a silent van ride to look at the community we would be working in that afternoon. As we drove into the community and Julia instructed the silence to began, we witnessed a much worse community than could have been imagined. Arbolito was built on swamps. This community known as ASJ was built on trash. The homes were much more tattered than the ones we had been seeing so far. They were just roofs. The merest of shelter for an individual to survive. In between the houses we would see massive piles of trash. Many of which were on fire. After 10 minutes of driving through the same scenes over and over again, we came to a stop. Julia told us we had arrived.

We all unloaded the van to stand in front of a massive concrete wall with a tiny gate door. Julia walked over and let us in. We stepped over a bar which the door was locked to and went inside to see a large area with some concrete stands for sitting and some barred up rooms along the walls. There was a small jungle gym looking apparatus in the corner with rust and greenery growing off of it. I had walked in first and so I walked around and what caught my attention was a raise in the ground over to my left. I walked over to see a pool. It was empty. At first I was surprised to see a pool at all. Then I sadly laughed to myself because it was just one more sad sight. In the midst  of all this heat, a swim sounded amazing, warm water or not. But even though it was built for such a use, it sat there empty.

Until Julia walked up and proclaimed, “Oh God, the kids are going to want to go swimming today.” I quickly became confused. She said it in such a tone that can be related to by any camp counselor. When they know their kids are going to love something, but the second they see it they will go crazy making their job harder. But I didn’t understand, the pool was empty. What were they going to go swimming in? I did a double take and starred into the empty pool. It wasn’t exactly empty. There was about an inch and a half of collected rain water resting at the bottom.

Everyone knows that phrase, optimists see a glass half full, pessimists see it half empty. These kids saw an inch of water in a large concrete hole as a swimming pool. I saw it completely empty. What does that say? That moment quickly would be one that would change me forever. Because while I still was hesitant to fully believe Julia that these kids were going to swimming, the second they got there it was like the pool was Justin Beiber and I was holding back every American tween girl to make sure he was not touched. But the fact remained, I wasn’t protecting some overrated American pop star, I was trying to prevent some kids from going into this tiny pool with dirty water in it. And that didn’t feel right. Regardless, I had to do it, but I would be lying if I said I was strict. The kids would throw their shoes in the pool and say they needed to go get them. I would quickly step aside and let them jump in and splash around. To see their giant smiles as the relief of taking a step into the small bit of water, was the most humbling moment of my life.

I know this is coming almost four months late. It is something that had been saved in the draft section of my blog for a long time. But it deserved to be published. Because someone once told me, no matter how small, every attempt to do good counts.


Filed under All Posts, Ecuador

Ecuador: This is Wrong

I woke up the next morning to a rooster on my window sill screaming at me. Shock doesn’t convey my emotion. It was more just perplexity to the point of speechlessness. I turned over in my net. I felt the accumulated sweat against my sheets rub against my dry skin. I pulled my net up and crawled out, doing my best to maneuver my way down the metal bed frame. I put my sandals on and went to the bathroom. Billy our leader was walking in as I went to the bathroom with a bag and a group member followed him with a bag of equal size. When I walked out of the bathroom Billy had everyone gathered around the kitchen counter. He opened the bags and we looked in to see what looked like hundreds of rolls of bread. The sizeable amount of bread definitely awakened our appetites. We hadn’t really eaten since the meal on the plane. Everything they say about plane food being subpar is true. Billy told us we each got 3 rolls. That sounded sufficient for breakfast.

We had been preparing for simple living for a few months. 3 rolls was a simple breakfast right? Well…not exactly simple enough for where we were. It turned out that it was 3 rolls for breakfast and lunch. So we could split it up accordingly. We asked if there would be other food at lunch besides the rolls and he said yes. So a lot of us chose 2 rolls for breakfast. The woman who is the director of the entire program stationed in Ecuador came in to talk with us about some more orientation type details for the week. When she strolled in Billy asked if he could get the bananas. She allowed it. A few moments later, Billy came back in with a large crate, overfilling with bananas. He told us that we had this crate for the week and could eat them whenever we wanted but once it was empty, that was it. So now we realized that we would be getting a max of 2 rolls for breakfast, a handful of bananas and all the warm water we could imagine…splendid.

Megan, the director, had us all sit down.

Side note. I am hoping to send this portion of my blog out to the members of Rostro de Christo when I am done. I know that I have group members from my trip reading this as I post it. I hope that it will be a resource for the Campus Ministry department and the SEND program at school. After saying all that, I fully apologize if I butcher names of people, locations and/or other things I may talk about in this blog. I have a feeling when I start describing Spanish titled things, the spelling may be a bit off. So I apologize but encourage looking past the minor spelling errors and seeing the bigger picture.

We were sat around the table preparing for our day. Megan sat us down to briefly discuss some orientation things. But as we would quickly learn, she, nor any other volunteer, was going to tell us much about our week. They liked the surprise aspect. But more importantly, they wanted us going in without judgments or expectations. After about a half hour of chatting about respect, we headed out to meet Aide. Aide was one of our main Ecuadorian contacts. She was such a sweet, beautiful Ecuadorian woman. We met her in front of the local church. She introduced us to the area. It was a town called Arbolito. We would come to learn about how it was an invasion community. But we’ll get to that later.

Aide gave us a little background of the town and told us that we were going to meet our first neighbor. Before coming to Ecuador, we heard that we were going to have neighborhood time. This confused me, but after our first stop, we quickly understood the importance. Our first neighbor was about a 5 minute walk from our house. We kept in a close group and watched as the members of the community starred at us. It is very unsettling to be the minority, but also very awakening. We reflected a bit that night about how significant an experience it was to be placed in a situation where being the minority felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Nonetheless we kept moving forward and approached a wooden fenced in home. This home belonged to a woman named Lupe. Aide poked her head over the door saying, “hola”. A curvy woman with a huge smile appeared in the door way of what seemed to be a house made of clay like material. She ran right out and unlocked the fence door. As we proceeded in she opened her arms to all of us saying, “hola”, and offering a hug. As she hugged each of us with such a warm smile she gave us each a kiss on the cheek. You would never find that in America with a stranger, probably not even with most families.

As I approached her home there was a metal roof set up over the ground to create a porch type area. There were some wooden benches, a hammock and some plastic chairs. Another side note that we picked up on very quickly on in Ecuador. There is not one comfortable chair in Ecuador. Everything is hard. There are no cushions and no supports when we would sit in different homes including ours. At first glance, a bench does not seem too bad. But after a few hours, few days, a week, my ass hurt. Regardless we took our seats. Aide looked at me searching for a seat and suggested I take the hammock. I asked if it would be rude but she insisted. Another lesson I learned early on in the trip was after a night of very poor sleep, don’t take a hammock for a seat. Like I said, there are no comfortable seats. Well hammocks are the comfiest you are going to get, so if you take that as your seat after very little sleep, you are going to find yourself dozing.

But back to Lupe. She proceeded to start talking to us. It was confusing at first. Billy sat with her and translated the majority of what she was saying with Aide occasionally filling in. Her first questions to us were what our names were, what we were studying in college and if we had a boyfriend/girlfriend. At first this seemed a bit personal, but in Ecuador, they are very open. Again we would come to learn how personable the people there were. I can only really speak for myself when I told her I studied writing and art and that I indeed have a girlfriend, she responded that I had one because I was so handsome and that I looked like someone who she could have an interesting conversation with. It is an interesting fun fact that the people we met are much more in tune with individuals. They make it a habit to read the people they meet and have a pure genuine interest in anyone they meet.

Lupe proceeded to tell us a bit about her story. She had a difficult story about how her children had left her to pursue careers and better lives. But despite how alone she felt she was more than happy that they had grown and bettered themselves from the poverty stricken life she was stuck in. She continued to talk about how she has an abusive husband. We learned that in Ecuador men have a lot of hang-ups and act with a lot of machismo. The negative aspect of this lifestyle came with heavy drinking which led him to come home and verbally and physically abuse her.

We had not known this woman for more than 10 minutes and she was in tears confessing and explaining these things to us. She proceeded to talk about how she was soon leaving Arbolito because her husband, despite his poor lifestyle choices, owned the house and wanted her out. But despite all of this, she was so happy to see us. She saw that we were young, smart students with a lot of drive. She enjoyed us feeling welcomed by her and talked about some more history of Arbolito. After a lovely conversation we bid her ciao. We quickly learned that we do not say adios. It comes off more as a good bye forever. Ciao was more “see you later”.

As we walked back to the house, we passed by a school. But it was not a school like the ones that we are used to in America. It was a huge stadium type roof. There were rooms that stood along the sides with no actual walls. Billy told us that this was the school program that we would be working at later. While we walked along all of a sudden we heard a little scream. We turned around to see a little boy had run out of his home and jumped on a girl in our group. She was a bit startled but in a good way. We turned to see 3 or 4 other little ones run out. They all jumped on us wanting to be held. It was so cute. The smallest little girl walked over to me and smiled at me. Her beautiful smile and smooth skin shined in the sunlight. I bent down and picked her up and she giggled. She was adorable. Billy was laughing at us and told us we had to keep moving but we would be back later and said the same to the kids in Spanish. I put her down and we kept walking. We all thought that was the funniest thing. Little did we know we would soon become human jungle gyms.

We got back to the house and Billy prepared us for lunch. While a group of us prepared lunch, one of the group members made a schedule for the entire group as to who would go on bread runs, who would go to the market when necessary, who would cook and who would clean. Lunch got old really quickly. We asked Billy if he had to suffer eating this same thing every day like we had to, but he snickered and said no. He had his own diet which was minimal but varied so he didn’t get sick of it. Lunch consisted of however much bread you had left, a spoonful of tuna straight from the can and a few spoonfuls of a veggie base which we made every day consisting of diced tomatoes, onions and peppers. After a week of this I am surprised I can eat tuna so easily. Alas we forced it down, still hungry, but satisfied for now.

Billy then told us we would begin to get ready to go to Semillas. This was the school area that we had passed earlier. Again, we did not receive much information before going so that we could go in without perception. We got used to this pretty quickly. Had we gone into Lupe’s with some sort of perception it would have ruined our whole time with her because it is human nature to establish a bias. All we were told was the set up of the program. When we got there, the kids would be lined up. They would all be in lines based on sex and age. The first half was a constructive activity. The second half was recreo or recess. The last part was a bit difficult for us to understand. It was a talk to the kids about different values. The value of that week was spirituality. They would then pray and then receive a vitamin, a piece of bread and a banana. For a lot of them, this would be their first and only food of the day. Haunting.

We all filled our water bottles, put on some shorts, lathered ourselves in sun screen and bug spray and shipped out. Along with another group member, I grabbed the large crate of bananas which was identical to the one we had for the week but for the kids at Semilllas. As we started down the street to the school which was not a 3 minute walk, kids started just appearing out of nowhere. And they all wanted to be picked up. You might think I exaggerate. ALL OF THEM WANT TO BE PICKED UP.

It was a sad realization when it dawned on us that these little kids don’t receive this kind of love or attention at home, so we agreed to pick every single one up. BIG MISTAKE. When you lift them up once they want it again. And again…and again. Nonetheless when we got inside the gate of the school a little boy named Leontel ran over to me and jumped. Luckily I had put the crate of bananas down because it was so unexpected that I was glad I caught him.

He was small but a tough kid. He had a revolver belt buckle which made him awesome in my book. He pointed and shouted something I didn’t understand but I just decided to follow in the direction he pointed and it seemed to please him. When we walked into the stadium area, there were kids, EVERYWHERE. They all just starred at us. Pointing and whispering as if they had little secrets about the aliens that just walked into the room. We were asked to line up so they would follow our example and they did. Then we had to introduce ourselves, our favorite color and our favorite food. When it got to me I said,

“Me llamo Nicholas, yo favorita colore es rojo y yo favorito food es burrito.”

I immediately realized that again, I sounded like an idiot, and it was really stereotypical of me to think that since I am in South America saying burrito would make me sound cool…it didn’t it made me look like an ass. Regardless, we finished and the man running the program whose name was Ricardo, who would end up being awesome, released everyone to the big kid’s activity, the little kid’s activity or the homework room. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area. She had us all sit on the bleacher where the little kids were assigned to go to and the second I sat down I had Leontel on my shoulders and two other little ones in my lap. The kids were beyond the cutest little beings I had every seen.

What we didn’t know when we would walk in was that each of the kids would watch us walk in and immediately choose a favorite without knowing anything about us. So when we all started getting split up into groups, the little kids would chase after their favorites or cry out in desire to be with them. When the other Rostro volunteer began splitting the kids up to get into groups with each of us, the little kids clutched on to the arms of the Gringos that they wanted to stay with. When she got to Leontel he literally attempted to tackle my upper body. I guess this was body language for wanting to stay with me because when she allowed him to stay next to me he put out his fist for a bump. This kid was awesome.

Our group had about 10 little ones in it. It was the leader of our trip and me. We were given a book to read to the kids and have them pick out little fun facts in it. Finally my 3 years of Spanish started to kick in when I was able to read to them. After which we gave out paper and crayons. They begged for more crayons but we had to restrict them to 4 each. Do you know how hard it is to say no to a small child that you know has nothing in their life and all they want in that moment is one extra crayon? It is impossible. Sorry Rostro volunteers if I left the kids wanting extra crayons, but I gave them the entire bag and watched their smiles burst and their little hands fight for the ones they wanted.

What happened next was one of I think 3 major moments during the whole trip which will forever be imprinted in my mind. The volunteer Molly came over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and seemingly doing well. She smiled and said “good”. All the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny. He had an adorable little striped shirt, a tiny had and tiny little shorts. Neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

My first thought, “shit, here it comes”. She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. We asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two adjacent houses. The 7 year old got out.

The 4 year old did not.

Three weeks before I was at a Christmas party eating cookies and opening presents. Puts quite a few things in perspective. This 7 year old was now homeless and without a brother. I never got the chance to meet him. But I wish I could have. I don’t know what I would have said, but maybe just to give him a hug would have made some kind of difference.

A few moments later we started hearing screams. RECREO!!! This meant all hell broke loose and again, I was a human jungle gym. I ran around with little kids slung over my shoulders. All I could hear were their tiny laughs and giggles. If I picked them up once, they wanted one more. If I tossed them in the air and caught them their eyes would grow large and their smiles even bigger and say higher. If I held onto their arms and spun them around, they would scream over their own laughs and say faster. I never could have been trained or explained to the extreme and deep significance of ministry of presence. These kids did not want us to build them a house, give them food or provide better clothes. They were better than material processions. They just wanted love.

After eventually growing tired of tossing kids in the air and spinning them around, I needed a break. I drank some water and tried my hand at soccer. I had no clue that this would lead to a week of constant soccer. Really is huge down there. Something I noticed was the endurance of the kids. I’m 6 feet high and weigh just over 200 pounds with a decent amount of muscle. When I would run towards these little kids and snag the ball, they chased me until they caught the ball. If they fell, they got back up. Hell we were playing on concrete and they didn’t have any shoes and they were better and tougher than us. American kids are so whiney.

After what seemed like an eternity of small children craziness, they called for what I believe is called Shakra. Again I apologize for misspellings or names. But it was the prayer and talk of the afternoon about spirituality. The kids all prayed and as they were silent, we noticed something. There were little pieces of material drifting into the stadium. We couldn’t tell what they were but off in the distance we saw black smoke. Fire. Some of us grew nervous feeling the need to alert someone but figured wait till the kids are gone. When the kids got their food and left we pointed it out and asked what it was. The volunteers explained that it was the locals burning trash. We would start to see fire a lot more often.

But I had a quick realization. These little kids play in an area where the ashes of trash being burned drifts in and they breathe it in. I studied the atmosphere around me. I turned to see the 2, 7 and 9 year old leaving with no shoes but with ashes raining upon them which began to cloud my vision and the stadium around us. The locals and volunteers didn’t react, they were used to it.

This was pretty much the end of our day. We had dinner and a quick reflection. But overall, it was done. All I could think as I laid in my metal bed that night with the screams outside and occasional gunshots, this was wrong.

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Ecuador: 1 Hour In – What am I doing?

This is the whole group before boarding the plane to Guayaquil

Like I said, this is a continuation of posts describing my disappearance from America. When I woke up at 5:45am on January 2, I considered going back to bed. I could easily just lay back into bed, fall asleep, wake up in a few hours, make an extravagant breakfast, drive to the gym, maybe visit the lady, maybe hang with some friends, grab a beer, write about some anecdotal story that I can draw some sort of message from which I may have encountered through the day and then fall asleep to the soft sounds of a playlist on shuffle. But whatever it was, morale, drive or something I can just not explain, I got out of bed, showered, pulled on a new pair of jeans and a new white t-shirt. I went into my closet and got an old rain coat. See I had my whole wardrobe for the week planned out. I had bought a couple of cheap shirts, boxers and socks. I packed two pairs of basketball shorts. I had no intention of bringing anything back from Ecuador. I went on a service trip to a Native American Reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota last year. I brought back bed bugs. The risk was not going to exist this time. I would leave all my belongings in Duran as if I never bought them.

I got my bags and got into the car. My mom and sister drove me to the bus station, which would bring me to the airport. The whole ride to the airport I was quiet. When I said goodbye to my family, my mom double checked to see if I was alright. I was unsure what to say. I knew it was going to be a big trip. I knew it was going to probably change me in one way another. God if I knew what I know now, I might have just stayed in bed considering the leaps and bounds of change which I would undergo. Alas, I got to the airport. I spotted a Dunkin Donuts and decided, my last meal in Boston…why not. I sat down on the floor and people watched. My mindset at the time was examining people. Wondering what their lives were. I wondered if any of them had any concept of simple living like I was about to dive into for the upcoming week.

As I finished my breakfast sandwich and ice cold coffee. I began to walk. I did not know where I was going. Figuratively and literally. I eventually found a friend and sat with her and her family for a little bit before the group showed up. The next few hours were pretty standard. Hopped on the plane. Got a few single serving snacks aboard the plane. Went from Boston to Miami in three hours. Upon arrival to Florida we found our next gate to Guayaquil and set up base camp as we waited for our plane to leave for about a 2 hour layover. We wondered around Miami Airport and realized something. We were in the international section of the airport and all around us was Latin American culture. The restaurants, the people. It grew intimidating quickly. We were looking for somewhere to eat and half the food service in the airport only spoke Spanish. If this wasn’t foreshadowing to upcoming difficulties, I don’t know what would have been.

Funny side note though. In walking around the airport I discovered Nathan’s. Nathan’s is pretty much the pinnacle of American obesity. But my friends on the trip suggested why not go all American before we dive into the deep abyss that is Ecuador. I got chicken tenders and bacon ranch fries. Bacon ranch fries might be the most beautiful thing to ever enter my mouth. Greasy, potato-y, crispy french fries smothered in ranch and then doused in chopped bacon. Just pure God in food form. My friend Jeremy and I downed a box of them each before the flight and agreed that once in Ecuador, this would be all we desired upon arrival. And we both got sick of them upon arrival, but I’m getting way ahead of myself. We all sat at the gate and waited patiently.

Side note. In my travels on this day I purchased two books, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First. Both written by Tucker Max, both wonderful books which would give us much enjoyment and many laughs as the week proceeded.  I read the first in 3 hours and began the second on the second flight. We boarded the plane and prepared for our journey down below the equator. You know you are leaving America when the instructions for plane safety are read in English second. As we traveled though, we all started to prepare ourselves for entrance into this very foreign land. After a 4 hour flight, we landed.

Now here is a fun fact about myself. I absolutely prefer the cold to the heat. Many people would disagree. But I grew up in the cold and will always choose it over heat. So as we began our leave from the flight and I felt that first draft of hot, dry, humid air, all I could think was…shit. We all walked off and waited for our group at the end of the boarding tunnel. We walked off and were made aware quickly that we were in a foreign place. The signs were all in Spanish with English as a second language. It might not have been a big deal for some, but again, I’ve never been to a foreign speaking country, never mind one I had extremely minimal knowledge of the language, so this was terrifying. But I still walked with confidence through the airport. Couldn’t be that bad…right?

Very little in this world makes me nervous. I am a pretty secure and confident person. But one thing that does scare me is airport security. What scares me so much is that these are people whom if you have a conversation with, you will quickly realize that something went very wrong in their lives and that is why they are working in airport security. Lewis Black, one of my favorite comedians, likes to speak about people in this profession very often. While some might thing he is looking for filler in his routine, I can assure you he is not. These are not the most intelligent of people. As a college student, I am very used to having the only thing standing between me and something I want or a goal I am working towards to be someone of reasonable intelligence. But when the only thing standing between me and getting out of the airport without problems is a person with very little intelligence, it makes me very nervous.

Now going into a foreign country, I knew all this. I have had this fear for a few years. To make it worse, I had to handle this situation with people who do not speak English making it even more nerve racking and frustrating. When I walked up to the customs officer and handed him my passport and customs form. He starred at it and then me, then back at the forms, then back at me. I could feel my fear grow inside. He then to this moment said something in Spanish so quickly that I could not hear what he was saying never mind process it. I assumed, since he was a customs officer, he was asking my reason for being in the country. I responded,

“El tripo de servioco”

Never have I had someone look at me like I was a bigger idiot. Usually when I say stupid things, I know they are stupid. But this was a genuine moment of stupidity on my part. Sorry for failing to represent America. But despite my own ineptitude, he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit. He clearly knew in our 60 second encounter, I would not be able to understand him. I walked through and waited for the group. I then made two great life decisions. As I could feel the Ecuadorian heat sneaking through the airport and activate my sweat glands, I pulled off the under armor long sleeve which was sealing in the inevitable all day funk that comes from riding on planes. I then applied some deodorant because though I had failed with the customs officer, I wasn’t about to make a miserable first impression with the rest of Ecuador by being smelly as a they probably assume most Americans to be.

We walked through baggage claim and then through a second customs checkpoint which did random searches. I couldn’t tell if this was to be taken seriously. A man screaming what was gibberish to me, flashed each of our tickets to a machine which flashed an X or ->. If it was the X you had to go through a bag scan. Otherwise you could walk through…that’s safe. When we left the checkpoint, we entered full on Spanish speaking airport. We shunned ourselves to a corner. After a few minutes of straight up fear and confusion of what we would do next, we were approached by five very cheery individuals. The main thing we noticed, they were white and SPOKE ENGLISH. In the ten minutes I had spent in this country, I was so excited to find someone who understood me. The individuals were Molly, Lindsay, Madison, Chris and Billy. They were all recently graduated college students doing a year of service with the Rostro de Christo program located in three different locations in Ecuador. Billy was our group leader and would be our director for the week.

They told us that if anyone needed to go to the bathroom we should go there before we left because it would be about a half hour bus ride. We all took advantage of the opportunity. This would be our second awareness lesson that we were not in America. Like the customs officer, we knew that the bathroom situation down there would tricky, but unlike the officer, this was a health concern. After doing my business and walking to wash my hands. I got nervous. When being offered advice from random individuals back home about keys to surviving in Ecuador, like they knew everything, the one thing everyone agreed upon was don’t drink the water. I starred at the sink. My ignorance tricked me into thinking if I turned it on, some kind of disease water would kill me as soon as contact was made. I scrubbed quickly and dried my hands off on my jeans. I think some point later on in the night I touched my lips and thought I was done for. Not the case.

The next moment was one of many that would make an imprint in my mind. The volunteers who would be shepherding us through the next week had to ask for security escorts to our bus which was parked not a stone’s throw from the airport entrance. White people or, in Ecuadorian terms, Gringos are most likely to be mugged leaving the airport. Now in America security guards, no matter what their position, tend to be well kept and appear professional. Very different story down there. The guards walking us to our cars sported some dark khakis and clean button downs. But unlike an American cop, their weapons were not holstered. They held their weapons. Also unlike American officers, they did not have a handgun or pistol, they showed off their sawed off shotguns and 12-gauge rifles, they weren’t ready to arrest someone, they were ready to kill them. As we packed out belongings into a truck bed with a custom built cage over it, we looked around and the question started to grow…where have we gone and what are we doing?

We piled into the van. Literally piled because it was too small to seat us all. But Ecuador doesn’t really enforce driving laws. They don’t really enforce any laws. Before we left, Billy instructed that we were going to do a silent van ride to our house. He instructed we take the opportunity to witness everything we were going to be living in for the next week. This van ride was very interesting. As we left the airport, we all started growing victim to the blistering heat. The first few things we noticed were not super impressionable. There might have been a bit more trash on the street than I would see back home. There would be more cars with improvised windows than I was used to. Gas was $1.45. Ecuador seemed great. But when we turned off the main highway, things started to change.

We would learn later on that we literally driving through worsening areas and the one we would live in would be the worst. The houses in the first area weren’t bad necessarily. They were just very plain. A few walls and metal roof. But something that caught my eye a lot was that every house, shop or building we passed had massive bars built around it to avoid break ins and criminals. The other thing we noticed so much of was stray animals. Dogs, cats, roosters, anything you could think of, just roaming around the streets. The next part of the town started to worsen. Houses started becoming more worn. There was a lack of metal bars and cage fronts and it became makeshift security systems. A house we would visit later during the week, but which a lot of initial attention was given, was a house with boards similar to common fencing built around the house with large nails and spikes and barbed wire sticking out and drooping around it. It was a disturbing site. But it wasn’t even the worst. As we got about 5 minutes away from our house, there was no street. We were now maneuvering through mud and dirt. The houses became shacks. Fires were apparent on the streets. They were utilized to burn trash.

Finally after a day of flying and driving, we came to our house. In the midst of this very very decrepit area, we came across a house surrounded by a metal cage fence with shrubs grown on it to avoid people being able to see inside. The entrance to the cage was guarded by a large Ecuadorian man sporting his own shotgun. He opened the gate to us and waved. We pulled in and stared at two houses. One had a hammock hanging from it. This was the house for the volunteers and the other house had a large metal door with a sturdy lock on it. That was safe I guess? We all began to unload and grab our bags. We walked into accommodations that looked decent at first. There was a front room with a musty sense to it. There was paint on the walls with words and images talking about the program’s mission. When one walked through the doorless doorway to the next area, it was three large tables with benches. Then a kitchen which had a fridge, oven, sink and a long counter top for preparing food.

They sat us down and expressed that we would have a chance to settle in after a little introduction. We all introduced ourselves and met the volunteers officially. They wanted to explain some housekeeping items before they allowed us to unwind and settle in. The doors to the main room were open and they asked, would we prefer heat or bugs. We all agreed, heat. So they shut the doors. We would soon learn that doors open or shut, bugs and heat would get in. The big thing they wanted us to know was bathroom etiquette. They followed military style for showers. This meant turn the water on, get wet, turn the water off, scrub up, turn water back on, rinse off, done. They explained that there was no hot water so the desire to keep the water on wasn’t that great. Other than that, don’t leave it running, don’t drink it and by no means DO YOU FLUSH TOILET PAPER. We learned that their septic system was so fragile that just the smallest bit of toilet paper would cause feces to rebound into the system. Translation? Shit comes out the shower head…great.

They said more instructions would be given the next morning for detailed living for the rest of the week. We were bid goodnight and myself and the three other males grabbed the quad. Our bedroom was about 10×8 ft. There were two sets of metal bunk beds with mattresses that could have been yoga mats. When you slept, all you could feel was metal bars in your back. As well after you got into bed prepared to sleep, a net hung from the ceiling which you would unfold and tuck into all the sides of your bed so to not allow bugs to get you while you slept…great.

As we all said chatted before falling asleep, we joked and commented on all the differences that we had seen in the one hour we had been in Ecuador. This conversation was quickly stifled by what would seemingly become the most frustrating part of the trip, sleeping. On top of sleeping on metal bars, there was no quiet or darkness. Lights that lit up the compound we lived on stayed on to allow the guard to walk around and see if someone were to ever sneak in. So our room was pretty bright. But what was worse than the light was the sound that filled our room. If it wasn’t dogs and cats screaming, it was a rooster crowing from our windowsill, directly into our face. But what made it more difficult was the occasional scream from some individual or a gunshot in the distance. So much fear can be instilled in attempting to sleep, these sounds did not help. 1 Hour In…what am I doing here?

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Ecuador: Way Before and Way After

I woke up this morning. I guess that is well known knowledge. But this morning I woke up in a state of pure thought. Often times we fall into these spells that all we can do is replay certain moments and ponder how to process them. I found myself thinking about last night. I have been moved into my apartment at college for about a week now. But yesterday the majority of my friends came back and what did we do to celebrate reuniting? We drank. And then drank some more. And then drank a little bit more than that. A couple of friends in the apartment below me asked I come say hi. When I stopped by I was sharing some moments from the night so far and quickly two of them grew nervous. See they knew that I have not been in a good place lately. Figuratively and literally. They were nervous that I might have been drinking some emotional troubles away. After a little bit of time I came back to my room to sleep.

But waking up I felt a little bit angry. I don’t need someone parenting my motives. But in the midst of waking up and in a sleepy daze crossing my room to sit at my computer I signed into my email. I noticed an address that was unfamiliar to me and clicked on the email. It was from Christina Mellace. I met Christina a few months ago. In September I was approached by my Campus Minister who I work close with about becoming apart of a group that would spend the fall semester training and reflecting in preparation for a one week service immersion trip to Duran, Ecuador. My first response was no. He asked why and I told him that money was just non existent for me. The trip, though majorly covered by the Campus Ministry department, was $400. This is a lot of money to a senior in undergrad. Hell, that’s a lot of money for anyone. But after chatting a little more he explained that this trip was different than others. There was a grant for this trip because it was new and hopefully, if successful, the trip would be a launching point for the service trip program at Assumption. After talking about it and finding out more details, I agreed. Little did I know what I would be getting myself into.

The training started at the end of September. We talked a lot about social injustice in this world. We discussed how we as college students could fix them. As a group of people that did not know one another that well, we did not get that far. I’ve been on these service trips with the school before and the meetings beforehand are always terribly awkward. But for 3 months we met. Every Wednesday night at 6:30. The meetings started to develop different agendas. We watched a 2-part documentary called “Crude” about the pollution of Ecuadorian lands by American oil companies. It was sad to watch American ignorance at its best destroying a beautiful land. But again, the concept of Ecuador being a beautiful place was not one I was privy to. My own American ignorance had me believing that the whole country of Ecuador was a jungle. Not at all was this case I would soon learn. Another training meeting included working on our Spanish. If I have one regret about this experience it was that I did not take learning Spanish nearly as seriously as I should have. I have never been to another country that does not speak English. That would take it’s toll about 3 minutes after getting off the plane in Guayaquil.

But the most interesting of the meetings was when a girl, not much older than myself came to speak with us. Her name was Christina Mellace. She is the Assistant Director of the program we would be working with called Rostro de Christo. As we piled into the meeting room like we had to often before, she greeted us with a big smile on her face. She was so excited. At the time this was confusing. Now I completely understood. She was very excited for us to experience this mission. She proceeded to say a lot of things. A lot of things which made no sense to us at the time. She confessed at the end that she knew she told us a lot of information and it would be hard to process before our venture down south. Some of the questions we asked were along the lines of how difficult would the language barrier be? How would the food be? What kinds of accommodations would we have? She gave a bit of a laugh with these types of questions. She knew something we did not. Before going on a trip like this, everyone is so concerned with their own well being while being in such a foreign place. Upon arrival though, we would quickly learn that accommodations would be the least of our concerns. But despite her knowing the insignificance of such things, she gave us answers along the lines of the food would be very minimal. It would be enough to get us through the week but we should absolutely prepare for cutting our diets down a lot. As well, the bed situation would be very different from what we were used to. She did not want to give it all away then but she mentioned that we would be sleeping in a net to shield us from bugs while we slept.

…I would be sleeping in a net? What was I getting myself into? I can’t count how many times I asked myself that question during this whole process. But as this meeting began to wrap up, Christina could not stress enough to go in without expectations and have fun. Sure sure, that’s what they all say. But little did I know what I would soon be immersed into. What was weird was that as the semester ended and I was home for Christmas break I would see lots of family and friends and tell them all I was preparing for the trip and they would ask what I would be doing and each time I got asked that, I stumbled. I really had no idea what I would be doing. Despite Christina chatting to us about the week, I really could not tell you before the trip a single thing we would be doing. The morning of our departure I woke up and sat up in bed. Did I really want to do this? I could stay in bed, sleep in, go to the gym, visit friends during the week. But whatever it was pushed me out of bed and on the road to the airport.

I’m very happy I did. This morning when I signed into my email and saw the message from Christina, I read and found myself in a pure state of thought. Her email was sent out to myself and the rest of my group talking about how she hoped we had such a great time and wanting us to respond and tell her about our experience. She mentioned that she would send out a more detailed message to us in a few days but to keep remaining strong. One of the last things she said was how coming back from this trip was the hardest part of the trip. Emotionally and mentally. But once we are able to process everything, it becomes understandable how we truly lived an amazing once in a lifetime experience. As I read her email and thought about the emotional and mental struggle I’ve been fighting for the past week, it became clear. It is time to stop being upset, frustrated, confused. I can’t sit here in a perplexed state and remain lost. I had to face it all. How better to do that than do what I do best. Write.

In the next few posts, I’m hoping to explain in a relate-able way what I experienced. For me and for you, to understand what exactly I did and how this experience would truly be a changing point for me in my life.

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