By Conor Sanchez
A few months ago, the son of one of Michaela’s counterparts approached me about helping him with an environmental club he was trying to get started at the university. As a third-year business administration student, José was not only trying to get university students to care about the environment, but he also wanted to cultivate a stronger culture of student-led groups on campus.
His project sounded pretty great and, frankly, I was surprised to hear a young guy in Nueva Guinea talk so passionately about the environment. I also agreed that university students needed to be doing more outside of the classroom. Extracurriculars were a big part of my own college experience and where I ended up gaining a lot of hands-on experience that I was later able to put on my resume. Although I didn’t know exactly how I could be of service to him, I promised to help him out when my schedule permitted.
Then, about a month ago, I paid my first visit to a popular waterfall in a tiny community called La Esperanza, where I teach on Tuesday and Wednesdays. If there is ever going to be tourism traffic passing through Nueva Guinea, this will undoubtedly be one of the region’s most popular destinations. For now, however, it’s a local getaway, colloquially referred to as “El Salto” (the jump). Located on private property, you have walk through several fenced-off farms just to get there. During semana santa, a flood of people come from Nueva Guinea and other nearby communities to cool off and relax with their families. Braver souls can leap from the waterfall into a pretty deep watering hole below.
I loved it so much that a week later I returned with my students after school one day. A week after that, I went again. The more I went, however, the more I noticed how much trash was hiding between the rocks, under leaves, or at the trunk of trees. I saw one mother doing her laundry on a rock in the middle of the river using chemicals that would eventually float downriver into the drinking water of Nuevo Leon, a community about five kilometers away.
As I headed home one day, I suddenly remembered about José. He had been wondering what his group could be doing to help promote environmental protection in the community. Maybe his group could work with the school out here to teach them the importance of taking care of this place. In my mind, the waterfall is a shining beacon as to why natural resources should be protected; not only does it provide the community with respite during vacations, but it also has tourism appeal.
José immediately pounced on the idea. Within days he had rounded up a few members of his group who would travel out to La Esperanza the day before Earth Day to give an environmental presentation to students from my secondary school and lead them in a dynamic activity to pick up some trash. I got the school’s permission and we were all set to go for a trash-pick day on Tuesday, April 21. The school’s sub-director, Simeon, said it was first time the school had ever done something like this.
The last thing we decided to do was incorporate a few remarks from José in English, since he speaks it fluently. He would talk about his experience working in Managua using English, and would encourage students to keep working hard in my class so that one day they can use it to their benefit.
Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch. The coolest thing about this project was how little I actually had to do. All I did was connect the dots and, to me, that is the best role a Peace Corps Volunteer can play.
It wasn’t me getting up in front of the students to talk about why litter is bad for the environment; it was a Nicaraguan who wants others to treat the rivers and mountains as if they were their own backyard. It wasn’t me getting up and speaking in English to students, explaining to them the doors that’ll open if they become bilingual; it was a Nicaraguan who got a job in a call center purely because of his is ability to speak fluent English.
When José started speaking English to them, the students’ eyes lit up in a way I had never seen before. In retrospect, this makes so much sense. Students expect me to speak a strange new language. What they didn’t expect was someone from their own community to speak fluent English.
Next week we plan to do some activities using some of the recyclable materials students picked up. José also wants to show the pictures I took to the mayor’s office to see if they’d be able to provide a truck from time to time; if students pick up the trash, the truck can haul it back to the city for proper disposal.
In the U.S., a local trash pick up might not sound like anything special, but here it was a pretty big deal. And getting university students out into nearby communities to teach, inspire, and make a difference is also a relatively novel concept. For me, this was a big lesson learned as I continue to look for ways to contribute. Sometimes, as this activity demonstrated, it’s as simple as connecting the dots.
Happy Earth Day!