The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Working for change

Submitted photo

Last fall junior Pat Writz studied abroad like many other students at UW-Eau Claire. He didn’t go on any castle tours or visit the Eiffel Tower though. Nor did he spend hundreds of dollars on fashion and souvenirs. Instead, he spent time helping people living below the poverty line in the town of El Fortín, Nicaragua.

Writz was part of the Costa Rica and Nicaragua study abroad program, which finished its second session this fall. Writz and 11 other students spent time in both countries studying and living with host families.

The Center for International Training and Development, which is run by Phillip Flahive and Marielos Calvo, sponsored the trip.

The most memorable part his semester abroad, was the time Writz spent completing his service learning requirements in the town of El Fortín.

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Learning together
Writz and the other students spent nine days in the town. In the mornings they reroofed a greenhouse and in the afternoons they tutored children in Spanish, math and English, he said.

“It was interesting because these kids don’t own textbooks,” he said. “Basically they can’t afford them.”

Senior Joe Muellenberg was another member of the team. He said teaching the children ages seven to 13 was a good experience. The education system there is not very good, he said, so it was great to help out.

Writz helped four seventh grade students prepare for a final exam. It was challenging because he didn’t have a lot of directions. The school gave him a piece of paper with vague notes for lesson plans such as “English pronouns,” he said.

Although there wasn’t much direction teaching the kids, Writz said he felt comfortable because he is a Teaching English as a Foreign Language minor. He said he was given a higher level class because of his minor, whereas other students tutored younger children and taught things like the ABCs and counting.

Nourishing the land
One of the main projects the team did was help rebuild a greenhouse roof that had been ruined by a storm. The greenhouse was used to grow herbs, which a women’s co-op sells in the city of Granada to make an income, Muellenberg said.

The greenhouse roof was built with bamboo and palm leaves to protect the herbs from sunlight, yet still allow rain to come through, Muellenberg said.

In addition to building the roof, Writz and friends also helped nourish fruit trees the group from Eau Claire had planted the year before. He and another student went around to all the trees to check if they were still thriving. Writz said he enjoyed this experience because they got to meet a lot of interesting people, who were all very grateful for their help.

“These people would be really proud that their fruit tree produced one orange in the year,” he said. “We met the coolest people in the community.”

Some of the interesting locals included a group of identical quadruplet girls and an elderly woman who helped them with their project. They were clearing out weeds around the fruit tree at the house and asked the woman for a machete.

“This little old grandma came out and was just going at these big weeds. She accomplished in five minutes what would have taken me a half hour,” he said.

Home life
Families in El Fortín generally live in cinder block homes with three or four rooms, Writz said. He lived with various host families throughout his time in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, but felt closest with the ones from El Fortín.

He lived with a dad, mom, two sisters, one brother and an uncle. His host grandparents lived next door. Writz said he became close with the family and was quite sad to leave.

“My Grandma said, ‘Oh man, Pat, you are leaving. Now I’m going to have no one to kiss on the cheek in the morning. I’ll have to buy a chicken and name it after you.'”

Writz said he was lucky because the family he lived with had running water, but many other students had to use outhouses. He said the atmosphere there was very different form the United States. Livestock lived in the yards and roosters and dogs constantly made noise.

Muellenberg wasn’t so lucky with the running water situation. His house had an outhouse and outdoor shower that was basically just a bucket he could dump over his head, he said. His house also had a lot of chickens running around and one time he said he even found a tarantula in his bed.

One of the scarier things Writz said he experiences was a cock fight in the street.

“You don’t have TV there so you have to find a way to entertain yourself on Sunday afternoons,” he said, “so you watch animals tear each other apart.”

Coming home again
Writz said when he returned to a big city in Nicaragua, it was hard to adjust and he began getting angry.

“I saw nice cars down the street that you could probably build three or four houses in El Fortín with (the cost),” he said.

Now that he’s at home he is a lot more aware of what he buys, he said. A cup of coffee costing $1.25 could feed a member of his host family for one day, he said. Now that he is back, Writz eats a lot of rice and beans and said he spends much less money on food and other things.

Writz said the main thing he learned from his experience was how to help other people. Before going on the trip Writz said poverty didn’t really affect him or how he looked at things, but after the trip his perspective changed.

“For a lot of us poverty became very, very personal and very, very real,” he said.

Muellenberg said he was also greatly affected by the trip and he now has a real sense of what poverty is. He said the people in El Fortín are just caught in a bad economic situation, but they are not poor in spirit.

“You realize how wonderful and appreciative they are compared to other people who are more fortunate,” he said. “It’s amazing how they live, the crap they put up with.”

Writz said the program is not like traditional study abroad because going to the one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere changed them drastically.

Muellenberg said returning to the U.S. was shocking at first. He said he gradually readjusted but went through stages of feeling guilty and hopeless.

“When I was flying over Atlanta on my way home the lights and cars were amazing,” he said. “America is like a super computer and Nicaragua is like an old, rusty typewriter.”

Writz said the reason Nicaragua suffers from poverty is because the country has been exploited and used so much.

“Latin America is so rich with natural resources and agricultural products, but because of their economy and political history they are extremely poor,” he said.

Now what?
Writz said one of the main things people can do to help the situation in Nicaragua is increase awareness. He plans to devote his life to going to Latin America to teach English. This summer he will also be going to Honduras for two months to do his TEFL student teaching.

Muellenberg said he also plans to go back. He is currently applying for grants to return in the fall and trying to raise $10,000 to do a project in El Fortín that would test and treat residents for parasites.

“They just had a running water system put in last year and the majority of the villagers still have parasites from the stagnant, contaminated well water they used to drink from,” he said.

The $10,000 would also go toward the construction of a cement bridge that would help the villagers get to school, the market and their jobs during the rainy season.

The study abroad group is also planning a 5K race to raise money for to buy books, school supplies and uniforms for the children of El Fortín.

Applying what we learned
Writz said the time spent in El Fortín came at the perfect time in the semester. Before the service learning trip they learned a lot about Latin American history and sociology.

“We studied it and then we saw it,” he said. “We saw what it means to be financially poor and living in a developing third world country.”

Writz said what he gained the most from the trip was learning what it really means to help people, beyond just giving them stuff to make himself feel better. He said he realized there is a difference between being poor and actually living in poverty.

“These people are obviously financially poor and living in poverty but they still swept their dirt yards everyday and they were proud of what they did have,” he said. “They were really happy people.”

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