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NU students’ winter recess is a working vacation

LEWISTON – Six Niagara University students recently returned from El Sauce, Nicaragua, where they spent a week during winter recess constructing a home for an impoverished family.

Rachel Bailey, Selena Cerra, Jake Eberth, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Briana Neale and Amy Wnuk – all members of the university’s Bienvenidos Spanish and Hispanic culture club – joined forces with the 4 Walls Project service organization to build a home for a family that earns an annual of income of just $1,200.

The students were accompanied by the Rev. Vincent J. O’Malley, C.M., university chaplain, and Dr. Abigail L. Levin, associate professor of philosophy.

Fitzpatrick, the club’s president, said that the needy family had been living under a tarp that was attached to their neighbors’ house. Their bathroom was a doorless hut situated above a hole in the ground, and they bathed and washed their clothes in the same river that was the source of their drinking water.

“The conditions in which this community lives are absolutely unimaginable, and any descriptions that I attempt to give cannot even begin to give a realistic impression of their severity,” recalled Fitzpatrick, a native of Liverpool. “We were heartbroken at seeing the way that they live, but these feelings are what sparked the Vincentian response in all of us.”

By 8 a.m. each day, the students, their chaperones, a few masons and the family took on the tasks of making cement, moving bricks, forming rebar, passing and laying bricks and filling in mortar. The masons told the students several times that they were “como una máquina” (like a machine).

“The students are to be highly commended for their very physical work and delightful spirit,” O’Malley said. “Dr. Levin and I are very impressed by these students.”

The students worked very hard just to get to Nicaragua. They began working with university leadership to obtain approval and identify the scope of the project about a year prior to the trip. Once those details were finalized, the group held several fundraisers to help pay their way to Central America, while footing a portion of the costs themselves. They arrived in Nicaragua on Dec. 16, motivated to build a safe, durable home for Carlos and Daisy, and their children, Neysi, 7, and Derwin, 4. Fitzpatrick noted that it’s uncommon for 4 Walls volunteers to see the completion of their projects before returning home, but the Niagara group laid the final brick on their last day of work. The masons roofed the house later.

With the family inside, O’Malley then offered a blessing of the structure. Carlos thanked God for giving a chance for a better life to his children, and he thanked the students for lending a hand in this life-changing opportunity for him and his family. His wife, Daisy, who had worked tirelessly all week, began to cry, and the group discovered that this was her sixth time applying to get a home from 4 Walls.

The children also experienced a touch of an American Christmas, as the students presented them with stockings full of toys, books and school supplies. On their final evening, the volunteers enjoyed a Latin American-themed celebration as they took turns swinging at a piñata.

“The hard work paid off, especially knowing that so many loving hands and hearts went into its success,” said Fitzpatrick. “Seeing Derwin walk around the inside of the new house with a smile on his face and a stuffed Monte (Niagara University’s mascot) in his hands was a real-life image of exactly what we were all feeling in our hearts. It was a reminder of the Vincentian mission and our call to answer it.”

Niagara University students contribute more than 1,000 hours of community service each week during the academic year through the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement and programs like Learn and Serve Niagara and Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Visit www.niagara.edu for more information.