I spent my spring break in Diriamba, Nicaragua, living with abandoned special-needs children. The experience taught me more than I could ever say or write, but one person’s words and actions are still fresh in my mind.
Our guide Julia (pronounced who-lee-uh) was a no-nonsense woman who spoke heavily accented English. Understanding her was a twofold challenge. First was fighting through her accent, but second was following her train of thought. Julia was full of grand ideas; language was often an inadequate vehicle for the love she shared with everyone she encountered. Her sentences could ramble and her ideas could blur together, yet the message always rang true.
Julia was the quintessential guide. She got us where we needed to go, naturally, but was always there to fill in the necessary information we lacked. She helped us understand Nicaragua in ways we could not have otherwise.
Julia taught us something about wealth. When we saw families living in shacks unfit for an American dog, she taught us to see what they had, not what they lacked. Poverty forced families together, she said. Multiple generations lived together in the same home, spending their lives on the same minuscule pocket of land. We have technology, but how often did we see our families? How much did we truly love our closest relatives? Our hearts ached for the poor, but she reminded us of the powerful love coming from their poverty.
Julia taught us about discipline. She worked alongside an amazing staff at Mustard Seed Communities, the organization that ran the orphanage where we stayed. Blessed with limitless patience, these women worked tirelessly caring for children who had no one else to care for them. For this to be possible, some level of order had to be maintained. The last day we were there, multiple kids were kept inside, unable to play with us or the other children. When it came time to say good-bye, Julia had to hold firm and keep the kids inside. Love is not always nice, and allowing the children free reign was no favor to them.
Julia taught us about pride. Anywhere we went, she glowed as we took in the beauty of her country. Surrounding the poverty and hardship were spectacular views in the mountains, sandy beaches and a volcanic lake that was nothing short of paradise. The homes were bright and clean. No one had much, but what they had was theirs, and that meant something to them. Anytime we ate, she spoke of the national cuisine. They don’t cook with spice, they add it at the end, she said. She spoke of their national cheese, a salty, creamy white cheese served with plantains. She spoke of their national drink, the Macuá, which was a mixture of white rum, orange, guava and lemon juices. Her pride never boasted, only sought to show the beauty and the good in her country
Julia taught us about love. Love is simple, yet strong. It is not always nice, but enables true care. It does not boast, but carries itself confidently. Love extends to every facet of life and extends to everyone encountered. Julia taught us all of this less with words and more with actions. She was ordinarily heroic, doing great things in simple ways. Time will erode many of the memories formed in Nicaragua, yet Julia will stand the test of time. I went to Nicaragua to help those in need, but I left finding I was in as much need as the people of Nicaragua, and most of those lessons came from Julia.
Zack Lemon is a student at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio and a student leader for the Campus Ministry Leadership Institute, sponsored in part by the Catholic Apostolate Center. This post originally appeared in The Collegian, the student newspaper of Ashland University.