By France Griggs Sloat
University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., spent his spring break like many of the students—away from campus, in warmer southern climates. Unlike many of the students, though, he wasn’t in Cancun or on some Florida beach. Rather, Graham flew down to Managua, Nicaragua, to visit the University students who are in the middle of a service learning semester in the Third World country. While others were lounging and taking a break from their work, he was visiting the families who host the students, meeting with the country’s Jesuits and spending time with the agencies that serve the poor.
He was also having his heart strings tugged by a little autistic boy.
“The most personally moving experience for me was at a home for physically and mentally disabled children,” Graham says. “There is no service I’ve ever done that is more difficult than that for me. But [students] Juicio Brennan and Bill Schwartz loved playing with the kids. They were terrific with them. A lot of it is just giving them physical attention. One has a nervous disorder and his body aches, he’s only 2 years old, and there’s a massaging technique that calms him down. One boy is 14 years old and fits in a crib.
“Juicio had a kid who was very autistic. He had to be strapped in and he didn’t talk and he was blind. One day when Juicio came in, he smiled and said, ‘Juicio!’ The kid had picked it up from someone else that this was his name. It was a breakthrough. Juicio felt that somehow he’d gotten through to this kid. It was a wonderful thing.” The boy, who uses a type of car seat to get around because he can’t walk, appeared to be school-age, says Susan Namie, director of the University program, who traveled with Graham to Managua. She says the boy can’t see but would look toward whomever was speaking. The home where he lives, Pajarito Azul, is for severely disabled children, some of whom can walk but many of whom are restricted to beds and wheelchairs.
Juicio’s story is exactly what the service learning semester is all about—learning about yourself by doing for others. Juicio and Bill work at the home every day as part of their service learning semester. Pajarito Azul is one of four agencies in the University’s program, each of which hosts two of the eight students who are spending their entire spring semester in Managua. The program is for students who want to study in a foreign culture to develop the language skills and volunteer service experiences they can’t find in the States.
The program began in 1995 with the help of Joseph Mulligan, S.J., a Jesuit priest assigned to the region 15 years ago. He helped arrange for host families, so each student can stay with a family but still be close to each other, and agencies where the students donate their time. They also keep up with their schooling by attending classes throughout the semester.
The other agencies and students this year are: Hospital del Nino, a children’s hospital where John Lavelle and Lindsay Prunty are assigned to the cancer ward; El Recreo, a nutrition center and day care for women and children where Shelly Goliber and Chris Sewell work; and Olla de La Soya, a nutrition center for children, where Nicole Anderson and Mary O’Malley are working.
“This is the ninth year,” Namei says. “Some of our host families have been there from the beginning, and new ones have been added. The families get a subsidy from the University. So the students get a home and two meals a day and they become part of the family, calling them mom and dad and brother and sister.
“We’re hoping to establish some sort of global view and one of it is to overcome prejudice about other people in the world and to become more open-minded and also to make a little deeper understanding about themselves as people as well.” Graham says he also was moved by the old Nicaraguan men who spend their days at a senior citizens center in the barrio playing guitar and card games. Graham joined in a game of Casino and won on his first try. The center is across the street from El Recreo, the supplemental feeding program for children and pregnant women who go to the site for meals and get the added benefit of socializing with others. Chris and Shelly help prepare and serve the meals, and they interact with the mothers and children.
When Graham visited a women’s sewing cooperative, which they had built themselves, he decided to help them achieve economic freedom by agreeing to arrange for the University to buy some of the shirts they make. One of his favorite times was a fiesta thrown on his last night by Donja Adilia Luna, the matriarch of one of the host families who also operates a bed-and-breakfast style lodge where Namei stayed during the visit. There was music and a birthday cake and demonstrations of folk, ballroom and salsa dancing. Graham says he had it nice compared to the typical living conditions of Nicaraguans. He had a private room at the Jesuit Colegio high school, which included his own shower, a luxury even if it had no hot water. Graham said he didn’t like the cold shower in the morning, but after a dusty day of visits and meetings in 90-plus degree temperatures, that cold shower sure felt good at the end of the day.
The experience overall, he says, made him acutely aware of the rugged conditions the Nicaraguans face in their daily lives. The country suffered from an earthquake in 1972 and Hurricane Mitch in 1996, so most families live in small square concrete block houses where bedrooms measure 8 feet by 10 feet. But despite the lean conditions, which cause him to struggle with his own guilt over the disparity with America’s wealth, he saw how the people stay connected by creating and maintaining close communities.
“I can’t feel guilty because my vocation is to be passionate and committed and to be a Jesuit in my reality,” he says. “For me the solution isn’t to give everything away but to commit directly to my reality here with its blend of social and economic factors. From my experience with the families there, I formed such as immediate bond with them, it’s like you knew them before you met them. It reminds me that these people to whom I was already connected suddenly became real to me. It’s a very real and tangible thing.”