What a trip!
I just returned this weekend from my trip to Nicaragua with Shannon Elizabeth for the Feed the Children organization. I have to say that it was different than what I expected. My usual solo trips to Vietnam involve truckloads of food that feed entire towns, and I’m always able to help out in numerous ways. This charity mission tied my hands a bit, as I was there with a bigger organization and couldn’t personally help as many people as I wanted. But, Feed the Children is very well organized and the volunteers know what they’re doing, so it was a different experience. And the good part was that I got to know some of the people in the villages better and on a more personal level than I usually do. And the two girls who touched us the most were a gift that I couldn’t have imagined being more gratifying or inspiring. Overall, it was an amazing trip!
Let’s start from the beginning…
A few us of in the large group that was going were on the same connecting flight to Managua, including Ace Young, Ryan Young, Drake Bell, Thomas Scriven, Chelsea Staub and her girlfriend Kelly. We got there on the evening of the 10th and were escorted to the VIP lounge and was assisted with immigration and customs, which took about 30 minutes. We each had a separate private vehicle outside for each of us, and our group had about a dozen security guards surrounding us at all times. (We weren’t going to the safest parts of the country after all.) We arrived at the hotel, and I went to meet with Emma and the documentary production crew. Shannon didn’t arrive until an hour and a half later, but I shared with her our information about the girls we were to meet the following day. I was exhausted, though, and I had been feeling sick for two days, so I went to my room to get some sleep.
But there wasn’t much time to sleep, as we had to get up by 7:30am and be ready to leave the hotel by 9:00am. We were again greeted by private cars because each of us had different missions to do that day. It took about 40 minutes to get to the home of the two sisters that Shannon and I were to visit, and once we arrived, we had to park at the bottom of the hill because the dirt road leading to their house was full of huge potholes. We left the car behind and walked up the hill to meet the girls in the town of villa Nueva. Luckily, we had a translator with us because the family didn’t know a word of English, and we didn’t know much Spanish.
We entered their tiny, hot, stuffy, shack that was quite dirty but it was their home. They showed us around and told us about themselves and their lives, though some of the information we got from the Feed the Children organizers before we went to see them.
Luz Marina Sanchez was 11 and Yahoska Sanchez Perez was 13. The adorable girls were both in the fourth grade and went to school in the evenings because their days were filled with keeping house, running errands for the family, and taking risks in the dangerous streets just to take care of the family and village. The girls also spent time collecting aluminum cans from the streets and exchanging them for a little extra money for the family, and sometimes they went door-to-door selling bread to the villagers for money. They lived with their aunt, Dona Maria Luisa, who took them in eight years ago because their father died and their mother was under psychiatric care. The extended family all lived together, and with a cousin expecting a baby, there was going to be ten in the family, all living in a small hut made of sticks, old scraps of wood, and flattened tin cans. The aunt’s son-in-law was the only person working in the family and supporting all of them.
The situation immediately touched my heart because Shannon and I got to know the sisters, who were just the sweetest girls! We asked them about their lives - what they liked and disliked, what they wished for, etc. It was mostly Yahoska who did the talking; she was quite brave and talkative, while Marina was shy at first but eventually warmed up to us. They told us a lot about their lives. And when we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, Yahoska told us she wanted to be a lawyer. (Great goal!) Marina said she wanted to be a doctor, and when I asked her what kind, she said a pediatrician! I already had a vision in my mind before she said it of her as a pediatrician, which comes from the fact that I love children so much, but when she said it I almost fell off the bed! I felt an instant connection with little Marina.
At one point, we had a sad moment when Yahoska put her head down and sadly told us that she wished she could get a proper education so she could be what she wants when she gets older. She told us that she wanted to provide a better life for her family, be able to buy medication for her mom that would make her better, and keep her family from suffering. Then she pointed to the roof and said that their home was collapsing. (It was true; the wooden pole that held up the roof was moldy and weak.) They told us how they even sometimes sell their clothes for money just so they can eat.
We asked them about their parents, and they said their dad was out, as if they didn’t even know that he was dead. They referred to their caretaker aunt as their mom, who didn’t seem like a warm, loving person to us. But no matter what, when we asked them if they felt happy, they both smiled these huge smiles and said “Yes!” Knowing what a hard life they lead, their enthusiasm about being happy girls was even more touching.
After more than an hour of chatting with them, we got to surprise them with something from the Make-a-Wish Foundation. They delivered bunk beds for the girls, as well as school uniforms and school supplies. We told the girls we had a surprise and we told the girls to close their eyes and cover them with their hands. We led them to the front of their shack and showed them the bunk beds with new mattresses, and they got big smiles on their faces. They seemed happy but not as happy as we hoped! They both got on the bed and felt it, and Shannon and I went over to check out the mattresses, which looked more like bean-bag comforters than mattresses. We were a little disappointed, but we would try to change that later. But the girls were happy enough, and as we went to leave, Yahoska ran up to give Shannon a big hug and said, “God bless you!” We were almost in tears and left with the most amazing feeling of having gotten to know these two beautiful girls.
On our way back to the hotel, Shannon and I talked about doing something personal and special for the girls, something that would make them happy and help their wishes come true. As we were working out the details, we decided to head out to a local restaurant for a meal with others in the group and then do some sightseeing. We went to a place with active volcanoes and then to a local market. We didn’t buy much, except Ace bought this UGLY devil’s mask. And on our way back to the hotel, about 15 minutes later, we got into a car accident! The security guards driving behind us rammed into our car by accident! We were all okay, but Shannon and I insisted to Ace that his mask had too much negative energy!
The next morning, the entire group went to the Feed the Children food center, and our group was rather large, including the production crew, Dean Cain, Drake Bell, Thomas Scriven, Kyle and Chris Massey, Chelsea Staub, David and Laura McKenzie, Ace and Ryan Young, Shannon, and me. We met a large group of kids who were given meals, and we saw how the center operates on a daily basis while we interacted with the kids. The crew took notice of how connected Shannon and I had become with Yahoska and Marina the day before, so they arranged for them to arrive at school early so we could feed them ourselves. That second day with the girls, they were more open, playful, and happy. Marina was much more talkative and attached to me, which was the greatest feeling! We played with the girls and the other kids for awhile. When we were supposed to leave, Luz Marina, asked me something very strange and unexpected. She asked me if I could give her some money for notebooks. It made me wonder if her aunt hadn’t asked her to say that so she could just get money. I told Marina I didn’t have any money but I was sure she’d be fine and very happy soon. When I went to say goodbye to Yahoska, she hugged me and asked me the same question Marina did! That made me sure that their aunt was just trying to get them to ask me for money. So sad! I told her the same thing, that I didn’t have any money. And the sweet girl that she is, she grabbed my hand and drew a picture on it - a star, a heart, and two rounded lines on each side of the star. I had to take a picture of it!
We left the school to return to the hotel, and Shannon and I immediately went across the street to the hotel to shop for the items the girls wished for and anything they might need or want. We bought it all! And luckily for us, our eight security guards were able to help carry the bags! LOL. We bought new mattresses, bedding sheets and pillows, Barbie dolls, notebooks, backpacks, reading books, kids’ story books, a bible (Yahoska had an old bible in her school bag that morning), pencil sharpeners, crayons, markers, and English language books. Then we had our driver take us straight to the girls’ home to surprise them. They had no idea we were coming, so they just lit up with the biggest smiles when they saw us and ran up to us with huge hugs. They were so happy just to see us, and when we said we had gifts, they were even happier. We showed them their new things, and their eyes were wide and happy! The look on Marina’s face when I showed her the notebooks was just priceless! I’ll never forget those faces that day.
We went with the girls back to their sleeping area and helped them with their mattresses, showed them how to put the sheets on their beds properly, and sat with them as they read their books. They are so smart and read so well, and it was obvious how much they loved reading and learning. We took the price tags off everything, including the dolls, so their aunt couldn’t take them and sell them. It was no guarantee that she wouldn’t do that, but we really could only pray that she allowed the girls to keep their gifts. The Feed the Children social worker who was with us spoke to the girls in Spanish, and she told Marina that I will sponsor her and told Yahoska that Shannon will sponsor her. They jumped up and down, smiled from ear to ear, and gave us the biggest hugs!
Monica, the social worker, then asked the girls some questions. Yahoska was asked if she would ever forget Shannon, and she said, “No, I’ll never forget!” Marina was asked what makes her the happiest in her life, and she said, “The love that they have given me today.” Just to hear that from such a shy little girl was so touching… By that time everyone was in tears, and the girls cried as they hugged us. Yahoska kept asking us to “please don’t go!” but we had to leave. I should also mention that Feed the Children gave the aunt a brand new stove for cooking, which will hopefully keep her happy for awhile.
We asked the girls to write to us and let us know how they’re doing in school and life and how they’re progressing, and we told them we would write letters to them, too. I can’t tell you how I’m looking forward to writing the first letter and hearing back from them! There were so many tears during those days - happy and sad - but those personal visits with the girls were the highlights of the trip for sure! I still can’t stop looking at the pictures and thinking of ways to help the girls achieve their dreams and have the lives they deserve.
Anyone who wants to help Feed the Children can go to www.FeedTheChildren.org. And I encourage anyone who can do it to go on a mission, meet these children face to face, and see their lives for yourselves. It will change your life, I promise you!