Meredith Burgess, Sales Director, eMarketer, Nicaragua Volunteer April 2018

Building a safe, secure home, brick by brick for a family in need was one of the most profound experiences. I’ve volunteered in many different capacities, from a Girl Scout in my local community to a Peace Corps volunteer abroad, however few experiences have left the impact on me that serving the beautiful people of Nindiri did. The volunteers are often seen as the ones giving because what we leave behind is tangible, however what we receive is so much more. The kindness, generosity and warmth displayed by the Nicaraguans is inspiring and a reminder that many of life’s most important things need no translation, they’re universal. I’ll definitely be returning to Nicaragua with Bridges.

Lauren Slovensky, NY IT Student, Dominican Republic Volunteer Spring 2017

“As a sophomore at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) last year, I had a life-altering experience during my spring break holiday. I, along with twenty other students from NYIT, took part in the alternate spring break program run by faculty that partners with the nonprofit organization Bridges to Community to build a home in the town of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic. In the community we visited, I had never seen such extreme poverty before. The daily reality of the people who lived there was a culture shock to me and forced me to come to grips with my own reality, the sheltered life I had experienced most of my life.

Partnered with Bridges to Community, my classmates and I built a house in the community of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic working with the community for five days, six hours each day. We took great satisfaction in watching the house being built and community members were integral in communicating their needs during the building process. However, it was sad to see community members wearing the same clothes every day and many were without shoes, some as young as three years old. Despite the apparent hardship, satisfaction came from providing a home for a husband and wife and their thirteen children.

My experience in the Dominican Republic was enormously different than the life I live with my own siblings growing up as a middle-class child in a mostly upper-class community; I feel as if I lived my entire life in a bubble, completely unaware of poverty. As a result of this trip, I do not intend to live life regretting my newfound desire to work with underprivileged communities, realizing that most of my life I got almost everything I asked for at Christmas and my birthdays. I wish someone had told me that many others do not have the same privileges. I do not need the next iPod, but the community around me needs food on the table. This transformed my thinking about what is really, really important in life, but I had to experience another culture for that to happen.

This event made me aware of the privileged life and blessings I was given. It is a true privilege growing up as a middle-class child and not having to worry about the next meal. Sadly, kids in the community are mostly only able to eat flour and water, as part of a largely starch based diet. This alone is a major setback they face from an early age. Seeing for the first time children with swollen stomachs and yellowing eyes, both major signs of protein deficiency, was heartbreaking. I held back the tears but felt sorrow and helplessness at not being able to do anything to help these kids. Most amazing, however, was when I saw their pure happiness while they played, realizing that regardless of how many hardships they were experiencing, they possessed an inner strength and joy nonetheless. The fact that they love their lives filled me with personal joy, but most importantly, it opened my eyes that there is a world that is often neglected and unheard of beyond the world I live in.

After serving in the Dominican Republic and having felt personally transformed through my experiences and struggles, my attitude has changed tremendously. First, I have a new appreciation for the magnitude of people facing poverty in my own neighborhood. Seeing a homeless people now, I understand that there might be something facing them that is beyond their control. They are human and should be treated as such. Having been surrounded in the San Juan de Maguana community, I observed how community members interacted with each other and how tight their bond is for their families. The strength of the love they expressed towards each other they would never trade for any riches. I came to realize through my experiences with their culture that having so much and spending wantonly does not lead to absolute happiness. Sometimes what really matters is not wealth in numbers, but wealth in spirit and love for each other.”

Matthew Fenton, President of Oxford Solutions, Pittsburgh, PA

Matt Fenton

“I joined my neighbors on a Bridges trip several years ago. Since then, I have taken multiple trips with my wife, sons, mother, friends, neighbors, and business colleagues. I strongly believe in the mission of Bridges to Community. BTC are great stewards of every dollar donated, they do great work in the communities, and work hard to provide rich cultural learning experiences. I have had people on my team share that their BTC trip was one of the best weeks of their lives.”

Rev. Dr. Paul Alcorn of the Bedford Presbyterian Church, in Bedford, NY

Rev Dr Paul Alcorn (on the right)

“I have been leading trips with Bridges since 1996. Each year at least one of the trip participants (and often more than one) says to me at the end of the trip, ‘This has changed my life.’ I understand what they mean. My experiences building homes or community centers in Nicaragua with Bridges has changed my life as well. I see the world differently today than before my first trip. I see my life differently today since my last trip a couple weeks ago. While I learn something new about myself on each trip, there is one constant, and that is I am humbled by the gratitude and grace and openness of the families with whom I work to build a home.”

Scott MacDuffie (B.Mgt, FCIP, CRM) Director, Personal Lines at Intact Insurance

Scott MacDuffie

“I want to start by thanking the whole Bridges team for the work they do. It is clear that every detail has been considered. I was extremely impressed by how well run the trip was from start to finish. Consideration was clearly given to how the trip can be made as fun and comfortable as possible while experiencing life in Nicaragua. It was great to experience such a wonderful country and learn about the complex situations that effect it.”

“Personally I really enjoyed the reflections and the subsequent discussions that followed long after. These reflections allowed me to get to know Nicaragua for much more than the hotel and tourist attractions. Over the course of the week I experienced a wide range of emotions from joy and laughter to sadness and frustration. There was a lot of hard work and deep discussion on the issues and complexity of the situation in Nicaragua. One of the moments I will remember for a long time is having a conversation with a gentlemen for the village learning about his experience being taken as a child soldier while watching other members of the group play baseball with a group of young children.”

“I also want to compliment the new Bridges Translator Karla. She was an amazing host that was extremely helpful. Watching her interact with the children and respectfully hold a parent to account for not sending a child to school was excellent. You can tell she really enjoyed the role and is a natural at it.”

Dr. Richard J. Rohrer, MD, Professor of Surgery, Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director, Tufts Fourth-Year Global Health Elective in Nicaragua

“On behalf of myself and the Tufts University School of Medicine, I would like to highlight just how productive the collaboration between Bridges to Community and Tufts has been. For 12 years now, faculty and senior medical students have held annual month-long clinics and teaching sessions in the Siuna area of Nicaragua, to the benefit of the local population, our students, and faculty alike. For the past 6 years we have been focused on the community of El Hormiguero. The great new clinic under construction there is testimony to the power of a group like BTC to effect real and meaningful and durable good. Ever-changing groups of docs and nurses, however well-motivated and resourced, could never accomplish such a thing. Thank you BTC for making this happen!”

Harry Sober: Retired executive leader, Northrop Grumman Corporation / Previous Special Forces- Green Beret Officer and Swimming Coach, Bishop Ireton High School

Harry Sober (far right)

“The year was 2011 when my lovely wife, Kathleen, convinced me that I should travel with her sister, Megan, a school teacher who has time-off in June to join the bridges to Community group in Nicaragua to build a house and school library for a Nicaraguan family & community.

I agreed, with slight reservations, to give it a “go.” Upon returning home, Megan and I felt that the program was so well organized in both the construction component as well as the cultural exposure that this would be a wonderful opportunity to escort our many nieces and nephews to over the years as they meet the 15 year old age requirement.

Over the past 4 years, we have escorted 4 of our nieces & nephews on the BTC program joining the St. John’s Episcopal Team out of New York. What a wonderful experience for all of us. The kids for experiencing a new world culture, local NICA cuisine, hard work and enjoying the Nicaraguan children as well as meeting new St. John’s teammates. Additionally, Megan & I have formed a much closer bond with our nieces & nephews as well.
The results have been exceptional and have far exceeded our expectations. Each Niece & Nephew has returned with deep appreciation for not only providing a much needed home to the selected families of Nicaragua, but also a new found acknowledgement for the advantages and opportunities that have been provided for them back at home in the United States.

Upon returning home, each teen must present a 30 minute power-point slide show to the rest of the larger family (about 30 of them) when we gather as a group. In the presentation are pictures of all of the activities both from the construction site to the after-hours play-time with the Nicaraguan children. All of the family then get to ask questions about the trip and experiences.

We still have 6 more Nieces and Nephew to go as well as my grandson, age eleven, who by the way, keeps asking: “Pop Pop, when is my turn?”

We now have two of the returning nieces in college. In their college applications they both made powerful statements about their International Community Service using our family theme for such trips: “making a very small piece of the world a better place to live.”

To both the Bridges to Community organization as well as the St. John’s Team Leader, Linnet Tse: Thanks for organizing an exceptional program for not only Nicaragua, but also an excellent and profound “growth” opportunity for my many Nieces & Nephews.”

Scott Maxwell, Founder & Managing Partner at OpenView Venture Capital

Scott Maxwell & Family

“My wife and I took our 3 kids to Nicaragua and built a house with Bridges during winter break. Previously, we had gone to resorts in different Caribbean islands. Each and every member of the family agreed that building the house was the best vacation we ever had. We learned a great amount from the locals and bonded with them and the rest of the group that we built the house with. Most importantly, it gave us a great appreciation for living in the moment and being happy with whatever we have, as that is what the local community does. I recommend it to everyone I talk to when they are thinking about a life changing experience with their family.”

Toby & Ella Strauss, Twickenham, United Kingdom

Toby & Ella Strauss

“Thank you to you and all the wonderful people at Bridges for making our trip so special. It was a privilege to see the family and the houses on Saturday morning. The houses looked absolutely amazing tucked in the trees, and Ella is very, very pleased with her painted trousers! Thank you also for taking such great care over Ella’s dietary needs.

You guys do such an amazing job down there, so integrated with the communities… it was good to learn more about your work and support for local artists and artisans this time around. Hopefully our paths will cross at some time in the future but meantime thank you again.”

Dr. Michael Lahn, Emergency Physician, Phelps Memorial Hospital, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Dr. Mike Lahn

“My experiences have been so meaningful that even before I leave, I immediately start planning to go back”

First year group led by Lindsay Swoboda, Director of Community Involvement, Presentation High School, San Jose, CA

Presentation High School

“We worked with Bridges for the first time in June of 2017 and immediately decided we wanted to continue working with the organization. During our week of service we helped community members build a house in Jinotega, Nicaragua. The way Bridges sets up the volunteer experience allows our students (and chaperones) the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with community members. We weren’t there to build a house for the community, but to become partners with the community members and help them achieve their goal of building a house.

Our students really got to immerse themselves in the community. They were able to practice their Spanish every day and experience what it’s like to live on a farm in Nicaragua. They ate Nicaraguan food, listened to the music, and experience the culture.

We couldn’t have asked for a better experience on the back end. Bridges was organized and helped us prepare properly for the trip. Once we were in Nicaragua the leaders of our group were very responsible and reliable. The chaperones felt like they could also immerse themselves on the trip, because Bridges was taking care of the logistics.

Overall we had a phenomenal experience and can’t wait to bring the next group of students to Nicaragua!”

Daniel Ingram – Intern with BTC in the Dominican Republic

Daniel Ingram (on left)

“I spent two months living in Derrumbadero with a host family in 2017. The experience was transformational. There is a phrase in the Dominican Republic that I have often thought about in the months since I returned: Es una rama del arbol, pero no es el arbol. Or in English, It is a branch of the tree, but it is not the tree. It is all too easy to get carried away by the storm of responsibilities and technology that each day and week entails for many Americans.

My time in the Dominican Republic was filled with simple pleasures and grating hardships. I learned quickly that family extends far beyond blood and birth, and that you can find laughter and happiness no matter what by learning about people around you and giving of yourself. I will never again take for granted some of the luxuries that I have – like running water and the privilege to plan weeks, months, and years ahead. The work that Bridges and its volunteers do are equally as transformative to the communities they serve.”

Patrick Mullett, Medical Student, University of Nevada Reno, School of Medicine

Patrick Mullett

“I am a medical student from Reno, Nevada. This was my first trip to Nicaragua in a trip organized by Bridges to Community. I traveled to the village of Tadazna, in the Northern Autonomous Region of the country as a healthcare provider working with other medical students to serve in a small clinic. The perspective gained was profound, not just for me, but all of my fellow colleagues.

You hear about people being “dirt poor,” but you don’t imagine that is the case when you see the locals. They may be poor by monetary standards, but you’ve never seen “rich” until you’ve seen an entire village that is more content living in houses they built together.

Selfishly, I think this trip offered major personal growth, as both an individual and a team player. This experience offered challenges that required us to ‘rise to the occasion.’ Challenges such as having too many patients to see and not enough space in our clinic caused us to improvise – erecting new patient rooms on the fly. Not having appropriate tools or running out of medications caused us to seek alternative treatment plans and to resort to using our own personal meds for those who needed it more than us. Having limited resources encouraged team building and improved my own personal leadership abilities.

Seeing the sick people in need can make you feel guilty in a way for owning nice things. I found that it was not about giving up the resources you have, it’s about using them to do the right thing. The Nicaraguans demonstrated to all of us what the word “community” meant, where neighbors supported each other, and they showed genuine compassion for one another. Thank you for helping me gain this valuable perspective, Bridges to Community!”

A. Valdini, MD, MPH, Faculty Member at Lawrence Family Medicine Residency, Lawrence, MA

Dr. Tony Valdini

“It has been our joy to be a part of Bridges to Community since 2005. Bringing medical students, residents, and attending doctors back to the same villages in Nicaragua, where resources are very limited, has been an important piece of BTC’s efforts to produce a “rising tide” of healthier, stronger, safer, and better-educated Nicaraguans.

Thanks to Bridges staff and board for their support of the medical brigades, and the recent funding and construction of a spectacular clinic in Hormiguero. Lots more work to do… Venceremos!”

Matt Anderson, Engineering Student, Class of 2018, University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Matt Anderson

“This past summer has been my first experience with Bridges to Community, and I could not be happier with the way it has turned out.

One of the things a volunteer to a foreign country should be considering is whether or not they understand the cultural expectations of the community, and the language as well. While my team did our best to become well-versed in both before we arrived, there were some things that cannot be learned without visiting. This is where our two Bridges to Community guides and translators became an invaluable resource.

Another thing a traveler should worry about is the continued impact of their project: what will happen to our project after our team leaves? BTC has an answer to this question too, in their continued presence in each community they visit. No project is abandoned after a group leaves. Rather, BTC has contracts with the community to continue in each location for many years.

Overall, our experience with BTC was very positive. As a testament to this, we will be returning next year to visit our site for a second time. It is important to check back up, and BTC makes that very possible.

We really enjoyed our experience with BTC, and I am looking forward to working with your Siuna team next year as well.”

Jiffy Lesica, Class of 2019, Wilton High School, Wilton, CT

Jiffy Lesica

“For the past three summers, I have traveled from Connecticut to Nicaragua with Bridges to Community. Each year I am met with big smiles and warm hugs from old and new friends at the airport. We travel together for hours en route to the worksite, catching up about the months that have passed. I arrive in Mojon and am greeted by familiar faces. Several I have played basketball with at the schoolyard for three years… a special young friend has come a great distance to spend the week with me… many others I have worked long hours with side by side each time I go… I play chess with one boy, cards with his brother … the proud owners of a new house, bake us cake and proudly welcome us into their first ‘home’ – the wet stucco not even yet dry.

I share years long and newly forged bonds for a week with very special people, and each year I am overjoyed to bring friends along with me to share in the experience. When we leave, tears are shed, hugs are shared, yet a sense of joy surrounds every person who I know so well because we all are certain, that we will see each other again.

My trips with Bridges have allowed me to begin to understand the true meaning of friendship, happiness, and community. I hope to continue to explore how I personally define these words over each year that I return to Nicaragua. Thanks to Bridges, my trips no longer feel as though I am traveling to a distant country full of strangers, experiencing things unknown, but instead, I feel each year – that I am returning home.”

David Albano, High School English Teacher, Fox Lane High School, Bedford, NY

David Albano

“Bridges to Community trips present young people opportunities for lasting optimism and enable them to become thoughtful, worldly adults. Many of our students continue to stay connected to Bridges to Community into college by continuing to participate in trips or by staying connected to Bridges leaders.

However, after more than eight trips as a teacher leading students, the most astounding aspect of the trips remains the connection our students make to the community we work with. Through the week, the Nicaraguan children reach across culture and language and embrace our group. The goodbyes are heartfelt, and for those students who return the following year and re-visit the previous year’s community, the reunions are joyful.”

Carla Berry & Linnet Tse, Trip Organizers for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Larchmont, NY

Carla Berry & Linnet Tse (standing in back)

“Over the course of more than a decade, St John’s service trips to Nicaragua with Bridges to Community have changed the lives of the dozens of young people and adults who have gone on our trips. The trips have been an essential part of our hands-on outreach initiatives.

For us, the trips have been much more than simply building a house… it’s been about the relationships we’ve formed – with the beneficiary families, the local communities, the masons, the local Bridges staff, and with each other – and the opportunity to gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation for another culture as well as the major issues faced by a developing country. For our many repeat trip participants, they say ‘no matter how many times we’ve come, the experience never gets old.’ We get so much more out of the trips than we give… and, it’s fun, too!”

Liz Shelbred – Senior, President of Bridges to Community Club, John Jay High School, Cross River, NY

Liz Shelbred

“Bridges to Community has completely changed my entire outlook on the world ever since my first trip during my Sophomore year of high school. Upon arriving to Jinotega, I was immediately welcomed into a place so previously foreign to me with open arms – Bridges staff, Nicaraguan masons, and family members all made an incredible effort to ensure that my group felt safe and comfortable in their community. In the past two years, the beautiful friendships that I developed with Nicaraguan families, masons, volunteers and Bridges staff during my trips have continued to remind me just how much I miss mixing cement in the hot Nicaraguan sun.

The profound passion that I have developed for working with Nicaraguan families has inspired me over the past two years to bring Bridges back home with me. As President of my high school’s Bridges to Community club, I have worked hard to spread the message of Bridges across my own community through local fundraising and events. I have first-handedly seen how infectious the passion for helping others has been among my own classmates, friends and community.

Bridges to Community is extremely unique as a non-profit service organization in that it emphasizes the difference between working for those in need and working with them. As I worked alongside experienced Nicaraguan masons, cracking jokes with them, telling stories and exchanging slang between our languages, I felt that I had gotten just as much out of the trip as the Nicaraguan community did. Bridges to Community has taught me that cultural and language barriers truly do not exist when you are laughing alongside new friends, building a house and making a difference where it is needed most.”

Adrian Diaz, Civil Engineer

Adrian Diaz

“I traveled to Tadazna as a mentor with Engineers Without Borders CCNY. I got really impressed with the logistic and general support provided by Bridges for the Community. The well trained food team gave me total confidence to eat without any fear of food contamination… In previous trips done by myself to work with communities, I got severe stomach problems and I had to run to a local hospital in emergency…. But not this time…. I went several times to the kitchen to see the food chain by the people in charge, and I confirmed myself that our health was taken seriously by the people in charge of our food…Martha and her team made a great job..!!

Hugo, Apolinar, and Margarito were always available for the needs of our group and always able to escort us in all the activities that we have to do, in order to accomplish the goal of our project… fundamental help!

Among all my trips as a volunteer with EWB and by my own, this is the first time I got such a well organized support. I told my wife all about this experience and she is very thankful for you guys… So, now I am available for you, if you consider my experience would help to develop any of your projects, you can count on me, and now my wife wants to travel with me as much as her job allows her to take vacations.”

Rev. Jed Koball, Mission Co-worker @ Presbyterian World Mission

Rev. Jed Koball

I cherish my time and experiences with Bridges to Community. Perhaps the greatest impact on my personal life were the deep friendships I developed with fellow staff members and the overall sense of community that we all (North Americans and Nicaraguans alike – staff, board, community members and trip participants) fostered together across many barriers and divides: language, race, culture, religion, class and more. Building such relationships was both meaningful and very fun!

I also value the model of community development that began to take shape during my time, and I assume continues to grow through the dedicated work of Bridges staff today. I learned so much about the impacts of healthy development at the local level on the lives of individuals, families and communities. This experience continues to inform how I encounter the communities I work with today.

While I recognize and appreciate the very real and profound impact such community development work has on the lives of families and communities, my time with Bridges in Nicaragua stirred up a restlessness within me to dig deeper in addressing systemic root causes of poverty, inequality and other forms of injustice. The position I hold now with Presbyterian World Mission is designed to do just that – dig deeper. While I wanted to explore this kind of work with Bridges in Nicaragua, I recognize it falls outside of the scope of the Bridges mission. Nonetheless, I can say that without the experiences and relationships I formed while with Bridges, I would not be where I am today. In this way, Bridges led me to Peru, and for that I am so grateful. And without a doubt I continue to hold the lessons learned in Nicaragua very near to my heart while working alongside a people in Peru that I have also come to love and cherish and in a place that I now call home.”

Jacob Stoehr, former staff member in Nicaragua.

“From my little casita in Nicaragua, I wrote my law school entrance essays about confronting social and human rights issues in Latin America… which led me to the Inter-American Development Bank, which led me to a high powered law firm defending foreign investment and the rule of law in Latin America…and then I met my wife:), which led me to a multinational manufacturing company in Germany. The beauty of Bridges’ work is in its simplicity: meeting basic human rights and empowering both the materially wealthy and the materially poor in the process. When I left Bridges, my final speech to the communities was about how I didn’t want to work at Bridges and I didn’t even want Bridges to exist — I wanted an economy in Nicaragua that provided opportunities for good education, sustainable employment, etc, so that families could build houses on their own. Being a corporate lawyer is arguably a far cry from mixing cement and helping to put a roof over someone’s head, but my current company employs 20,000 people around the world — 20,000 people who are all able to better provide for their families, many of them in developing countries. In the end though, I think the more lasting outcome of Bridges for me has been shaping how I view the world and how I do my job. Bridges helped make me a world citizen aware of the world’s injustices, big and small.”

Chuck Ramsey, Chairman Emeritus, Bridges to Community

Chuck Ramsey

“The genius of Bridges To Community is that it provides a positive, meaningful and real experience for those who travel to Nicaragua or The Dominican Republic for a Service Learning Trip.”

Becky Barnett, Nicaragua Volunteer Cornell University, 2014

“I can’t think of a more amazing organization with more amazing staff and programs. It is always a pleasure to work and volunteer with Bridges. Hasta la próxima vez.”

Lisa Kunstadter, Most recent trip: DC IT Group with Leslie Barry, January 2017

Lisa Kunstadter (on left)

“Every time I go on a Bridges to Community trip (and I have been on many!), I am more and more impressed with the local people I meet in Nicaragua and the DR, so many of whom are determined to improve not only their own lives but the lives of all in their community.

I have worked alongside some of the most amazing people who do so much with so little, who persist in the most difficult conditions, and who energize me to keep working for change when I return home. I love the fact that in working alongside Nicaraguans or Dominicans to build a physical structure, we are also building community and bridging the gap between cultures. For anyone who sitting on the fence and wondering whether this is the trip for you, my advice is… go for it! You’ll be glad you did.”