AMATITAN, Nicaragua - For 17-year-old Centerport student Sabrina Mastroianni, the oddest thing about spending a week in a remote part of Nicaragua, building houses with other high school students and adult chaperones, was bedtime. Just as she was getting her second wind, the adults were turning in for the night.
But she, and the 16 other teenagers in her group from Harborfields High School that traveled to Nicaragua over the February break this year, adjusted. Working, eating and sleeping side by side with seven chaperones, ages 53 to 78, wasn't terrible, the teenagers said.
"When you don't have a choice at all, it's not bad at all," said Eli Slamowitz, 16, of Centerport. "It's fun getting to know them."
Bridging that generational divide is one of the payoffs of the trip, said Geraldine Parrinello, 67, a retired special- education teacher from Huntington who led the group. It was her seventh trip as a chaperone to Nicaragua.
"It keeps me young," she said. "If you hang out only with people of my age, all you hear is complaints of illness."
Mastroianni, Slamowitz and Parrinello were volunteers for Project Nicaragua, a nonprofit program that assists the impoverished community of Amatitan with home-building, micro loans, school scholarships and donations of medical supplies, among other things.
Sponsored by an interfaith committee at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Centerport, the project has built 100 houses and has sponsored 250 Nicaraguan students with academic scholarships since it started about 1999. It is one of at least two programs on Long Island with similar goals in aiding Nicaraguans.
The program relies on older volunteers and high school students, who all pay their airfare and food costs. The volunteers for February's Project Nicaragua trip each paid $900 for expenses (the amount varies, depending on airfare). Through fundraisers, the students also raised $500 apiece that was donated for housing materials.
Each year, the project sends teenagers and chaperones from the Huntington area to Amatitan, located about two hours northeast of the capital city of Managua. The conditions are spartan -- there are latrines for toilets, buckets for showers and cots for beds. Building serviceable homes in the harsh Nicaraguan countryside is grueling; the days start early, with the crow of a rooster.
Volunteers on this trip headed to work sites, driving over rutted dirt roads more suited to horse-drawn carts and cattle than rented trucks. At the work sites, both students and chaperones pitched in, using pickaxes to break up the hard, baked earth for foundations. Volunteers made mortar by mixing concrete from ash and water by hand and hauled stacks of 18-pound bricks in 90-degree heat.
It was the dry season and the work was dusty and hot. "I don't think this is for everyone," said Jessica Schilling, 17, of Centerport.
All in a day's work
Each day, the volunteers and local residents who worked with them shared meals prepared by local cooks. Fresh fruit and a sweet cake for breakfast; tortillas, rice and beans for lunch and dinner. The cooks varied meals with fish, meat and eggs each day. Afterward, the volunteers cleaned up, using buckets of water to wash dishes in concrete sinks.
Although Parrinello had taken pains to schedule downtime for the group, students didn't always take advantage of it. Each day, as they returned from their work sites to the community center where they were staying, children were waiting to play with them. As word spread about the energetic American teenagers, more and more children came.
The physical labor, working side by side with teenagers and dealing with the language barrier are all challenging, but worth the effort, Parinello said. "You have a lot of laughs, a lot of fun," she said.
Building a house in Amatitan involves digging a trench about a foot deep in an 18-by-18-foot square. The trench is filled with rocks and then concrete that's been mixed by hand. Posts are set in place, and bricks are soaked in tubs of water so they adhere better to the mortar.
After the foundation is completed, skilled workers build brick walls, cutting the blocks to size with a machete. Then, climbing ladders cobbled together with sticks and wire, they top it with a roof of corrugated tin. When completed, the house is big enough for three small rooms and a living room, but no kitchen or bathroom. Instead, the kitchen is outside and the bathroom is a latrine.
One of the homes built by the Long Island volunteers was for Eufemia del Socorro, a single mother with three children who does domestic work in Managua. The spare structure was a dramatic improvement over the small, dark shed where she and her children had been living for the past five years.
"I'll have my house," she said in Spanish, barely able to contain her excitement. "I'll be happy in my house. It will be my home."
The cost of a house is $2,500, most of it paid for through fundraising by Project Nicaragua. Del Socorro, who also helped with the labor, took out a loan of $250 to pay her share.
Making a difference
The houses take about two weeks to complete. During their one-week stay, the Long Island volunteers helped build three houses, with local laborers finishing where needed. Slamowitz relished the chance to witness the impact of his work, he said. "I wanted to make an actual difference that I could see."
Project Nicaragua also provides education scholarships. The Nicaraguan government guarantees public schooling through sixth grade. However, many families don't send their children because they cannot afford school uniforms or supplies, said Anneliese Scheef, 68, a retired Harborfields language teacher and trip chaperone.
It costs about $100 a year to support a child in primary school, $150 for high school and $350 for a university student.
For those people sponsoring students, meeting them can be emotional. Parrinello and Scheef met one evening with Sayonara Altamirano, a 20-year-old nursing student who is sponsored by the project. Altamirano talked animatedly about her education and job prospects, proud that she had pursued her education. When the two women gave her a stethoscope and blood pressure monitor as a gift, Altamirano suddenly became quiet.
Asked what was wrong, she tearfully explained that she had been studying for four years and had been trying to save the money for that equipment, but never could afford it.
The equipment cost $12.
The fact that so little can make such a difference in someone's life struck a chord with Michael Nocera, 53, a physical education teacher from Greenlawn. He agreed to serve as a chaperone because others had done it for his son, Christopher, when he volunteered for Project Nicaragua two years ago. The trip, Nocera said, did not disappoint.
"I learned how open the kids could be to other cultures and how easy it was for them to mingle with the children of Nicaragua," he said. "It taught me to be more open."
Parrinello agreed, though she conceded that establishing a relationship with teenagers in forced conditions can be a challenge. "Just trying to connect with them at their level is difficult as an older adult," she said. "You don't know where you fit, you have to find your place. You're there to lead them and let go and let them explore and let them find their way when you're down there."
She's learned to trust the teenagers, she said, and they've taught her to "be a little looser and not so serious."
For their part, several teenagers said they were impressed that the adults volunteered their time to go on such a trip. "I think it's great," said Francesca Leparik, 17, of Greenlawn. "And they weren't scared to do it at their age."
In the end, the students and adults found they weren't so different from each other.
"As much as we think we're different from the kids, we're a lot more similar to them than we realize," Nocera said.
And Michael Umbach, 17, also of Greenlawn, said they all had one thing in common: "We all hate the rooster."
LOCAL PROGRAMS BENEFIT NICARAGUA
To learn more about volunteering for the program or sponsoring a student, go to olqmparish.org and type "Project Nicaragua" in the search bar.
Students for 60,000
A similar program sponsored by Northport High School. It was started in 1967 to help the estimated 60,000 homeless in New York City, according to the organization's website, sf60k.org. Since 1992, students have been going to the village of Chacraseca in Nicaragua twice a year to help impoverished people there. A related group, Friends of Students for 60,000, seeks adult volunteers. To learn more, find them on Facebook at on.fb.me/RnLTEK.