It took but only a moment for me to firmly decide in Group Therapy that winter morning, after falling in love with everything the Foundation is and stands for (R&R romanced me hard that day),  that I would be headed to Nicaragua this summer, to assist on Project El Crucero. It would cost some money and some PTO, but all of that could be sorted out later. I realized that this was the opportunity I had been itching for, and I had to take it. In a few short months, I’d bust out of the confines of my comfort zone and do what I could to improve the quality of life for another, even if only in a small way.

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 5.01.13 PMMy wildest expectations were surpassed this past June when a group of R&R employees and Friends of Tonner made the trip down to El Crucero, Nicaragua. For most of us, it was our first mission trip. We arrived to Managua hours after the sun had gone down, sweaty and tired, but ready. Our emotions ran the gamut: excited, nervous, anxious. But then, after 40 long minutes of curves and bumps and sweating on the ride up the mountain to El Crucero, we pulled up to the clinic on that first Sunday, and everything was peaceful, and right. Our hearts had led us to this point, and would lead us through it.

Our days were filled with small construction projects on the clinic itself, painting, making and sharing any kind of lunch we could with the food we had, kicking the soccer ball around, arts and crafts, and for the teens in the group (and Roy), leading many, many rounds of “Down By The Banks.”

IMG_7215On the off day we had from the clinic, we found ourselves really missing the kids. The lake was beautiful, the market was a blast (ask someone else on the trip if shopping with me is recommended or not), and the rest and relaxation was probably necessary. But it wasn’t the same as having one of the kids run and leap into your arms when you piled out of the van upon arriving at the clinic. Or the look in the eyes of the boy you gave a new pair of shoes. Or the mother who was in tears because all of her children were fed for a day.

They say 80% of communication is unspoken. None of us are fluent in Spanish, or even close, but conversation never ceased. We filled the holes in our dialogue with hugs, and smiles and laughs. I’ll say these were some of the most instantaneous, meaningful connections I’ve ever made.

Nica 210On the last day, we were able to leave everything we brought: the clothes we wore, the shoes off our feet. I experienced the single most touching moment of my life after giving my tennis shoes to a young teen boy who owned but only a single pair of shoes. They were black dress shoes, with the sole flapping as he walked. After I said, “para usted” to him and handed him the shoes, the look of gratitude on his face, the way he looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Thank you” in English, made me instantly tear up. I will never be eloquent enough to put into words the impact of that moment on me, and the others, as we gave our belongings away. If that were the only moment of the whole trip, it would have been worth it.

We pulled away from the clinic for the last time on Friday afternoon, with some of the kids chasing our van down the dirt drive. We had just held a BBQ for the families of the town, and said our long goodbyes. At dinner that night we reflected on the week as a whole, unanimously agreeing that it was life-changing. One thing is for certain, we’ll all be back next year.

We welcome and encourage you to consider this as part of your personal journey as well.