With the simple goal of helping where they can while learning about the world, 15 Cree youth aged 14 to 18 and five chaperones traveled to Nicaragua for the trip of a lifetime in July through Free the Children’s “Me to We” program.
According to Brandi Taylor, a teacher at Wemindji’s Maquatua Eeyou School, this wasn’t a typical trip to an exotic location in the tropics.
“I had the idea that it would be good for them to go and see another part of the world. But this wasn’t simply a vacation. I wanted them to be in a community, work with locals and see the impact that they can have by doing something that has a global impact. The goals were life experience, global action and global education,” said Taylor.
Having volunteered in a Mexican community at the age of 19, Taylor was hoping these Wemindji youth could have a similar experience. She discovered that Free the Children’s Me to We program offered such an opportunity and, since many youth in the Cree communities had attended Free the Children’s We Day, it seemed a perfect fit.
According to Jessica Wilson, a Programming Manager at the Free The Children’s Montreal office, Me to We is the social enterprise that organizes trips to the group’s Adopt A Village locations.
“Adopt A Village is Free The Children’s holistic and sustainable development model that works to break the cycle of poverty by providing access to five key pillars: Education, Clean Water and Sanitation, Health, Agriculture and Food Security and Alternative Income and Livelihood to all the communities we partner with. It is the goal of a Me to We Trip to have the visitors experience firsthand what it is like in a given community,” said Wilson.
Several months of fundraising were necessary to pay for the trip, including a number of sponsorships from local businesses and the Cree Nation of Wemindji. While this was not a school trip but a community trip, the students did bake sales, take outs, penny socials and letter writing to acquire the necessary funding.
The students raised $90,000 and in turn got to go on the trip of a lifetime. The youth also participated in leadership training to prepare them for their trip abroad and the kind of work that they would be doing.
On July 7, the group flew to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua for 10 days of charity work and several cultural excursions and exchanges. While there, they stayed at a local guesthouse and commuted about an hour daily along dirt roads to a site where they worked as part of a local construction crew on an Adopt a Village project.
“We worked in El Trapiche, where they now have an elementary school, preschool and water project. The group from Wemindji helped to build a garden behind the preschool so that the students would have nutritious snacks while at school. They also painted a brand-new welcome sign for the school, and mixed and poured concrete for the shed that will be built next to a soon-to-be playground,” said Wilson.
The Cree youth were also welcomed by the youth of the community who would be using the school to find out more about their lives. They held an opening ceremony for their activities and said their farewells during a closing ceremony.
“Those students got up and spoke with a translator. These were very young kids – one was in Grade 4 and one was in Grade 1. A couple of the parents also welcomed us to the community. Then there was a closing ceremony where the kids and the parents came back and showed us some traditional dancing and thanked us,” said Taylor.
The Crees also got to share stories about their home and culture. At one point the Nicaraguan children asked the Crees to get up and perform the Canadian national anthem.
Not everything was so formal as all of the youth played games together, enjoying soccer as well as hand games that didn’t require a translator.
After the long work days, Wilson said she would get together with the Cree kids to do leadership activities as well as talk about the day’s experiences. As one of the focuses with the program is leadership, they would discuss how these they could become leaders within their own communities through their experiences.
And, according to Wilson, the tremendous efforts that these Cree kids made did not go unnoticed.
“Wemindji Rocks Nicaragua group was one of the most motivated and hard-working groups I have ever had the privilege to work with,” Wilson said. “Since many of them had never experienced anything like this, each and every day was a new adventure. They did not take anything for granted. I know how hard they worked to get to this point, and to see them appreciate every single moment was extremely moving.”
Wilson added she’d probably never laughed so hard as she did with this group and was warmed by the effort they made to interact with the children of El Trapiche. The kids did a great job of managing to communicate through games and other non-verbal means like laughs, smiles and high fives.
Among her favourite moments was when the kids were asked to make action plans for how they would bring change to Wemindji.
“Their ideas were incredible and I don’t have any doubt that these students will continue on with their action plans, and make a huge difference in the community,” she said. “Although I only spent 10 days with the Wemindji students, the change in them was incredible. They were more confident, open, trusting and communicative. I saw leaders in every single one of them. It was moving to see their growth from my perspective, and finally to hear it from their amazing educators and group leaders who worked so hard to make this happen.”
While in Nicaragua, the youth took in various cultural activities that included a day in Granada learning about the history of Nicaragua and colonialism.
Taylor said the teens were taken to a special café entirely operated by deaf people and learned some sign language through cards provided to them in the café. They also learned how to make hammocks, something several of them purchased to take home.
They visited an active volcano and learned pottery from the local Natives. They had a cultural exchange with these people that entailed watching traditional dance and learning how the Natives preserve their culture.
In all, Taylor said she witnessed a tremendous transformation in many of the youth.
“One girl talked about how the trip made her grateful for what she has and to be grateful for the food that her parents provide and maybe not to complain quite so much,” she commented. “A few of them were very cognizant of the differences between life in Wemindji and life in El Trapiche. They talked about the size of houses as their homes are large while the Nicaraguan’s are small and they have to grow their own food.”
Taylor noted that spending time without any electronic media also had a big impact.
As the kids had to hand in their phones and other devices prior to leaving, Taylor said she couldn’t believe how much the kids read while they were away. It was gratifying for her as she was the English teacher for many students and observed they didn’t read that much when in school.
“There was a lot of reading and a lot of discussion which was new for a lot of them. They were not texting; instead they were having conversations. A few of them said it was neat that they were having conversations with people and not looking at their phones, that was a new experience for some of them. We saw many of them come out of their shells and when we did our banquet when we got home, four or five of them actually got up and spoke at their own request,” said Taylor.
Taryn Shashaweskum, 18, said it was great to see another country and help others.
“My favourite memory was helping the community of El Trapiche and working with others. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, it was a really good experience to be able to help them build,” said Shashaweskum
Tristan Dearhouse was very impressed by the children he met in Nicaragua.
“I liked how we helped out the village. We built stuff and met a lot of children there. It was really touching because they have so little and yet they are so happy,” said Dearhouse.
Chelsea Moses-Blackned said the trip changed her because she now wants to travel the world.
“I feel like we accomplished something. I liked the mountains and the volcanoes and the scenery. It is very beautiful there,” said Moses-Blackned.