Joe Foulk recently enjoyed a five-day vacation in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. But he was not there as a tourist. Instead, he was using his free time to volunteer at the local Zapote School in Villa El Carmen for elementary students.
It was a trip first inspired by his good friend David Perram, the director of Student Affairs at Westerly School in Long Beach. They would often go camping with a group of friends and Foulk would create a video documentary about their trip. So why not create a similar video for a student trip to Nicaragua?
Foulk works as a videographer for Southern California Edison (SCE) so his friend’s request was a natural fit. But what he did not expect was how much the trip would impact him.
“The reward was truly seeing these kids who have nothing compared to us and seeing them laughing and smiling,” he said. “If anybody has a chance to do this, don’t hesitate. It will make you a better person and will make you appreciate what you have.”
Video Credit: Joe Foulk
Foulk joined Perram and a group of eighth-graders from Westerly on the recent five-hour flight to Managua. With his own equipment, he began documenting the trip to Nicaragua even before the group got on the plane.
On the first day in Nicaragua, the Westerly students enjoyed a friendly game of soccer with the local school kids. During a break, some of the Westerly kids offered bottles of water to the local kids to quench their thirst. The reaction was overwhelming.
“When we shared the bottled water with them, they were so happy,” said Foulk, who soon learned how rare clean water was in the small, impoverished village.
Surrounded by dirt roads and fields of sugar cane, many of the people in Villa El Carmen work in the fields. When Foulk and the Westerly students drove in the three miles from the resort they were staying at, they saw the local kids walking several miles to attend their school, a building with dirt floors. A nearby well is their only source of water.
On the second day, the Westerly students began their main project: a painted mural on the side of the school for the Zapote kids. Prior to their trip, the Nicaraguan school kids had mailed several hand-drawn pictures representing their hopes and dreams. Many of them drew pictures of their smiling families. These pictures were then turned into a colorful mural and the entire process was documented by Foulk.
Westerly art teacher Gregory Navarro-Pickens first drew a collage of the various drawings on the school wall. Over the next two days, the Westerly and Zapote students worked together to help paint the colorful mural.
“I think coming here and seeing the school, it’s a little shocking to all of us,” said Navarro-Pickens. “I hope to leave them with this tremendous sense of value in themselves. Getting the message that their artwork is worthy of being made into a mural. Hopefully leave them with a greater sense of hope and vision for the future.”
In addition to the school mural, the Westerly students brought with them 12 duffle bags full of school supplies, including crayons, pencils, coloring books and notepads. In addition to Zapote, the Long Beach students also visited other schools in the area.
The Westerly students were on a strict schedule during the recent trip and did not have their usual comforts, like cellphones. Only one Westerly student spoke Spanish, so much of the camaraderie that formed during the painting of the mural were through gestures and smiles. It was an experience that impacted both school groups.
“I’ve always known there are people in the world worse off than me. But this is my first chance to really experience that first hand, that people are less fortunate and we should be grateful for everything we have in Long Beach,” said Westerly eighth-grader Rowan.
“This trip is really eye-opening,” said another classmate named Eryn. “Just so great to be able to bring them school supplies and paint a mural with them. This is something they will remember and definitely something I will remember too.”
Perram is already planning another trip to Nicaragua for the Westerly students in 2015.
“It was incredible to see our eighth-graders completely disconnect from their own wants and needs and put their undivided attention into the kids of Zapote School,” he said. “I believe our students began to think about what's really important in this world and what can bring true happiness.”
For Foulk, the experience in Nicaragua has made him determined to volunteer more in the future. He is also thinking of ways his co-workers at SCE and Edison International can enjoy the same type of volunteer experience.
Last year, Villa El Carmen finally got the comforts of electricity in their village. Foulk believes it would be wonderful if SCE could help other similar towns get electricity. A summer program on electrical safety is another idea he’s floating.
“Could you imagine sending our top guys and help towns like this get power?” said Foulk.
For now, Foulk’s ideas still need to be ironed out. But one thing is for sure. He’ll be using more of his vacation time to help others.
“It changed me initially, but it’s hard to maintain that kind of change when you get back, that’s why I want to keep doing this,” he said.
“Now when [the Zapote students] walk into their school, they see bright colors and they see their hopes and dreams. Hopefully it will inspire them to do more so they don’t have to work in the cane fields.”