International Rescue and Relief Students' training culminates in Nicaragua

“Glue the pipe together here,” he indicated with one hand, “and angle the ninety-degree elbow up, like so.” He tweaked the joint, stepped back to admire his work, and proclaimed, “That’s a finished product.”

Posed over a jumble of PVC pipes, brackets, angles, elbows, and drills, Carl Ladd resembled more of a mad scientist than an International Rescue and Relief contract instructor. The contraption at his feet seemed like a prop from some fantasy film instead of a water pump.

Ladd and the four students who assisted in assembly huddle around the pump and discuss the project—how it is both affordable and sustainable; how it connects to a filtration system to provide fresh, clean water; how it shapes the future of community development. 

They joined the other four students inside who have completed the frame for a Biosand filter, the second half of the water system. Constructed from a blue 55-gallon drum and PVC pipe, the filter is also cheap and easy to build. Connected to the pump, this system can channel water from a natural source and purify it through the sand and gravel inside the drum, which contains natural microorganisms capable of consuming pathogens and, after one year of maturity, viruses too.

If this technology is shaping the future of water sustainability, then these eight International Rescue and Relief students are shaping the future of relief work. Alongside instructors Aaron and Lauren Kent, this team will spend 89 days in Nicaragua, living, learning and lending the expertise they have spent years cultivating in Union College’s unique Bachelor of Science program.

Over the course of the semester abroad, students will learn survival skills, participate in rural clinics, and volunteer with local EMS crews, all while adapting to a foreign culture and language and taking course work in Emergency Care, Global health, Travel and Tropical Medicine and Expeditionary Leadership.

“This semester in Nicaragua is the seminal experience of IRR,” said trip leader, instructor, and Union alum Aaron Kent. “Everything they have learned over the years leads to this.” 

Kent has led the trip to Nicaragua five times and says each one is different. This unpredictability is often due to the varying number of students in attendance each trip. With eight students compared to the 16 from last year, this is the smallest group yet. 

“There are unique challenges with so few people,” said Kent, indicating the eight students huddled over the water filter. “That is your social group. That is your family. If one loses patience with another, it has to be resolved, because we will be together nearly every day for three months.” 

He assessed the group and smiled. “Social dynamics are always unpredictable.”

Until then, however, the students presented solidarity in their interactions. Juniors Zack Leyda and Josh Wahl joked about coastal survival, which they claim is less survival and more relaxation. “Sipping coconuts, getting a tan, catching some fish,” said Leyda, “it doesn’t get much better than that.”

“It’s gonna be a dream,” laughed Wahl.

“Survival is all about locating food and water,” Kent agreed, his hand straying toward the communal M&M bag. “It’s nothing but foraging. But on the coast, everything you need is right there. Food, water, shelter, it’s nice.” He paused and chuckled, “The ocean survival, however, that is the worst experience known to man.”

Kent referred to the 24 hours students spend together on a life raft in open water. “It’s nothing but rocking and seasickness,” Kent said, grimacing at the prospect.

Once the eight days of survival training are finished, students shift into the medical phase of their semester. This year, the group will be exploring a new region along the Caribbean Coast in the northwestern most part of Nicaragua. The North Atlantic Autonomous Region is one of the poorest and most undeveloped in the country. For two weeks the group will travel by boat through the dense mangrove swamps, delivering medical aid to the indigenous groups living in that territory. 

Senior Joellyn Sheehy, who will graduate this year with an emphasis in pre-medicine, is eager for the opportunities and exposure this experience will present. “I want a better understanding of what development work looks like,” said Sheehy, pausing from her drill work on the biosand filter. “And I want to learn the strategies for implementing it.”

Other students express more interest in the opportunities following the medical excursion. Newlyweds Dillon and Erica Whittaker are both eager to work with the EMS crews based out of Managua and Grenada. 

“The experience will be unlike anything in Nebraska,” said Erica, who recently quit her job as a paramedic for Midwest Medical. “There will be such a diverse range of patients and cases that one never sees in developed countries.” 

For Dillon, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. “I’m just excited to travel,” says Whittaker. “I’ve never done anything like this.” Not only will Dillon be on foreign soil for the first time in his life, he will also be learning and practicing valuable career skills there. “I’ll get the experience I need by working with the fire crews in Managua,” he said. “That will give me an edge when I graduate.” 

Getting an edge is an important aspect for IRR students. Graduates of the program are offered such a diverse range of experiences that they are able to pursue careers in many fields. One graduate is a crisis counselor for an outdoor program. Another is an investigator of accident claims for an insurance company. Still another works for ADRA. Many pursue graduate degrees and join NGO’s working in development. 

Ladd, for example, has participated in, led, and been sponsored on water-based development projects in fifteen nations, including Sudan, China and Romania. It is because of his passion and experience that Union College brought him back to help prepare the students for their semester abroad. 

Even though they may not build a water system in Nicaragua, Ladd believes it is important for them to learn appropriate technology for sustainable development. Their careers may depend on it. 

But even greater than the technology, said Ladd, is the mentality of those implementing the technology. “I help students recognize that what most American’s view as ‘problems’ abroad are opportunities to build a relationship and lend our unique expertise.”

For more information on the IRR program check out:

Updates from Nicaragua

Throughout the semester, we will post updates from Joellyn Sheehy below as she sends them from Nicaragua.

The Final Countdown (April 16)

There we were: sitting in the back of a Mitsubishi Pajero, fire gear in the back, following a Toyota pick-up filled with rescue equipment and rescuers through the busy streets of Managua. Suddenly “The Final Countdown” by Europe came on the radio.

“If we were in a movie,” I told Rod [Stickle], “this is exactly the song that would be playing.” He agreed. It felt a little bit like the end of the world.

Truth be told, it didn’t turn out to be the end of the world—no sudden volcanic eruption provoked by a super earthquake. There didn’t even turn out to be anything that dramatic, but we did have a nice drive through town. 

The fire station stayed on standby through Friday as another earthquake occurred ten minutes before the scheduled downgrade. As a result, the bomberos still couldn’t go home, we stayed close to the fire station, and the government decided to pay for fuel for the response vehicles. The trucks were all lined up and ready to go, and the decision was made to travel to the municipal fueling station in our response groups so as to be ready should something happen during the travel time.

The ride to the fueling station was long, in part due to traffic, but uneventful except for the grand sense of expectation. All of Managua was out on the roads and our vehicles’ sirens and flashing lights didn’t seem to impress them much. We slowly pushed our way through the traffic, people begrudgingly moving aside, and met up with the fire trucks at the municipal fueling station to refuel. Now we were all ready to go. As we drove back to the fire station I couldn’t help but feel cool, half hopeful and half dreading another, bigger earthquake.

The curious thing with disaster and medical work is the paradoxical relationship between the responder and the misfortunate. It’s not that you want anyone to get hurt or have damage come upon them, but if they do you sure want to be the one to respond. A larger, shallower earthquake would have been terrible, but if it does happen it would be preferable to have it occur while we are still in country so we can get some experience. 

We made it back to the station with few developments. Except for an electric pole down, which another truck responded to, we were in the same position as when we left: waiting. There were still regular calls as well, though not very dramatic, but the earth didn't seem as though it was going to quake that night.

One thing about disasters, or the threat of one, is that they tend to elicit donations. A beer company gave us a bunch of packaged water, someone else gave money for fuel, and other contributions meant that the station could equip itself for a potential national emergency. Kique, one of the bomberos, noted that the association doesn't have funds to actually prepare for disasters, so they have to wait until one comes about to get the resources they need to respond. It's a sad common trend: we don't think about helping organizations prepare for a calamity or prevent excessive damage, we only offer a band-aid after the event.

The next day involved more waiting and some packing for our group. We were planning to spend another night in Managua and then leave the next day for Leon and the final stretch of our trip (a fun-tourist stretch). We went to Lauren’s friend’s house for dinner, and then Aaron [Kent], Zach [Leyda], and I went back to the station to sleep and be on call for the last time.

It was a quiet night, but enjoyable as we shared stories and information into the early hours of the morning. Aaron talked about mechanical advantage for rope rescue, Zach played pool, and I drank bag juice for regrettably one of the last times. During our week at the fire station our meals were catered by one of the volunteers who owns a restaurant called La Esquina del Sabor.

It was all very tasty and he was very passionate about his art, but my favorite part was the juice he made fresh for us twice a day. We had tangerine, passion fruit, Jaimaica, beet and lemon, and many others, all served in a sandwich-sized plastic bag. It’s quite common across Nicaragua to serve drinks in bags, in part because it’s so cheap, and is in fact one of the best inventions ever.

We had packed up all of our tents and extra gear, opting to sleep by the trucks for the last night. After requesting and being granted permission by multiple parties, I made myself a bed out of turnout gear (fire protection clothing) on top of one of the unused fire trucks: definitely one of the coolest places I've ever slept and surprisingly comfortable.

The next day we had breakfast and returned to the fire station to say our goodbyes. It was a sad affair because many of us had some very positive experiences and learned a lot from the bomberos, so saying goodbye wasn’t much fun. But we exchanged Facebook information and several are even considering coming to IRR’s summer program. 

While I started out apprehensive and skeptical about how firefighting could be beneficial to me personally, but it has turned out to be one of the best experiences of the semester (even without a super earthquake).

We had a great experience living and interacting with people who consistently give their time and strength to helping others, including teaching us. And they’re not just in it for a short spurt. Many of these bomberos have volunteered average six or seven years. Most of them are still young, and all of them are super dedicated.

We made it to Leon, still unsure about future seismic activity, but playing the tourist instead of the rescuer. We had another quake on Sunday night, just after I’d gone to bed, but nothing since then.

The worst part of it all is that we are unlikely to go volcano boarding, a unique activity where you slide down a volcano on a board. Leon is allegedly one of only two places in the world that offers such entertainment and it's supposed to be a really good time.

Our plan was to go on Wednesday, but due to the country being on high alert, the volcano activities have been canceled during out stay. I have to admit to being a little sad for no earthquake and no volcano boarding, which seems a bit of a double whammy. Our group’s guess is that all the action is probably going to happen right as we leave, such as lava spewing out of a volcano just as our plane leaves the ground. But then at least Dillon could get it on his GoPro. If anything does happen it had better be within the next 56 hours, otherwise we will be gone from the country.