By Katie Sullivan

I remember very clearly my first impression of Nicaragua. In January 2013 I went on my first trip to the country with Outreach360, and I was struck by something before even stepping outside the airport in the capital city of Managua. My first observation about Nicaragua was that its largest airport was absolutely full of Americans. I saw countless groups, most wearing matching t-shirts bearing the name of an organization (including us), and I remember vividly wondering aloud to another team member: “I would love to know how effective this all is.”

When you tell people you are going on an international service trip, you get a mixed bag of responses. Sure, some people think it’s “awesome!”, but from others you will always hear criticism. One of the most common questions is: “wouldn’t it be more beneficial for the community if you just sent them the money you would have spent on your tickets?” I actually think this question raises a really important point, and I believe that every international volunteer should make sure they have a good answer. I spend an average of $1,400 a year (before fundraising) on my one-week trip to Nicaragua with our team from William and Mary, and that kind of money is a lot to anybody.

I went home after that first trip last year having had a wonderful experience, as most volunteers do. So many aspects of the trip made me feel empowered: being able to communicate in Spanish, seeing the kids we worked with know things at the end of the week that they hadn’t known at the beginning, etc. I boasted to family and friends of the “long-term strategies” of Outreach360 as an organization, something that sets it above the rest. (Service trips come in all shapes and sizes, and ours is very structured. Outreach360 is an organization that is in-country year-round working everyday with the same children, and they regularly take in groups of volunteers to run their programming. The Outreach360 team from William and Mary is a small cog in a great machine—in a good way. Just because we’re only there for a week doesn’t mean the kids only get one week of learning.)

I stand behind my praise of the organization’s long-term strategies, but I don’t think I really understood the meaning of that phrase until I returned a year later and witnessed progress firsthand. My first day back at the learning center, I spoke with a child I remembered from the year before. I asked him a question in Spanish, and he responded—without skipping a beat—in English, and we proceeded to have a full conversation in his second language. Outreach360 as a program had made leaps and bounds, as well. They had hired a local Spanish teacher since the last time I was there, so Spanish class no longer had to be taught by non-fluent idiots like me (Outreach360 emphasizes not only English education but also Spanish literacy, and it’s a wonderful thing). They also now have the resources to teach math, and even go on the occasional field trip!

I was most thrilled, however, to hear about some of their programming that they call “Dare to Dream”. For said program, Outreach360 brings in speakers to talk to the students about their various careers. The kids learn that they are going to have many options in life, something they may not hear at home. The program also hosts meetings with parents, discussing the notion of their children one day attending university, something that many of them never would have even dreamed of yet Outreach360 plans to see for 100% of their students.

I am proud to be part of an organization that I feel so strongly will have a lasting impact on the community in which it works. I believe education is the most powerful tool to uplift a community, and it comes much more from human collaboration than from money. Since my first day working at the learning center, I have never once felt like I was wasting my time in Nicaragua, and it’s a wonderful feeling. I implore anyone who participates in an international service project to examine the program until they have an answer for others and yourself about just why it is so worthwhile.