by Katie Conides

Around the kitchen of my childhood home an old fashioned, yellowing wall paper, repeated the phrase “Love makes a house a home”. Even at an early age I understood the simple sentiment behind the cross-stitched letters of this phrase, knowing it’s the little everyday loving things among family members that make a place feel like home. Growing older, and getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of a busy life has made it easy to forget just how much that simple phrase really means. My recent Branch Out trip to Nicaragua brought this phrase back to life for me in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most literal example of this phrase lies in the fact that that my team and I participated in the construction of a house for a low income Nicaraguan family. The family was always present at the construction site, helping out in whatever ways they could. The father would help carry blocks and mix cement, while the mother looked after their 6 month old son, 4 year old daughter, and 3 month old puppy. Having them around was a constant reminder of the reason why we were there, but it wasn’t until we had the opportunity to have dinner with them one night that I realized how incredibly blessed I was to participate in the formation of a home for that family.

By North American standards, this family had practically nothing but the basic necessities, but even those weren’t guaranteed. Their initial house was smaller than the typical backyard shed, created from metal sheets, plastic bags, and pieces of scrap wood, with a dirt floor. While the father worked as much as he could, building materials for a substantial house were impossibly expensive. Over dinner we witnessed that despite the thirty year age difference between he and his wife, their love was sweet and authentic. They both described how grateful they were for each other and their children, and for the fact that they were relatively well off compared to other families they knew. The father described that his deepest desire was to provide his wife a children with safe home, but that, in a funny way, he would miss the little dwelling they had built and lived in together when their family was just beginning.

The most remarkable thing about this family, and almost everyone in that small town, was that even with what we would consider to be practically nothing, they were some of the happiest, most caring, and wisest people I have ever met. I sensed no resentment or anger over what would make many of us from the US feel inadequate. This family and the other community members reminded me that it’s not the size of the house, or even what is made of or what is in it that makes a place home. It’s the people living there and the memories that bring it to life and give it meaning. On our last day, after we finished our part of the construction of the new house and had a ceremony with the family, they told us we would forever be a part of their new home and were always welcome to come back.

A second example of creating a home arises from the relationships I formed with the other William and Mary students I met on the trip. As a transfer and commuter student, I never felt like I completely was a part of the Tribe life. Because of my work schedule and distance away from campus, I usually only go to school for class and rarely participate in any activities. Other than making casual acquaintances in class I rarely form any significant relationships with other students. One of my primary reasons for applying for a Branch Out trip was to meet other students who I was assuming I would share many things in common with. The dynamic of the entire group on this trip was incredible. After only a day or two we all were sharing and getting along as if we had known each other forever. I was worried it would be difficult to relate to the other students since I am older than all of them and experience campus life differently from most of them, but I immediately felt welcomed and connected with everyone on my team. We only spent 8 days together, but it felt like a lifetime and I enjoyed every minute of it. With only one semester remaining, I still have a busy schedule and it is unlikely that I will make many more friends on campus, but in a way I am happy that the only ones I would truly consider friends, I made on this trip. We all experienced the heightened emotions of a life changing experience, and I know they are the only ones who will ever truly understand what that means. Although we will all eventually move on to new lives, we will always share something intimate, and I will never forget any of them. My teammates made the memory of Nicaragua a sort of mental home for me, which has extended into my overall experience at William and Mary. I will always remember William and Mary as the source of this experience and am forever grateful to Branch Out, Bridges to Community, the community members I met, and the especially the other students I shared this trip with.

While building a home for someone else, a home was built for me.