When a group of Niagara College students boarded their flight for a midterm break on February 24, carefree fun in the sun was not part of their itinerary.
While they will be touching down on a land of beaches, blue waters, volcanoes, and lush rainforests, the 20 NC students bound for Nicaragua were motivated by more than a scenic backdrop; they signed up for a nine-day adventure that would involve getting their hands dirty to help a community in need in a part of the world much different than their own. Their experience will be a nine-day ‘travel with purpose’ trip are offered by the social enterprise Me to We, aimed at helping groups work side by side with charity communities on grassroots sustainable development projects.
This is the fifth consecutive year that students from NC have taken part in Me to We trips during the College’s midterm break week. Led by Police Foundations coordinator Jim Norgate, they have participated in community build trips in Nicaragua, as well in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador. This will be their third visit to El Trapiche, in the Central Pacific Region of Nicaragua, to help develop a school site in a region where access to education has been a major challenge.
Three years ago, they helped dig a foundation for a new classroom on the same property. Last year, they returned to the site and saw that classroom completely constructed as they helped level the ground on the hilly property to improve student access to the site. They won’t discover this year’s project until they arrive.
Norgate has preparing the students for what they should expect – not only the physical demands of working under the blaze of a hot sun without the convenience of power tools, but the emotional challenge of being surrounded by poverty unlike any they have ever seen.
“It always amazes me how our students choose to spend their break doing this,” said Norgate. “It’s hard work, but they know what they are getting into – and they could have spent less money to lie on a beach in Mexico.”
While the students are mostly from Justice and Fitness Studies programs – including Police Foundations; Protection, Security and Investigation – Customs Border Services; Community and Justice Services (Correctional Worker), and Advanced Law Enforcement and Investigations – this year, two students from the School of Nursing are also taking part. Most of them will be first-timers, with the exception of a handful of students who have participated in previous years.
For third-year Advanced Law Enforcement and Investigations student Breanna Thornton, this will be her second Me to We trip with the College. It was something she had wanted to do since attending a Me Day event in grade school, but the College’s $500 Be World Ready grant to participating students made the opportunity more affordable. She was looking forward to going back to El Trapiche where she travelled with the NC group last year.
“I wanted to return to see the impact we left last year and to help out again,” she said.
In addition to the personal rewards of helping others, Thornton said she believes the experience will also benefit her as she moves forward with her career.
“I think it teaches you a lot, like how to work through different language barriers, to see what you have in common with people, to see how they are struggling, and figure out how to help.”
Witnessing the transformational impact the trip has on students inspires Norgate to continue leading the trips, year after year. He noted on how it helps change the way they view the world – taking them from a ‘me’ to ‘we’ perspective, expanding their focus to helping others, away from their individual selves. Not only does it inspire them to help others by giving more or doing more for charity, he noted that a broadened world view also helps them understand different cultures and situations in a more empathetic way. The latter he said, proves particularly useful to his students pursuing careers in the law and security fields, but may be applicable to many others.
“It’s a type of education that’s valuable to students, a life-changing one for all who participate,” he said. “It’s not just about what they do on the trip, but what they do with the experience when they get back.”
Student fundraising helps open doors
The students began their mission of helping others long before they departed on their journey. Each student participating in the trip was tasked with raising funds to help finance the trip for those who could not afford the cost of participating (about $2,700 each). For some students, the cost of the trip would not be affordable – even with the College’s $500 Be World Ready grant.
Most of the money was raised through a bowling fundraiser the students organized in September.
The fact that each participating student helps to raise funds – regardless of his or her own ability to pay – has been a cornerstone to the trip at Niagara College each year. More than $60,000 has been raised by students for this purpose over the past five years.
“We do this because I don’t believe that only the students who can afford to go would benefit the experience – often the trip can have a greater impact on students who cannot afford to go,” Norgate said. “We are going Latin America to help others, so the trip starts with helping each other right here.”