Enterprise staff writer
When Davis High School senior Nikka Tahan found herself in Nicaragua during the summer of 2009, living in a house with a dirt floor and holes in the roof, where the rain poured in on top of her Òand animals jumped on you in the middle of the night,Ó she began to wonder what she had gotten herself into.
Tahan had just completed her sophomore year at Davis High and was in Nicaragua with the Amigos de las Americas program, which places high school and college students in Latin American communities for a summer. There, they live with a host family while working in the community on health and educational priorities.
In the training leading up to her departure for Nicaragua, Tahan had frequently been told that she might find herself in a very remote, very impoverished area, where dirt floors and no electricity are the norm.
ÒBut itÕs one thing to be told that,Ó she noted, Òand when you go and actually experience it, thatÕs a very different thing.
ÒIt was a really challenging summer,Ó Tahan added. ÒThe living conditions were really difficult, and how poor it was … that was really shocking.Ó
So Tahan might have been forgiven if sheÕd said, ÒNever again.Ó
But she didnÕt.
ÒAs soon as I came back to Davis, I said, ÔI want to do this again.Õ Ó
And so she did, spending the past summer in the Dominican Republic, doing it all over again.
For Tahan, as it was for many of the other Davis teens who have participated in Amigos over the years, it was the people she lived and worked with in Latin America that drew her back to the program again.
In Nicaragua, she lived with a woman raising her three teenage grandchildren. Those grandchildren, particularly the 14-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl, became family to Tahan.
ÒBy the time I left, the 15-year-old and I had a sister relationship,Ó she explained. ÒWe would even get on each otherÕs nerves, have fights … like a true family. Their grandmother was one of the funniest people I ever met. She was really honest and wise.Ó
And living with this family Ñ even in those difficult conditions Ñ left Tahan changed.
ÒIt taught me that all you really need is other people Ñ that raw, fundamental connection,Ó she said. ÒWhen they say youÕre in a community over there, you really are. Everyone was raising each otherÕs children, and they didnÕt need (material objects) to be happy.Ó
The whole experience, Tahan added, Òmade me grow as a person. It made me focus on what was important in my own life.Ó
The Amigos program had a similar impact on Da Vinci High senior Sarah Schwartz.
Like Tahan, Schwartz has spent two summers with the Amigos program, traveling to the Dominican Republic last year, and to Nicaragua this year.
Both trips, she said, Òwere definitely the hardest things IÕve ever done, but definitely the most rewarding.
ÒIÕve met the most amazing people,Ó she added.
One of her favorites was a Nicaraguan man she guessed was in his 80s.
ÒHe didnÕt know how old he was,Ó Schwartz explained. ÒHe had only one tooth, and it was hard to understand everything he said. All of his family had died, so he didnÕt have any support network … but there he was, working in the fields with a machete every day.
ÒI would never meet someone like that here,Ó she added. ÒIt was really inspiring.Ó
Amigos volunteers arrive at their destination with a plan: To organize and complete a community project Ñ sometimes more than one Ñ and to run a camp for children, a couple of hours a day, five days a week throughout the duration of their stay.
Every Amigo arrives with a partner volunteer, and together they meet with and poll community members to find out what is most needed. For Tahan in Nicaragua, that was building a sidewalk outside of the townÕs church, so parishioners didnÕt traipse through mud and track it into the building.
ÒAmigos is not affiliated with any religion,Ó Tahan said, Òbut the community is very religious, and thatÕs what they wanted.Ó
The Amigos and community members there also painted a mural on the school and planted a garden as well.
In the Dominican Republic, folks wanted a community center. But that was going to prove too expensive, Tahan said, so they built a small library instead.
SchwartzÕs project in the Dominican Republic involved cleaning the filter on the townÕs aqueduct, while in Nicaragua, she helped fix a communal well. Both were community priorities, Schwartz said.
ÒBasically the people decide what to do,Ó she explained. ÒThatÕs part of the mission of Amigos … to be a catalyst for community development, and not necessarily force that on them.Ó
The Amigos volunteers not only have to canvass and meet with community members to devise a plan for the community project, they also have to seek out local expertise to make it happen, and the volunteers all learn a lot along the way.
Da Vinci junior Rebecca Rubin learned how to build brick ovens during her summer stint in Paraguay.
The eight ovens she and community members built in individual homes not only cut down on wood consumption, but also provided better ventilation in the homes.
ÒAll the smoke filled the room before,Ó Rubin explained. ÒNow the ovens have a chimney to carry the smoke out, and the people cooking donÕt inhale the smoke, which was a primary cause of death.Ó
When she wasnÕt building ovens and spending time with the host family she grew to love, Rubin was running a camp with her Amigos partner.
ÒWe taught the kids about reforestation, nutrition, dental hygiene and youth empowerment,Ó Rubin said. ÒAnd we played a lot of soccer.Ó
ÒEverybody was so welcoming to us and I got so much out of it,Ó she added. ÒSeeing everyone work so hard there, and seeing how happy they are, even with how little they have, it really makes you appreciate what you have.
ÒYouÕre almost jealous of their strong family bonds,Ó Rubin said. ÒEven though sometimes thatÕs all they have. I definitely look at things with a new perspective.Ó
All three Davis students arrived at their Latin American destinations with at least two years of high school Spanish, though some, like Tahan, said it wasnÕt much to get by on.
ÒI could only speak one sentence,Ó she laughed. ÒBut I was willing to work really hard. I came back having a lot more confidence. After this last year, IÕm pretty fluent.Ó
Schwartz feels the same way.
ÒMy Spanish was not very good,Ó she said. ÒI had taken Spanish 3, but itÕs hard to get a grasp of the language by taking a class in school. Eventually though, I caught up.Ó
Between developing fluency in a foreign language and developing a changed perspective on life, these Davis teens had a productive summer. And all see much more community service in their futures, whether with Amigos or other nonprofits.
Ñ Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at (530) 753-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at http://www.davisenterprise.com.
More about Amigos
Founded in 1965 in Houston, Amigos de las Americas is an international, nonprofit organization that partners with local agencies involved in improving the lives of the most disadvantaged populations in their countries. Amigos fosters youth leadership, engages youth in community service and promotes cross-cultural exchange in the Americas.
More than 20,000 high school and college student volunteers have participated in the program since its inception. All must be at least 16 years old with two years of high school Spanish under their belts.
The Sacramento-Davis chapter of Amigos visits Davis high school Spanish classes each year to distribute information about the program.
For more information, visit http://www.amigoslink.org