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volunteers engage with children in a village in Nicaragua

A tradition of giving back and paying it forward

Many people discover their passion for volunteerism – and travel – at Laurier. For some alumni, that journey continues well into the future

Story by Jennifer Caldwell

In a remote Nicaraguan community, more than a dozen Laurier alumni have scraped together some Canadian delicacies. As they dole out s’mores, grilled cheese, and peanut butter and banana sandwiches with a side of chocolate milk, this pioneering group of Golden Hawks are saying their goodbyes.

“After spending eight days working in this Nicaraguan village, we wanted some way to thank the people who had shown us such a kind and warm welcome,” says John Shoust (MBA ’13). “As traditions go, cooking for others is always a good way to show thanks.”

volunteers in Nicaragua working on building project
Laurier alumni working with the local community in Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua.

Shoust and 13 others were volunteers on the inaugural Laurier alumni service trip in February of 2014. This group, comprised of eight Laurier alumni, five friends and one Laurier representative, spent their days working on the construction of a community centre in Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua.

The team of volunteers dug holes for concrete posts and trenches for walls, laid concrete block and assembled the reinforcing steel bars known as “rebar.”

“The focus was not so much on advancing the construction project, although we were very productive. Rather, the focus was on living with the people, working together with them, visiting their homes, learning their culture, sharing our own and working in the neighbouring school with the children,” says Rob Donelson, Laurier’s vice-president of Development and Alumni Relations, who joined the trip with his wife, Theresa.

The group of volunteers had to pump their own water for showers and to flush the toilets.

“It was an adjustment,” admits Shoust, “but I ate it up. We were totally immersed in this village and got a 100 per cent genuine experience. Every morning, I was up at the crack of dawn because I was so excited by the experience.”

An eye opening experience

Shoust was quick to jump on the service trip opportunity after reading an email from Laurier’s Alumni Relations department, as he had been looking for a way to give back. The trip had been organized as part of Laurier’s effort to revamp its alumni travel program. To further cement the alumni connections, the service trips were offered in partnership with Students Offering Support (SOS), an international not-for-profit that was founded by Laurier alumnus Greg Overholt (BBA/BSc ’08).

“I had been looking to give back more,” Shoust says, explaining that the email made him feel like it was time to really step it up. Rob Scott (BBA ’88), felt the same. “I’ve always had an interest in Nicaragua — mostly because people don’t know much about it,” he says.

Upon arrival in the Central American country, Scott was struck by how primitive the homes were. Such rural poverty was something he hadn’t witnessed before.

“People’s homes were literally made of tin and sticks,” he says. “It was much more basic than I had anticipated.”

But what Scott also remembers was how welcoming, happy and friendly the villagers were. As the Laurier group worked side-by-side with the men and women of the small Nicaraguan community, the 2014 Winter Olympics were on.

"I was very proud to represent Laurier and to help impact a local community."

Wayne Brock (BA '09)

One afternoon, in an effort to share another truly Canadian pastime with the Nicaraguans, the group hung a Canadian flag towel above a 12-inch black-and-white TV and huddled together to watch the Canadian men’s hockey team play Russia.

“We couldn’t really even tell which team was which, but we cheered on what we thought was the Canadian team,” says Scott.

At the end of the trip, the Laurier team left feeling grateful and fulfilled.

" It's about momentum and the ripple effect that inspires community."

John Shoust (MBA '13)

“It’s about momentum and the ripple effect that inspires a community,” says Shoust. “I came home a different person and this type of trip becomes very infectious. I say, if you want
to have a life-changing experience, go on one of these trips.”

As the director of outreach trips at SOS, Laura Viselli (BA ’14) is a passionate supporter of Laurier’s efforts to offer service trips to its alumni.

Meaningful impact beyond the classroom

“All of our trips are very immersive,” says Viselli. “These trips offer volunteers a chance to travel abroad with meaning and impact. Shelter, companionship, love — whether you live in Canada or in Central America, we all want similar things and our volunteers come back having learned to recognize our common humanity.”

As a Laurier graduate herself, Viselli sees an obvious connection between these service trips and former Laurier students.

“When you go to Laurier, you don’t go just to earn a degree,” she says. “Everybody is doing something beyond just going to class. And Laurier is well known for its student volunteers and its tight-knit community.”

According to Viselli, one of the greatest selling features of these trips for former Laurier students is the chance to re-create that sense of community again.

In the fall of 2015, a little over a year after the inaugural Laurier alumni service trip, a second group of Laurier graduates headed to Guatemala, including Dan Gammon, who was in the
enviable position of having extra vacation time.

“I was looking for something different, for a way to give back,” says Gammon (BA ’07). “When I saw the email, my interest was sparked. “Going on this trip was an awesome way to experience a country, especially because we lived in the community where we were volunteering.”

Gammon loved the chance to connect with the local community. One day, after finishing up their work helping to build a multi-sport courtyard, the group toured some of the houses.

“It was the most eye-opening experience for me,” he says. “Here’s a family of five living in a house the size of a bedroom.”

But, as was common for all the alumni on the trips, the local children made a big impact on Gammon, who enjoyed playing soccer with them and revelled in how happy the kids were.

Wayne Brock (BA ’09) had packed footballs for the local kids. The former Golden Hawk football player will never forget throwing footballs around with the Guatemalan children.

“It was a great trip and I was very proud to represent Laurier and help to impact a local community,” Brock says. “Everyone on the trip came to help out, do their part and we were filled with Laurier pride. By the end of the trip, we were one big family, thanks to our Laurier connection.”

Laurier alum host a goodbye lunch with members of the local community

Winds of Change

They call it their Nicaraguan “aha!” moment. 

While volunteering in Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua during the inaugural Laurier alumni service trip, Rob Scott (BBA ’88) and John Shoust (MBA ’13) witnessed the difference a small investment 
can make. From that moment, their short trip to Central America became a full-time passion project.

“While we were on that initial trip, we went on a tour of the surrounding farms,” explained Scott. “Only two out of about 80 farms were noticeably lush and green, even in the dry season.”

The two Laurier alumni soon realized the difference was relatively simple — the two farms had found ways to power windmills and those windmills were powering water pumps that helped to irrigate the land. 

Winds of Change logo

“We saw those two lush, green farms and thought, ‘What if you could come up with a lower-cost pump and help tip the balance for these rural farmers, to help them grow produce and eat better all year long?’”

Shoust suggested exploring the possibility of designing a windmill pump that could be built from locally sourced materials at a cost that would be affordable for a local family. He also suggested partnering with mechanical and industrial engineering students from the University of Toronto.

And so began Winds of Change, a passion project for the two inspired Laurier alumni. The mission is to bring innovative, cost-effective technology and support to help impoverished farmers in rural Nicaragua. Specifically, the project aims to enable local farmers to micro-irrigate their small farms; this, in turn, will allow them to grow food throughout the long dry season in Nicaragua. 

In January of 2016, Shoust and Scott were back in Pedro Arauz, working with the community to fabricate, erect and connect the first pump at the community centre to demonstrate its advantages for irrigation. 

The first windmill pump is now in operation.

“To me, setting up the windmill is an important milestone, but it’s not the end,” Scott said, explaining that the long-term goal is to make windmills available to local farmers through a micro-finance loan program and then work on helping the community develop the skills needed to manufacture windmills for export beyond the community. 

For more information, visit the Winds of Change website


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