Photo: Eric Kelley
The night before The Day of Light celebration in the Nueva Vida trash dump, Brad Corrigan, the founder of Love Light + Melody, challenged our group of volunteers to leave any garbage we carried on our backs in the dump. He said many of us haul this trash in bags each day and we had to let it go. We needed to have a fresh start with a lightened load.
Sitting there in the group circle, I really struggled to figure out what is in my bag.
I came to Nicaragua with a notion of finding the answer to an identity crisis of sorts. I wanted to find a purpose outside and in addition to my everyday life. I found that during and after the trip, it was the very labels I was trying to leave behind that gave me the ability to engage and participate in a unique way. I may have only been known as “Bridget” on the trip, but it was the synergy of being a wife, mom, daughter, room mom, used to teach mom, used to play soccer mom that made the best version of myself. The version that arrived in Nicaragua.
It turns out I didn’t need to leave a full bag in the trash dump. I just needed to make more room. I didn’t have to leave anything of myself behind. I needed to add more.
My bag was light and there was available space.
I could fill it.
Christian is the one to first put the idea together. “I think you need to do something with Brad,” he yells down the hallway from his office.
This is the normal way we communicate when we are both working on our separate computers. If the topic of conversation is really important, one of us actually gets up and walks the ten yards so we can speak face to face.
I stay seated and keep typing about some random new band.
“What do you mean?” I yell back.
I wait a second. No answer.
He is standing in front of me holding his Diet Coke Super Big Gulp. Uh oh. This is important.
“Think about it. It combines everything you love. Music, writing, non profit. Maybe they could use some help.” He states it plainly like it is the most obvious thing in the world.
I know who and what he is talking about, but my defenses kick in and my insecurities spike up as I reply, “But they’re in Colorado.”
He quickly retorts, as if he already knows what I will say, “Who cares. You should check out their website again. I think you would be good at it. I can call Brad if you want.”
So I go to the Love Light + Melody site again.
My husband and I started casually crossing paths with Brad Corrigan around 2005. He played some solo performances at a few of the non profit fundraisers we attended, but we had no idea about his band Dispatch or his connection to Nicaragua. Christian was doing some non-profit work and writing a book, so he reached out to Brad for an interview. Brad had founded Love Light + Melody (LLM) in 2007 after a chance encounter with the community of people living and working in the La Chureca trash dump in Managua, Nicaragua. His taxi driver drove him by and when a young girl named Illeana pulled him out of the car and into the trash, his heart was transformed. Led to share what he had: music, love and hope, Brad hosted a small music festival in 2008 in the middle of the dump. The first Dia de Luz (Day of Light) was born. Every May since, LLM takes a group of volunteers to repeat Dia de Luz and work with other NGOs in Managua.
I spend some time on the LLM site thinking about what I am trying to do in my life, and start to get cautiously excited. I tell Christian, and in what seems like a second, he talks to Brad and schedules a lunch for us in San Diego about a month later.
In the month before the lunch we don’t talk much about it. For Christian it is just another lunch (running joke in our house). For me it seems to be something more.
I’m not sure when I first noticed it, but as a mom, you eventually stop being introduced by your actual name. You get introduced as so-and-so’s wife, a room mom, Brendan’s mom, Maeve’s mom, baseball mom, soccer mom, used to teach mom, used to play soccer mom. Used to be something other than “a mom” mom.
It’s not really a complaint. It’s just the truth. Someone once told me, “as a woman, you willingly give a little bit of yourself away when you get married, and then do it again when each child is born.”
But it’s not just the part you give away, it’s the part you keep that gets fuzzy. As a teacher and sorority advisor my identity gave me motivation and confidence. But as a stay at home mom, I found it difficult to find purpose outside the confines of my family unit. There were lots of things I used to do and used to be, but at 40, those “used to” were getting further and further away and looked a lot like an identity crisis.
I try to beat it back for a few years. I build houses with a non profit. I start my own music blog. I volunteer at my children’s schools. But nothing works.
So, going into our lunch with Brad, I am wondering if this will be something more than a nice lunch with a musician who I sort of know, and who happens to run a non profit we support.
I think I have the meeting all planned out. I will talk about my music blog. I will talk about writing for LLM. I will talk and talk and talk.
I talk enough to keep the conversation going, but maintain a sense of distance. My insecurities want to protect me from rejection and give Brad an easy out. “I don’t want to offer something you don’t need,” I say. It becomes quite clear that the offer doesn’t really matter because, he already knows the simple and obvious answer, “You guys need to come and see.”
That was not the response I expect.
I am struck with an immediate, intense, conflicting sense of calm and electric shock. Brad’s energy does that. He is passionately sincere and authentic. He is a strange combination of a surfer, lacrosse player and musician. Just having lunch with him makes me feel like I matter.
But that’s it. Come and see. Come and see Managua. Come and see the kids. Come and see the families. Come and see the trash dump. Brad is right. How arrogant of me to offer to help when I haven’t even experienced what they do.
But then, before we are even done eating, reality silently sets in. It is an exciting idea, but impossible to do. How could we leave the kids and go all the way to Nicaragua for six days in the middle of the school year? Impossible.
Oh well. Isn’t meant to be. Time to end this meeting, say “see ya later” and go back the predictability of my life.
As Christian and I begin to walk back to our car, he stops and turns to me, “You have to be the one to go. It has to be you. And you have to go alone.”
Elation and panic rush through me. The calm part is gone. He can’t be serious. Me? What can I possibly offer? He is the one that grew up going on mission trips, not me. He is the one on multiple nonprofit boards, not me. This is his thing. Isn’t it?
But he is right. He always makes things so obvious…a confidence in my ability that I don’t see.
I need to go Nicaragua and I need to go alone.
Photo: Mana Gollo
Until it was shut down in 2012, hundreds of families lived and worked in the La Chureca trash dump in Managua, Nicaragua. Searching for valuable recyclables like plastic and metal, families worked side by side as each dump truck drove in and emptied its contents. Houses were constructed out of any materials they could find. Cows, dogs and vultures mingled with children playing in the trash mounds.
In the most unlikely of partnerships, the Spanish government helped Nicaragua close La Chureca and relocate all the people living there into a new community called Villa Guadalupe. One person from each family was guaranteed work in a new recycling center.
On the surface, it seemed like a good idea, but like all other solutions to hard humanitarian dilemmas, it was not without problems.
The relocated community struggles. Yes, each family has one member that works in the recycling center, but work opportunities for the rest of the family who used to work side-by-side in the dump do not exist. They have safe, solid homes to live in now, but many are worse off financially. Lack of opportunity still exists.
To prepare for the trip I watch videos of past trips, try to re-learn a bit of lost Spanish, and research what I can about Villa Guadalupe. But, even though I see pictures and videos before I leave the United States, I make assumptions. I prepare myself to be sad. I prepare myself to feel helpless.
The trip to Central America never made nervous. Once we made the decision in the parking lot that day, I was committed. But if I am being honest with myself, I was fighting against pretty big internal force.
I’m a planner…a list maker…a bit of a control freak. Leaving my family behind made me nervous. Saying Christian had a full plate would be an understatement and like any family of four there are a lot of moving pieces every day that he “knows about” but really doesn’t “know anything about.” I work hard to be a buffer. So we planned, and planned and planned.
By the time I left for Nicaragua, the entire control thing was shot. Two hectic work weeks prior to my departure had left Christian frazzled. The kids were pushing their limits with us. Our daughter, Maeve, became so sick she missed the entire week of school while I was gone. And then in an effort to take away the last bit of control I thought I had left, the weather in Houston resulted in me, along with my eventual roommate and two other LLM volunteers, sleeping on the floor in the airport and arriving in Managua one day late.
Day 1: Hit the Ground Running
Photo: Eric Kelley
As we arrive at Club Cristiano La Esperanza or “Club Hope,” I am greeted with sounds of children laughing, playing and screaming with joy. I did not expect this first stop to feel so familiar.
Maybe I was imagining a Sally Struthers commercial with flies and naked babies. Maybe I was thinking I would be approached by hoards of kids begging or trying to sell me gum. I don’t know. But I didn’t expect what I found.
Club Hope was built in Villa Guadalupe after the original school was torn down in La Chureca. Although not as large as the original, the nonprofit ministry provides free preschool and early education for over 100 children of the neighborhood. After school programs like music, dance, tutoring and sports expose the kids to the opportunities often overlooked by other nonprofits.
Photo: Eric Kelley
Through the gates, past the new mural painted by the artist on the LLM trip, groups of kids are everywhere. One group is tucked away in a corner taking guitar lessons. Another group bangs away in a drum circle learning the inter-workings of different rhythms. Lacrosse practice is happening on teh outdoor cement field. Team Houston (as the four of us are now called because of our impromptu airport campout) head into a building with various crafting stations. Teachers and volunteers from the LLM trip are coloring, painting and making tissue paper flowers.
“Una flor.…una flor!” The children say while shaking pipe cleaners and large sheets of pink tissue paper in my face. There is no time to think about what to do, let alone slowly adjust to the group. The room mom in me kicks in.
I react the exact same way I do at my own children’s school. I make tissue paper flower after tissue paper flower after tissue paper flower. I teach them how to fold the paper and secure the pipe cleaner. I “smell” the flowers and compliment them on their work. “Muy bonita,” I say, each time a flower is thrust into my face.
Like a good room mom, I help pass out snacks and tell kids to get in line and wait their turn. I play hand jive games with them while they giggle and smile at my silliness. I pick up trash.
I walk outside and play some soccer with a group of boys on a dirt field. The “used to be” soccer player knows what to do. There are no teams, so if you win the ball, you dribble it in any direction you want. I play defense, much like I had for 15 years of my life, until my pants are covered in dirt and soccer ball marks. I take it as no small thing that one of the talented local boys compliment my skills with an earnest, “Buena.”
Within the first 3 hours of arrival in Nicaragua, I have become a playmate, a room mom and a soccer player; three titles I thought I was trying to avoid. Did I have to have those skills before arriving? No. But it made it a whole lot easier to jump right in…especially after only a few hours sleep.
Day 2: New Life
Photo: Bradley Johnson
2017 will be remembered as the year Dia de Luz went back to the trash.
I knew we would visit the Nueva Vida trash dump. Located between a peanut farm and the adjunct community that grew from people displaced by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, LLM had been visiting there since La Chureca was shut down. I expected to spend some time there working with the people and maybe flying a few kites or playing soccer. I did not expect Dia de Luz to be held there. But it made sense. LLM has never been about helping one community in one city. It is dedicated to investing in the lives of all children living in poverty. Why shouldn’t we celebrate these people and bring them hope and love through music and playtime fun?
My first exposure to Nueva Vida is a quick group visit to scout a stage location. As I step out of our van and into the sludge, the stench of burning rubber that fills the air stings my nose and my eyes.
Out of part fear and part shock, I stay on the road and just observe. I stare as Brad charges up a mound of waste to shake the hand of a worker. I watch as volunteers spread out and greet the people there. “It’s a lot to take in,” I tell someone when they ask what I think. My past titles and labels don't tell me what to do this time.
In the distance, I see a young, tall American woman in Rainbow sandals cuddling a little girl and greeting everyone as we walk towards her. Kara, from the nonprofit Beauty for Ashes, seems to know all the people working in Nueva Vida by name.
I didn’t expect Kara. Her smile and frankness is a bit intimidating and I try not to stare at her exposed feet covered in dump grime. I comment on the sweetness of the “little nugget” asleep in her arms and she automatically offers to hand her over. The “mom-mom” tentatively accepts, but Kara warns, “She might wake up when she realizes you are white.”
And sure enough, the second I secure the child in my arms, she wakes up with a terrified shock in her eyes and is ready to go back to Kara. It makes me laugh. What half asleep kid wants to be handed off to a stranger? Maybe this place is going to be familiar too.
After the trip to Nueva Vida, we return for our second session at Club Hope like celebrities. The kids clamor at the front gate to get a hold of us as we step inside. I walk through a sea of “Hola, Hola, Hola,” and a 7 year old girl named Maeling grabs me by the hand and claims me as her personal pet.
As we walk by a mural, I use my limited Spanish to ask about the name of various animals on the wall. We have a basic conversation while I brush up on my vocabulary. After my lesson, we head into the crafting area where we spend time drawing and coloring. We draw butterflies and balloons. We trace each other's hands and laugh when she accidentally covers the entire outside perimeter of my hand with purple marker.
Maeling decides to run off for a minute, but not before she gives me strict instructions to color in the hands. I can’t understand a word she is saying, but it becomes quite clear when she shoves a marker in my hand and points. She is unhappy with my progress when she returns. So we play on the playground and I watch her climb and swing from the monkey bars. She just wants me to pay attention to her fancy tricks. It reminds me of the hundreds of times my own children beg me to watch them fly down a slide or conquer a playground.
Photo: Eric Kelley
That evening, the guitar and percussion students put on a talent show for parents, students, and volunteers. Large groups of kids squish onto the outdoor stage to perform. I see a Dad run in, motorcycle helmet in hand, with enough time to beam with pride as his son strums his guitar. I watch a mother grab a sobbing two-year-old boy as he attempts to rush the stage to reach his performing brother. I marvel at the volunteers who attentively listen to the performers while holding other children in their laps and on their shoulders.
Photo: Eric Kelley
These volunteers blow me away. I have only known them for about 24 hours (expect Team Houston) and they make me want to be a better human being. We have people of all ages and backgrounds: married and single, Americans, expats, a Brazilian, a Canadian, a Puerto Rican and a Nicaraguan model. They are professional musicians, artists, photographers and filmmakers. They are teachers, restaurant owners, car salesmen and businessmen and women. They are humanitarians, social workers and non profit founders. They are kind, funny and talented and my conversations with them inspire me. I didn’t expect to like them so much. They take the time to answer my naive questions and help me grapple with the inconsistencies I witness. They share their passionate and tragic stories of past trips and the heartache that comes with watching young girl’s childhood ripped away. They invite me to meet their friends living in Villa Guadalupe while giving me an intimate glimpse into a different culture.
I learn it’s important to acknowledge the contradictions of poverty and admit the judgements and preconceived notions I bring from my life as a well off white American.
Photo: Eric Kelley
People that live on less than $2.00 a day have cell phones and tvs and clean clothes. They buy presents for family and friends. They want to feel pretty with lipstick and nail polish. And why shouldn’t they? Although they have next to nothing, they welcome you into their homes with smiles and laughter. They go out of their way to make you feel comfortable by speaking Spanish very slowly. They want to take pictures with you and complain that they don’t look good enough.
Day 3: Light Us Up. We Receive It.
Photo: Eric Kelley
The afternoon of Dia de Luz, is stupid hot.
Managua is always hot…seriously steamy. The wet season starts in May and the heat doesn’t rise up from the ground or descend down from the heavens. It just exists and surrounds you like a fog. The torrential storms turn the dirt into mud and the trash dump into sludge.
Rain pelts our caravan as we pull into Nueva Vida causing a bit of uneasiness for the group. The steady downpour might make it a bit more difficult to use the generator, speakers and electric instruments. It’s difficult to plug into a speaker while standing in a puddle of water and even harder to draw people into a valley of trash when they can’t hear the music.
Before we go out and help workers look for plastic and metal, Brad rallies our group together to acknowledge the rain and share his prayerful desire, “We want to see lives changed…ours and everyone that we’re here to serve and touch. So, hey, if you wanna light us up to where we are soaking wet, we receive it! The Day of Light belongs to you.”
That’s right. Light us up. We receive it.
The day does not belong to me or my identity crisis. It’s time to go out and have some fun in the trash. We break off into work groups and I “help” an older woman collect metal. I am not sure I help a whole lot, but I do it with enthusiasm. After about thirty minutes, I see the massive line of vehicles drive down the main road towards us. First, a large yellow school bus full of children and teachers from Club Hope. Next, Amanda and her group of impeccably dressed teenage boys from Project Open Arms (a group home helping rehabilitated teens from Matagalpa, Nicaragua). Then Kara and friends from Beauty for Ashes. Finally, missionaries living in Managua and carloads of families from in and around Villa Guadalupe.
All of these people have come to Nueva Vida to perform music, play lacrosse and soccer, fly kites and blow bubbles. People who themselves once lived in a trash dump or on the streets addicted to drugs, have come here in buses and carloads to serve this community.
We have all come to have some fun in the trash.
As the new groups of people emerge from their vehicles, the clouds part and the rain stops. We gather for one more pep talk from Brad and Dia de Luz officially begins. Students from Club Hope take the stage with guitars and drums while kites fill the skies. Many of the children have never see a kite let alone flown one and it takes a bit a practice to get it right. Kids claim the toys as soon as they are handed out; sometimes giving them to their parents to hold and sometimes clutching them with dear life. I find myself pinned against a minivan by 30 kids waiting for me to assemble one kite at a time. The combination of heat and pushing leaves me a bit overwhelmed and I decide to get out of there.
Photo: Eric Kelley
I manage to escape with one kite in my hand and give it to a boy named Pedro. Happily he takes it as I quickly say, “Corre!” (run!!). He sprints off down the road, with the kite skidding off the ground behind him, and I realize at that moment, it would have been helpful to know the phrase, “Shorten the line.” I manage a combination of hand gestures and an exclamation at the top of my lungs, to no one in particular, “No largo…no largo…come se dice la palabra por no largo?” (Not long…not long…how do you say the word for not long). A man working in the dump stops, looks at me and then yells to Pedro, “Corto…corto” (short)!!!
Pedro is already a half mile down the road at that point, but I see the kite soar up into the air (and crash back down serval times). The man smiles at me as I thank him and we both laugh at the whole situation.
I walk toward the stage and find two LLM volunteers mobbed by kids waiting to get their faces painted. I grab a new set of paints and quickly move to an open area with a line of kids following me like baby chicks.
There are sample ideas on the package to guide the kids and I know the words for “flower,” “butterfly,” “tiger,” “Spiderman,” and “Really, you want your whole face green?”
Photo: Sam Ryan (that's me kneeling in the gray shirt)
Kids stand in line and crowd around me hoping I pick them next. Mothers stand with smaller children and hand them off to sit in my lap. I paint flowers and tigers and green monsters.
I have been that mother in line. I have watched my children wait at carnivals and festivals with eager anticipation for face painting and balloon animals and fake tattoos. I know these kids. I know these Moms.
There was no way to avoid the thick muck of the dump. I sit in it, kneel in it, squat in it and don’t think about it. My whole desire is to paint these faces. And with each and every child, there is this special, quiet moment when I wipe the hair from their face and we stare directly into each other’s eyes. They are still, vulnerable and full of anticipation. It is in that little moment that we are connected.
In the hustle of the transition, I forget to grab a mirror, so I take a picture of each child and show them the result. I accidentally create a scrapbook of freshly painted, smiling faces surrounded by waste.
Once the line dies down, I climb up one of the trash hills that overlooks the stage. As I reach the top, I find a quiet boy in a striped shirt next to his Mom who agrees to have his face painted. And he wants flowers….all over his face.
Maybe it’s the unique request or maybe it is his shy nature, but I am thrilled to be with him. As I finish, I ask Jason if we can take a selfie. He happily agrees, but when I turn the phone to take the picture, he pushes my hand out of the way and clicks the button himself. I guess it doesn’t matter where you live, the selfie is universal. Throughout the rest of the day, he gives me a hug every time we see each other.
Kids come back again and again for new designs (some sweat off the paint). Girls designate themselves my helpers and some kids get really creative with their requests. I paint a dancing chili pepper (not my best work), a Spiderman (which my artist friend tells me looks nothing like Spiderman…he’s right) and a heart that covers the entire face of a boy with the phrase “Cristo me ama” (Christ loves me).
I paint faces for close to two hours. I never actually see the concert. I can hear it, but only at the eye level of children. There is never a time to look up because I only look at the faces of children. I didn't know what my Dia de Luz would look like, but I should have guessed it would use the talents I brought with me. I always wanted to be a face painter at school carnivals, who would have thought I would have to go all the way to a trash dump in Nicaragua to get my chance.
Photo: Bradley Johnson
As the concert finishes, Brad leads the crowd singing “Hallelujah,” and I notice a small girl holding an orange baseball. I know that ball. That ball once belonged to my son, Brendan.
Before I left San Diego, my husband snuck a few old soft baseballs into my suitcase and I dropped them into a different bag at the hotel, never thinking they would actually make it to Dia de Luz.
But there she is, in a cute little dress and sandals clutching that ball with Brendan’s initial on it. I used to dress my own daughter in outfits like that.
It is a beautiful, startling contrast. Like the culmination of home life invading Nicaragua life. And I know one thing for sure…we are going to play catch.
This child is a firecracker. She laughs when she catches it, she laughs when she misses it, she laughs when she throws it. She is easily distracted and needs to be reminded to pay attention. Typical for any child anywhere in the world.
Kids are kids and parents are parents and people are people. We each crave attention, respect, kindness, love and friendship and it doesn’t matter where you live, what language you speak or how much money you make.
Photo: Mana Gollo
The event ends with the massive distribution of rice and beans we packaged up earlier that day. The line seems to go on forever, but we are later told that the last bag of food is handed out to the last person in line. We somehow feed everyone.
As we load back into our vans and pull out of Nueva Vida, the skies open up and it begins to pour.
Light us up. We receive it.
Day 4: Surfing and Sunsets
Photo: Mana Gollo
LLM provides a beach day for the high school scholarship students from Club Hope, as a reward working hard.
We meet the group of students, teachers and parents at the beach near the Gran Pacifica resort and any difficulty I have reconciling the contrast between the 5 Star property with Nueva Vida, is quickly pushed aside when the teenagers tear off for the ocean.
Photo: Sam Ryan
Most of the students don’t know how to swim and some have never seen the ocean before, but that doesn’t stop them from frolicking in the waves and learning to surf. The look of “stoke” on their faces is what every surfer knows well. They become part of the surfing tribe. The beach mom knows it well.
This day is not just for the kids though. LLM volunteers get to enjoy the beach with the kids too. We play sand soccer, frolic in the waves and surf. Watching the sunset while I collect shells to bring home, I am filled with peaceful contentment.
Day 5: Going Home
I leave Nicaragua with a heavy sack on my back. But it isn’t filled with sadness, disappointment or heartache.
It’s filled with bright smiles, laughter and gratitude. It’s filled with memories of being welcomed into strangers homes. It’s filled with tissue paper flowers and monkey bars. Memories of my new friends running kites through the dump, handing out granola bars and sharing their musical talents. Images of kids, who once lived in a trash dump, playing and singing for the families in Nueva Vida. Images of teenage boys, once homeless and addicts, realizing they should probably change out of their nice shirt so they can play with the kids in the dump. It’s filled with painted faces and breathtaking sunsets. It’s filled with my mistaken Spanish phrases and words.
I am happy to haul my large bag out of Managua and carry it with me. Somehow everything thing that I am from San Diego and everything that I am from Nicaragua, blend together now.
As Brad and I part ways in the limbo of customs at the Houston airport, he on his way to Dispatch rehearsal for a world tour and me on my way back to my family in San Diego, I ask him if he has become numb to it all, “You’ve been there so many times. Do you just put it aside and separate yourself from it when you get home?”
“No,” he earnestly responds, “You don’t forget about them. You take them with you. It becomes a part of you.”
I don’t think the “used to” parts of me are that far away anymore. Just like I will take the people of Villa Guadalupe, Nueva Vida and Love Light + Melody with me, I recognize that I took all the titles and names and experiences in my life with me to Nicaragua. It is the mom, the wife, the daughter, the soccer player, the school volunteer that make me who I am . And without all those parts, I would have had a very different experience in Nicaragua. I know that my 20 year old self would have never gone on this trip. I am shocked that the 40 year old did. It gives me hope for the 50 year old.
I don’t think we have to paint ourselves into neat and tidy little boxes. The preverbal “they” say that to be a good wife and mother, you have to be the best “you” first. The problem is, I don’t think I will ever know what that is because I am always changing. But at least I have learned that when you give yourself away, you get more than you give. I just have to add it all together into one bag and haul it with me wherever I go.