I traveled to Nicaragua as a student leader with my church. I had just gotten the director of development position with Stop Hunger Now, a hunger relief organization. During our time there we witnessed the work ORPHANetwork, a non profit working in impoverished Nicaraguan communities, was doing and became determined to make the connection between Stop Hunger Now and ORPHANetwork. The goal was to get rice/soy fortified meals shipped to Nicaragua to provide food for the feeding centers ORPHANetwork sponsored in the community of Nueva Vida. Jonathan was my first friend in Nicaragua, he had grown up at Casa Bernebe, the orphanage where our team stayed. He welcomed me into his life with open arms and inspired me to return to Nicaragua to serve those most in need.
For the next 5 years I continued to travel to Nicaragua as a student leader with my church and also as the leader for the annual Stop Hunger Now Nicaragua Vision Trip. Born with a congenital heart condition, Shone’s Syndrome, I had faced medical challenges throughout my childhood. I had my first open heart surgery when I was 5 years old. As I became and adult and started to pursue my passion and career, I realized transparency and “owning” my condition was an opportunity to connect and inspire with not only the kids we served but the team members I led.
I had a mechanical aortic valve replacement at Duke University. Prior to the surgery I was experiencing heart failure which brought symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breach. It didn’t keep me away from Nicaragua. Filled to the brim with hope and joy from my most recent trip the month before, I entered into the surgery faithful and with a extremely positive attitude. The surgery was a success and I returned home to Virginia Beach 5 days later. A few days after returning home, I had a major complication due to the surgery that resulted in a brain bleed. I spent two weeks in the Norfolk General Heart Hospital ICU. This near death experience shifted my outlook and perception of life and service. I was eager to get back to home away from home, strong and alive for the work.
Six months after I had my aortic valve replaced which resulted in complications including a stroke, I returned to Nicaragua. At this point I had been coming to Nicaragua for 5 years, I started to lead vision trips to Nicaragua with Stop Hunger Now and I continued to serve as a team leader with my church. ORPHANetwork had been receiving meals from Stop Hunger Now since 2009 and were growing dramatically. I met Suopa (Sue-op-a) on my first trip to Nica in 2007, she lives at Casa Bernebe. Here in 2012 she has become a teenager and trusts me as a friend. As she rested on my shoulder, I reflected on my purpose to serve in Nicaragua and the individuals our work impacts.
I meet Dulce (which means sweet in Spanish), a girl from a feeding center in Managua. I have not met her before, however she comes over and shares a very “sweet” smile and lifts her arms for a snuggle. After overcoming the medical challenges and PTSD symptoms related to my aortic valve replacement in 2012 , God provides me comfort again. This time in the arms of a young Nicaraguan girl who just needed a little snuggle time too. While leading this Stop Hunger Now team including staff and board members, the depth of my roots in Nica become more and more obvious to me.
After 8 years visiting Nicaragua with more than 300 team members and praying for God to show me how He wanted to use me in Nicaragua, I find myself achieving full discernment on what my next steps should be in my career and calling to serve there. Melody (pictured here) lives in Nueva Vida, a community that was originally a refugee camp after hurricane Mitch in 1998. I first met Melody in 2009 as a sassy 5 year old. Now she is 11 and still jumps in my arms for a hug and kiss and photo every time I visit her village. She is healthy, strong, smart and has a bright future thanks to the dedicated work of organizations like ORPHANetwork. As I was fully present each moment of this trip, I was rewarded greatly with the clarity of how I could lend my talents and gifts to share my passion for the work in Nicaragua by founding Fill the Bowls.
Each time I visited Nicaragua I had a different experience with a different child that left a lasting impression. I challenged myself to consider making a decision on how I was going to commit both professionally and personally to this cause. I went from thinking about it to doing it.