Former Leadership and Education Consultant Steven Thomas (Delta Kappa/Ball State 2005) currently serves as the Assistant Director of Orientation and Special Programs at The University of Alabama. This past spring, Thomas and his wife, Courtney, Director of the Center for Service and Leadership at the university, chaperoned a group of 16 college students on a Beyond Bama Spring Break trip to Nicaragua in conjunction with Panorama Service Expeditions. This was the fourth spring break trip that the Thomases had participated in and the first one internationally.
“Serving together and working with students to help serve has been a major passion of ours,” said Steven. “We believe that it is our responsibility to take care of others as others have taken care of us,” he added.
“On this particular trip we were tasked with two missions,” said Steven. “The first and most visible was to create a library/computer lab. The other task, the one task that was a little less visible was to work with the students on their English skills,” he said.
Panorama Service Expeditions does a lot of work throughout the rural parts of Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua.
“We worked at a private school that was only a couple blocks away from the place we stayed,” said Steven. “The school, Instituto Monte Tabor, and consisted of students from Kindergarten to seniors in High School,” he said.
The school system in Nicaragua is quite poor and most schools are considered private because students must pay to attend. The cost is approximately $60 American dollars a year. If families aren’t able to afford the payment and school uniform, many school-aged children go without education.
“As a group we took enough school supplies to supply every student with a box of crayons, colored pencils, a ream of paper, a notebook, a box of pens and a box of pencils and the many, many, extras for teacher of the school we worked at,” said Steven. “To give you an idea of the amount of supplies - we each checked one large bag filled to the 50 pound weight limit. That is 900 pounds of school supplies, books, cleaning supplies, computer equipment, clothes, and other items! In addition, we provided Panorama Service Expeditions with enough books for them to start a library in the community, something that not very many communities have in Nicaragua. We also collected enough money to send ten students to school for the next academic school year, and were able to provide another school with supplies for all of their students,” he continued.
What was the week like? Was it what you had expected? Were there any surprises?
“The week was, in a word, amazing,” said Steven. “It was very difficult for me and many of the students we took with us to see the amount of poverty - that families were living in a home many of us would consider a tool shed or a poorly made garage. Yet these families welcomed us into their homes just as proud as we, as Americans, do when we have our friends and family over for the holidays or a party. I was surprised about how appreciative everyone was for a hug or simply stopping by to talk for a little bit. It is so amazing how we, in our society, constantly dream of what else we can buy, or what else we want, or complain that there is such a long line at the coffee shop, but these people who have so little are so appreciative of it. It really makes you stop and appreciate all you have and wish you could do more for others,” he said.
So was the group able to accomplish their missions?
“Many of the students picked up English very quickly, while for others it was more of a struggle. English is a vital skill needed to obtain a job that is well paying. Knowing English is also one of the only avenues to getting out of extreme poverty,” said Steven. “We were also there for moral support and to show that people of the world care about Nicaraguans. A lot of relationships were developed between the college students and the students from Nicaragua,” he added.
And the library?
“Between the 18 of us, we laid flooring, plastered walls, painted the walls, and ran electricity in the space. The group worked long into the night one night to assure we accomplished our mission. Working elbow to elbow in the dark as those students, who were working another project, stood over us with their cell phones shining their light on the few that were laying tile. It truly took team work to lay every tile down,” said Steven.
“We also created a computer lab in the school’s teachers’ lounge to assist the students with their computer skills. Many of these students have never seen a computer before let alone used one,” said Steven. “This same team got each child in front of a computer to build their confidence, even if it was only for a few minutes,” he continued.
“The team truly pushed themselves past their own personal limitations, ideas of poverty, and perceptions of global citizenship,” said Steven. “Everyone left the trip changed, and they were changed for the better. I went into the week with little to no expectations, besides getting to know the students better, do some site seeing, be in a country I’ve never been before, and to help a community that needs so much help. I was never expecting that it would change me in the way it did,” Steven added.
Do you think that being a member of Theta Chi has had an impact on your adult life?
“In a word – yes,” said Steven. “Theta Chi has pushed me to take care of my fellow man: To extend the helping hand to all who seek it. It has encouraged me to not only live the creed and to live the ritual, but to essentially spread that to others and to encourage others to extend the helping hand. Besides the service aspect of Theta Chi, Theta Chi has developed me in other ways as well. It prepared me for the career path that I’ve chosen, which is in higher education, through the work that I did as an undergrad, the work I did as a Leadership and Education Consultant, and the work I’ve done as a volunteer. To say Theta Chi hasn’t affected my life as an adult would be a lie. It has affected my life in many different ways and each day something can be contributed from the work that Theta Chi has done for me and the work I’ve done for Theta Chi,” he concluded.