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Posts from the ‘Nicaragua’ Category

Finding a Life-Changing Purpose for Her Engineering Education


Recent Robert Morris University graduate Sarah Robb was awarded a $100,000 fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

The award will enable Sarah to enter Carnegie Mellon University’s Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program this fall, where she will focus on the medical applications of single-walled carbon nanotubes. It will also help to fund travel to various conferences, where she’ll have the opportunity to network, present her research, and become more involved with professional engineering societies.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Sarah, who recently completed RMU’s integrated B.S. in Engineering/M.S. in Engineering Management program. “I am so happy and grateful for all the knowledge and opportunities RMU has provided me.”

This past year Sarah collaborated with other members or RMU’s Engineering World Health (EWH) chapter (which she helped to organize) in order to design and build a low-cost, non-battery-powered otoscope that could be used in environments where electricity or batteries are unavailable. The idea for the otoscope was spawned after her trips to Nicaragua with Dr. Carl Ross’s nursing students.

The RMU EWH's otoscope prototype

The RMU EWH’s otoscope prototype

“RMU engineering has great resources for students – CAD modeling programs, 3D imaging scanners and cameras, 3D printers, robots, rapid prototyping devices – ” she says, “so it was kind of my dream to see our students using their knowledge and the resources we have here to help out the nursing program, which benefits so many needy people in the Managua barrios.”

Sarah and the RMU EWH chapter decided to build the otoscope after surveying and gathering input from Dr. Ross and nursing students over a two-year period. The data they gathered from the survey will also allow the chapter to design and manufacture other projects for the future, based on the needs identified by the traveling nursing students.

Sarah first traveled to Nicaragua with RMU’s nursing program in the spring of 2013. This past March, thanks to her receiving the 20-Year Club scholarship and support from the American Association of University Women, Pittsburgh Chapter, she was able to the impoverished country along with Dr. Ross and his students.

“The first trip opened my eyes to how easy it was to make a positive difference in someone else’s life,” she says. “People shouldn’t be dying for things we throw away in more developed countries. This trip fueled my excitement to get involved and make a difference.”

Sarah is set to begin her studies at CMU this fall. In the meantime she’s working as an intern at Mine Safety Appliances in Cranberry, where she has gotten the chance to speak to schools about engineering through the company’s outreach program. “Eventually I’d love to teach engineering classes and continue to share my engineering knowledge and experiences with others.” ~

Changing Lives Update – Lee Folk ’10

(click image for a video update on Lee)

Back in September of 2010, Robert Morris University unveiled its “Change A Life” ad campaign. Through six TV commercials, 24 radio spots, and 38 billboards across the Pittsburgh region, the campaign featured stories of how RMU changes our students’ lives, and how they change the lives of others.

One of those stories was that of David Lee Folk ’10.

Lee studied nursing at RMU, graduating with honors in 2010. That year he also received the Presidential Transformational Award, the university’s highest undergraduate honor, given annually to a graduating student who has been transformed by his or her experience at Robert Morris and has also contributed to the transformation of the university in a meaningful way. He was also the inaugural winner of RMU’s Rising Star Award, given to a graduating senior who demonstrates academic success, individuality, determination, passion and potential in his or her field of study.

In the summer of 2009, Lee traveled to Nicaragua as part of a collaboration between RMU and the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (UPOLI), led by University Professor Carl Ross, Ph.D., wherein students and faculty provide basic medical care to residents in the barrios of Managua.

“The people of Nicaragua touched my heart in ways I couldn’t have imagined,” he said. “To be honest, it’s still hard to look through the pictures without getting teary-eyed.” An avid and talented writer and photographer, Lee documented his experiences in a series of blog posts that portray, in searing detail, the deprivation of the Nicaraguans as well as the emotional toll that working with them sometimes exacts on the students and faculty.

One of these stories, “David and His Trumpet“, documented a Nicaraguan boy’s beloved trumpet, how it was stolen, how it was replaced thanks to Lee, and what it meant in the boy’s life.

Lee says being featured in RMU’s Change A Life campaign was a high point in his life, both personally and academically.

“It was humbling to be a visual part of such a large movement by the university to implement community service into student life,” he says. “I really enjoyed the whole process of creating the campaign, and it’s been such a thrill to see the ripple effects that it has had throughout the community.”

Following graduation, Lee spent a year at WVU’s Ruby Memorial Hospital, before joining the nursing team at St. Clair Hospital in Pittsburgh’s South Hills. He also started back to school at RMU this past fall, where he’s pursuing his Doctorate of Nursing Practice to become a family nurse practitioner.

Lee believes the “Changing Lives” theme connected with so many people, particularly with the Pittsburgh public, because of the kind of people who populate this area.

“We take community very seriously, and it made people proud to see a local university cultivating that spirit of goodwill in its students. That translates to strong character in the future workforce as well as stronger communities. All in all, it gives everyone a great feeling about working together for the greater good, and a campaign that can translate that message is bound to be successful.”


Written by Valentine J. Brkich

Watch this behind the scenes video for more on Lee and what he’s up to today.

Robert Morris launched the Change A Life advertising campaign in September 2010. The Change A Life TV commercials won a Gold ADDY Award from the Pittsburgh Advertising Federation, which gave a Silver ADDY to the Change A Life web site. The campaign won a silver medal for advertising campaigns in the national Circle of Excellence Awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. RMU also won a Silver Medal for video PSAs and commercial spots for the Change A Life ads. The web site also won a Silver CUPPIE in the category of electronic media/web site from the College and University Public Relations Association of Pennsylvania (CUPRAP) and a Golden Quill Award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania for creative use of technology in storytelling.

Who has the football?

Another powerful story from Nicaragua.

Back Again

[The following is an excerpt from the blog of Lee Folk, RN, BSN, who graduated from the Robert Morris University School of Nursing in May of 2010. He was the recipient of the highest undergraduate award at RMU, the Presidential Transformational Award, given in recognition of his documentary journalism in Managua, Nicaragua. He is currently employed as a staff nurse on the trauma medical-surgical unit of West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia.]


Follow along on the journey of a small group of nursing students from Robert Morris University as they travel to Managua, Nicaragua, providing nursing care to some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. We’re in for an adventure, and it’s great to have you along for the ride!

Back Again

How to begin?
That nagging question flashes over and over in my mind, synchronized with the pace of the blinking cursor on the blank screen.
How to begin….how to begin… to begin….
Well, I suppose I should begin by saying hello to all my readers out there. Thanks for stopping by. I hope this blog entry finds you all happy and well.
At the moment, I’m sitting amidst a chaotic scene in my bedroom. My mother will tell you that this room is always a chaotic scene, but tonight, my surroundings have reached new depths of devastation. My fourth trip to Nicaragua looms on the horizon, and I am in the throws of preparation for another trip south. Once again, to my amazement, my passport hasn’t collected nearly as much dust as I always anticipated it would. Four trips to Nicaragua. Four stamps in the passport. In my mind’s eye, I can see many of my friends and family just shaking their heads.
Four trips to Central America in fourteen months?
I know. I’m shaking my head too.
So how did I end up in this wonderfully strange position? What in the world happened during those fourteen months to create all this commotion? That’s really an excellent question. So before I set out writing the next chapter of this crazy story, I think all of the new readers out there, and perhaps you veterans too, deserve a bit of a recap.
Don’t worry, the recap has illustrations . . .

For more, visit Lee’s blog, Notes From the Field.

The Mail from Managua

You’ve read a lot about, and a lot from, RMU nursing alumnus Lee Folk. You’ll be hearing a lot more about him as well in the coming weeks — and that’s all we’ll say for now. In the meantime, to read all his accounts of the trips his took to Nicaragua, click here and here. You can find his more recent posts here.

The Accidental Masterpiece

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

Dear Readers,

I must apologize for the tremendous delay between chapters! I know many of you have asked if the series was over after the most recent entry. There were, in fact, two more entries I had planned to write as soon as we arrived home from Nicaragua. However, I began my RN position the very next day in Morgantown, and the adjustment to that position in the time since then has prevented me from completing them. So though I had the notes taken for these last entries, it’s taken me several weeks to sit down and write them out. I’m very sorry for leaving you all in the lurch. I hope to have the final entry out within another week or two. As always, thanks for reading! Enjoy the rest of Los Dos Davids!



The Accidental Masterpiece

We’re coming to the end of my third trip to Nicaragua, and this Friday evening, for the first time during my twenty-five days in this country, I’m actually thinking about leaving my camera at the hotel. With Duane and Rob shooting constantly through their magnificent telephoto lenses, and Adam and Dino clicking away right behind them, I’ve grown intimidated in the presence of superior creativity. The sound of snapping shutters is part of the everyday soundtrack in the van. Someone will see something out their window, comment on it, and within a second, there are cameras pointed in that direction, with fingers set on rapid fire. If there is anything that has not been documented on this trip from at least five different angles, I have no idea what it is.

Being amongst so many talented photographers on this trip has prompted me to give some thought to this art form I’ve come to love so much. I’ve met quite a few photographers, and I’ve found that very few of them started out knowing they wanted to be photographers. More often, they stumbled into the field by accident. I know I did. I was fourteen when I began pleading with my parents to buy me a camcorder for Christmas. I’m not sure where the desire for a camcorder came from, or what exactly I planned to do with it. I just knew I wanted one. Christmas morning dawned that year and at the bottom of my pile of presents, I found something unexpected. It was an old Minolta camera, 35 mm with a detachable flash and a cleverly disguised trap door that held something Dad called film.

My father had clearly misunderstood. I didn’t want to take pictures. I wanted to make movies. I was opening this present at the dawn of the digital age, so the film camera already seemed antiquated. But my father informed me that this was actually his camera, a college necessity from his days at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It seemed more like a family heirloom than the ticket to my movie-making career, but I did appreciate the thought. Like most of the hobbies that sprung up in my mind overnight, Mom and Dad were treating this one with cautionary encouragement. I had dumped too many hobbies already: models, stamps, coins, baseball cards. Photography was bound to be next.

But oddly enough, the Minolta piqued my curiosity. I found myself intrigued by the possibilities that 24 exposures afforded me. After several rolls of botched negatives, I learned that 24 clicks went fast. Not everything was picture worthy. I only had 24 chances to capture something new, something funny, something beautiful. I can remember going for long walks after dinner the following spring with the Minolta in hand, loaded with a fresh roll of film and lots of ideas. I was soon measuring my shots out carefully. Since my meager finances would only buy me so much film at a time, I had to think about my shots before I took them. Sometimes I walked down to the railroad tracks by Chartiers Creek. I circled the statues around town and experimented with lights and shadows. One time, I stumbled upon a dead squirrel by the side of the road. An idea for an image popped into my head and I quickly ran home, grabbed a piece of paper, and wrote out the following caption: Canonsburg Electricity: Keeping the Chipmunk Population Under Control. I ran back outside and laid the piece of paper next to the dead animal, and memorialized it in film. To most, the photo seemed adolescent. To me, it was art.

The next year, I saved enough of my Christmas tips from my paper route to purchase my first digital camera, a Panasonic DMC-LC33. It was an amazing little piece of technology, that Panasonic. I began to take pictures of everything and anything. The harder I worked at it, the more I saw how luck played into the equation of a great photograph. I found that I could spend an hour setting up a shot, hoping for the perfect light, waiting on the right breeze, and still walk away with nothing. Then there were moments when I would snap a photo haphazardly, on a whim, only to discover later that the image was one worth framing. Perhaps photographer Chuck Close phrased it best. “Photography is the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece.”

One day, when I was sixteen, my older sister was driving me home from a school event. It was late afternoon, and by the time we crested the hill coming into our town, there was a beautiful sunset taking shape. I was riding in the front seat, looking through photos I had taken that day. Seeing the view, I switched the camera back on and snapped a quick photo, accidentally clipping the McDonald’s sign in the foreground. The golden arches were framed black, silhouetted against a golden sky. I almost deleted the photo right there, but there was something about the photo that I liked. That year, I entered five of my favorite photos in the Scholastic Art and Writing competition. A few of my well-planned photos received merit awards. The one I took nearly by mistake, Golden Arches, won gold. I had my first accidental masterpiece.

In Nicaragua, it was the photographs that really prompted me to start writing Mail from Managua. At the end of my first day in the country, when I had downloaded my first batch of photos to my laptop, I was disheartened that these images would be practically meaningless unless the stories behind them were written down. When I began to write the stories of my first trip, I made it a rule to select one photograph that best summed up the story. I wanted my family and friends to reach the end of the story, see the photo, and think, Yep, that’s exactly what I pictured it would be. Shooting in a country of a million masterpieces, I quickly found that framing the photo was the easy part. Penning the stories, on the other hand, took some work.

On this trip, I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with an incredibly talented artist. It doesn’t take long being around the guy to see why Duane Reider is arguably the most talented and respected photographer in the city of Pittsburgh. He is flexible and creative. He can handle pressure. And most of all, he’s just fun to be around. Throughout the week, I’ve been watching him in action. On Monday night, while sitting by the brick oven of the local pizza joint, Duane and I talked shop. While he shared stories from his career, I held his iPhone in my hands and flipped through the albums on his website. Duane has rubbed shoulders with nearly every Pittsburgh sports hero of the past three decades. Some of them have even become personal friends. Mario Lemieux and Hines Ward stop by Duane’s place quite often, to talk sports and wine and business ventures.

With his level of expertise and creativity, one would assume that Duane started out an early age and always knew that photography was his calling. But that’s not the case. On the contrary, Duane was already nineteen when he first got a hold of a camera. He was asked by a friend to take a group photo of a softball team. At the time, he was a welder in Los Angeles with no real idea of what he wanted to do with his life. But the camera quickly grabbed his attention. “My friend took me in his darkroom to develop that first roll of film. And when that first image came out of the solution, it was like love at first sight. I knew I had to go buy a camera.” Like me, Duane never planned for photography. It just sort of happened. By accident.

As we sat there waiting for our pizza, my jaw hung open as I surveyed his portfolios. Every few photos, I stopped and gasped, held it up to him and said, “Wait, wait, wait….tell me the story behind this one.” Duane would chuckle, lift his glasses and squint at the photo. “Oh, that’s a great story! Let me tell ya!” Then he’d scoot up in his seat and explain how the photo was created. One photo in particular caught my eye. If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for more than a year, you’ve probably seen the now infamous photo of the Pittsburgh Steelers kneeling on the floor of their locker room, huddled in prayer before the 2005 AFC championship. It’s one of the most iconic NFL images of the past decade, and the man who pushed the shutter on it was Duane Reider. “So you took this photo?” I asked him in disbelief. “This photo was in every newspaper across the country!”

“Yeah, that was quite a moment actually,” Duane said casually. “Because, believe it or not, I was the first photographer allowed in to the Steelers locker room during the prayer. It had never been allowed before. But Dan Rooner told me to follow Jerome Bettis that whole day. At the time, everyone thought it may very well be the last game of his career. So when it came time for the team prayer, he told me to stay put. And it was so cold that day, I couldn’t feel my hands. I just steadied the camera against my stomach, spread my feet like a tripod, and then said a prayer and took a deep breath. Click. That was it, man. Instant history.”

Duane went on to tell me that it was this historic photo that saved his firehouse from the brink of foreclosure. At the time, he owed taxes on the building that he had no money for and he was going to be forced to give up on his dream of opening the Robert Clemente Museum. But thanks to the mistake of a young reporter named Kelly Fry, Duane’s financial worries vanished overnight. The WTAE reporter tracked him down to do a news story on the Steelers photograph that everyone wanted on their walls. Duane agreed to do the story, but on one condition. “I told Kelly, you can’t put my phone number in the story,” Duane said. “I don’t want to get crushed with phone calls.” But for whatever reason, the reporter neglected the request and when the story aired on the six o’clock news, Duane’s number was plastered across the screen. “Ten seconds later, I kid you not, every single light on our shop’s phone lit up. The phone never stopped ringing,” he said. “For six whole weeks.” When Duane finally replaced his phone number with a new one, the photo had made enough money to pay off all the debt. A copy of the image hangs in his studio, signed by each Steelers in the photo. Duane calls it his photography miracle. His accidental masterpiece.

Watching Duane work in Nicaragua has been an experience in itself. The wheels in his head are always turning. During our days here, he has often snapped a photo, and then waved me over to show me what he did and how he did it. He pins a profound take-home lesson onto the photos for me to use in my own practice. “Mastering photography isn’t about knowing how to use the light,” he told me at one point. “It’s about knowing how to take it away.” At another point he turned and said, “It’s really less about knowing the technicalities of the craft, and more about the relationship between the subject in front of the lens and the artist behind it.” These moments of on-the-job training are pretty special for me, since I’ve never had the opportunity to shadow someone of his experience. I nod my head, jot down notes, and after comparing my images to his, fight the urge to throw my camera down the closest manhole. Practice makes perfect, I keep telling myself. Duane Reider didn’t build his studio in a day.

Duane is right about the importance of relationships, though. In order to get the desired results, there has to be a groundwork laid between the photography and his subjects. For a child, it may involve engaging them in play or making the camera appear to be a toy. For a bride, their mind may need diverted from the stress of the day to the thought of the groom. For Duane and Rob, the barrio presents its own challenges. It’s been difficult to be delicate while shooting here, especially with the language barrier. Unfortunately, there is not really anything they can do to make their long telephoto lenses from being any less conspicuous. It’s hard to make people comfortable with such an invasion. We want the inhabitants of the barrio to act naturally for us, but the groundwork of relationship does not exist yet for these artists.

At one point during our scouting mission, we entered a woman’s small shack to check on a malnourished baby that Dr. Ross had evaluated a few weeks before. The woman had several other small children clamoring around her skirts. We were ushered through the house and into the dirt courtyard in the back. Two of the young girls were sitting in tiny chairs, with plates on their laps, eating rice and beans with their hands. Duane followed us into the yard, and when Dr. Ross began to assess the newborn, he pulled his camera up from its holster to snap some photos. One of the girls in the chairs began to shriek and ran into the safety of her mother’s skirts. I tried to hand her some candy, but the girl just kept wailing as she pointed in Duane’s direction. I looked over at our photographer. He had a puzzled look on his face.

“Why is she crying? Did we give her some candy?” Duane asked.

“Yeah, but I think she’s just scared of you.”

“Awe, we’re not going to hurt her.” Duane smiled and waved at the girl, her dirty face now smeared with the rivulets of big tears. She hid her face again.

“I don’t think it’s you, Duane. I think it’s the camera,” I said.

“The camera?”

“Well, to you and me, it’s just a camera. But to her, you’re a stranger in her yard, and when you lift that lens to your face, it looks just like you’re aiming a gun at her.” Duane looked down at the camera lens. It could be mistaken for a weapon. “Pretty scary for a three year old.”

“Oh yeah,” Duane nodded. “I didn’t even think of that. Man, now I feel bad.” Duane tucked the camera around his shoulder and exited the yard. My smaller camera was still looped around my shoulder. I picked up the plate of rice that the girl had abandoned and crouched down next to her.

“How bout some more rice, little lady?” She walked over to me and took the plate from my hands. I slid my camera down my arm and turned it on carefully. While she continued to sniff back tears, her brown eyes locked on Duane and his scary looking camera, I held my camera out in front of me, aimed the lens up toward her face and snapped a photograph.

And it wasn’t until tonight that I loaded the photos from that day to my laptop. That image of the girl in the yard just popped up on the screen and made me smile. It’s happened again. A wonderful stroke of luck. Duane left that yard just a second too soon. The accidental masterpiece was right in front of us all along.

Los Dos Davids — Thoughts on Tears

(Lee Folk, a 2010 graduate of RMU’s nursing program, is filing these posts from his trip to Nicarauga. To read about Lee’s previous trips there, click here and here.)

Dear Lee, Please stop making me cry with these stories!

It’s probably the most common comment I’ve received back from my readers since I began sending out these accounts one year ago. While it’s certainly never been my intent to stimulate the tear ducts with my writing, it has sparked some thoughts toward the cultural perception of tears. Some cultural groups pride themselves on their stoicism. Weeping indicates weakness; stoicism signifies strength. Other cultures dive right into tears. The act of crying, outside of mourning, is seen as the physical emission of love and compassion. Most of us, you and I, fall somewhere along the spectrum.

For me, once I reached my teen years, crying was an extremely rare occurrence, reserved for total physical or emotional distress. However, when I started nursing school, I noticed a change. Perhaps my increased exposure to the sick and dying was making me appreciate simple things to a much greater degree. Or perhaps I was learning how big the world was and seeing simple miracles amidst everyday life. One of my guy friends recently asked me if I would consider him any less of a man if he admitted to crying over some of the stories I shared from the barrio. I told him that was ridiculous. It’s a shame to me that our society molds many men into a mentality like that. A tearful reaction is anything but wimpy. On the contrary, it shows us that are our hearts are still beating. It shows us we still care. We still love. We are still human.

I will never forget my first night home from my first trip to Nicaragua. I opened our refrigerator and saw all of the food we had. The tears started streaming. I was powerless to stop them. This trip has been so different from my first two though. On this trip, the focus has not really been on the healthcare of the people here. We aren’t getting involved to that degree. Instead, we’ve been doing something exciting, something hopeful. It’s been new and different and honestly, a lot of fun. Everyone’s having a wonderful time. To date, this crew, a team of mostly men, has shed very few tears. And by mid-week, I thought it peculiar enough to jot it down in my notebook. “Wednesday morning – still nothing to cry about!”


Throughout the week, I’ve received several emails from my parents and the McCaffertys about the status of my second Nicaraguan family, the Ramos-Medina family. I have seen them, in fact, and our reunion early in the week was one of the brightest highlights of the trip so far. On Monday, as we wrapped up our site-scouting mission, Duane and I had found ourselves trailing behind the camera crew. David was walking with us, so I felt comfortable being on our own.

“Duane, let’s go visit my family from the last trip,” I told him.

“You sure you to go without the crew?” he asked.

“I’d actually prefer to. I really don’t want to barge in with cameras and all that. I want to surprise them.” I handed him my camera as we turned the corner where Alvaro and the family live. It was Santos who spotted me first.

“Lee!” she waved.”Es Lee!” I waved back.

“Buenos dias!” I shouted. I could see Little Francisco hanging over the wire fence, too. He ran out into the street and jumped into me. “Francisco! Come esta?! Oh my goodness, you’re huge!” He just buried his face in my scrubs, obviously still a very shy kid. Walking into the family yard, I looked around for the man of the house, Alvaro. He peeked out from inside the hut to see what the commotion was all about. Seeing me, he ran out into the sun. He said something in Spanish, but it was lost in the monster hug he gave me. He looked exactly how we left him: shirtless, unwashed and unshaven, with gaping holes in his teeth and severely crossed eyes. But he was still the most affectionate, gracious character I had met in the barrio. I called David over to translate because Alvaro was talking a mile a minute.

“Um, he says that he never thought he would see you again, but they never stopped hoping,” David told me. “And they can’t believe you are actually standing here!” Alvaro grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the threshold of the tiny house where Ashlee and I had written our farewell into the walls with a Sharpie on our last day with them. He pointed to the messages gleefully and then back to me. I nodded my head and laughed.

“Tell him I remember very well! And tell him Ashlee wishes she could be here today too.” Alvaro then pulled me into the house. He pointed proudly to the Christmas wreath we’d given him. His face grew serious as he pointed at the mattresses we had purchased for the kids. Already, they were worn down, filthy after just eight months of use. I nodded. Then Alvaro pointed to his face. It seemed he was telling me that the glasses we had given him were gone, but I couldn’t understand the rest of what he said. “David, ask him if he will come to the clinic tomorrow afternoon. Doc and I will be there, and we can talk about his eyesight. And tell him I brought him something that I think will help.” David nodded and explained that to Alvaro. Duane had been shooting photos this whole time outside.

“Lee, we should probably be getting back,” he called into the shack.

“Yeah, you’re right. Alvaro, Miércoles, bueno?”

“Miércoles?” he clarified.

“Si! En la clinica.” He nodded vigorously and wrapped his arms around me again. I really didn’t want to leave so soon after getting there, but I knew I’d be back.

Wednesday’s filming went much later than we expected. I never saw Alvaro show up at the clinic during the time we were filming there. However, just as we were packing up the van with all the equipment, Alvaro appeared at the top of the street atop his rusty bicycle. He waved to me and pedaled down to deliver something. Stuffed into his chest pocket were a pile of papers. He pulled them out and handed them over. There were letters addressed to me and Ashlee, as well as two family photos.

I called Dr. Ross over to see if he could do a quick evaluation of the man’s eyes. Doc asked him what happened to the glasses we gave him, and Alvaro looked to the ground, almost ashamed to tell us. After some coaxing, we got him to tell us. Just a few weeks after we left, Alvaro had been biking home to the barrio after looking for a job all day. The far-sighted electrician was desperate for work to feed his children. It was getting dark when a gang started chasing him, trying to mug him, as if this poor man with tattered clothing would be carrying some great sum of money. His bike hit a pothole, and the glasses flew off his face. They landed in the road, where they were crushed by a passing car. Alvaro returned home that night with no money, no job, and now no glasses.

As he told us the story there in the road, I grew more and more furious with the thugs that live in this place. What kind of heartless skeleton of a creep does something like that to a desperate man like this? I promised Alvaro that we would back in the morning and we would help him get another pair. Then I hugged him goodbye. On the ride home, I tried to look out the window and block out the image of our terrified father pedaling away from a bunch of muggers. And for the first time this week, there were hot tears stinging my eyes.

Sometimes, this place is just simply wretched.


One of the most distinctive features of the Sol y Luna hotel was the circular pit in the center of the hotel lobby. I say was because it’s no longer there. Yes, it’s true. The pit has been filled in and covered with hardwood. All the furniture of the lobby has been rearranged over top. When we arrived on Sunday night, I had stopped dead in my tracks with my suitcase in hand.

“Where’s the pit?!” I cried. Dr. Ross came up beside me.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. The owner fell into the pit a few months back and broke her leg. It finally convinced her that it was a safety hazard. So no more pit.”

“But I liked the pit!” I argued, as if it would make any difference. The pit was where the Christmas tree used to be set up. The pit was where we held many of our post-conferences at the end of clinical days. The pit rocked. But it’s gone now, so I’ve decided to give the new arrangement a try this Thursday morning.

I sit down on the couch to check my email, hoping that the wireless Internet is up and running today. Dino is sitting across from me, looking through photos he’s loaded onto his Macbook. After several minutes, I notice he seems to be worried about something. He’s looked over at the front door seven times since I sat down. “Where are those guys?” he asks no one in particular. “They were supposed to be back by now.”

“Dino, relax, man.” I tell him. “I’m sure they’re just stuck in traffic.” It’s almost time for breakfast, and we’re waiting on Duane and Rob to return with Edgar. They’ve somehow talked our overly gracious translator into picking them up at 6 AM for the past two days to take them out into Managua to capture the chaotic traffic jams that lock up the city streets. It’s the daily bane of many motorists, but for guys like Duane and Rob, it’s a photographic paradise.

“Well, they were supposed to be back by now.”

“Dino, they’re fine. You worry too much.”

“I do worry a lot,” he agrees. “My wife, she always tells me that I’m the Italian grandmother she never wanted. Like I’m always thinking of disaster scenarios. What if they slipped and fell and now they’re in the hospital? What if they got caught in a mudslide? How would they reach us? Our cell phones don’t work down here. How would we know?”

“Okay, now you’re starting to sound like my mom,” I tell him. He goes back to looking through photos. A few minutes later, the three guys walk through the door. Dino looks up. “What happened!” Rob looks at him, puzzled.

“What do you mean what happened? Do you know how crazy the traffic is at this hour?”

“What? Just traffic?” I say with mock surprise. “No mudslides?”

The call comes for breakfast in the dining area. We have to get on the road soon if we want to stay on schedule. Though we will be here in Managua until Sunday, today will be our final visit to the barrio. Our luck has held with the weather, so we will not need to use Friday as a backup “rain day”. Jeff has already shot six hours of footage, all of which will have to be condensed down into 60-second and 30-second TV spots. All of this is good news, but on the flip side, it means an early goodbye for David and all our barrio friends.

David greets us at the gated porch when we arrive at his home. Looking past him into the house, I can see the women of the house scurrying about; making sure everything is as clean as possible. Juliet flies onto the porch and starts making rounds, administering hugs to the entire crew. Mrs. Espinoza ushers everyone into the common room. Anita takes the lead in communicating with David’s mother, explaining to her how tremendously grateful all of us are for his willingness to help us with our campaign. I’m not sure whether David and his mother knew he was getting paid, but the university has written him a check to compensate him for his hard work this week. The boy has earned five hundred American dollars for his part in the commercial. When David’s mother sees the number, she leans her head on David’s shoulder and starts to weep. David is speechless. This check will cover nearly two years of his college tuition in Nicaragua. For this family, it’s a gigantic boost to their tight finances. For us, it’s a tremendous honor to be the ones who give it to him.

I know the guys in this room are attached to this family too. Several of them have slipped cash to David and his sisters. It’s just one small way we can tell them how proud we are of each of them. After a few minutes of tearful goodbyes, we gather for group photos together on the porch. Because this check is so large and the neighborhood is so dangerous, we want to take David straight to the bank to deposit the money safely into his account. We don’t have to say goodbye to him yet, but I will not see his sisters and mother again, at least for quite some time. I’m not sure what his mother is saying to me, but she holds onto me for a long moment before letting go. This woman has turned the entire Change A Life project around for me, transforming it from something I was asked to be a part of into something I want to be a part of. I’m really going to miss her.

We have a few more stops to make after filing out of David’s house. Several girls from previous trips have given me gifts and messages to deliver to their families. People here love to receive photos we send back to them of our time spent with them. On Monday morning, for example, I pulled out photos for Don Pedro that our team took in November, and the man’s face just lit up, particularly at the sight of his faithful American co-pilot, Megan Cowden. The two of them kept all of us entertained the entire week with their hysterically bizarre cross-cultural jokes. It’s great to see that Don Pedro remembers the moments as fondly as all of us do.

I have a big plastic bag with me, filled with gifts to distribute. I need to deliver a Spanish Bible sent from Colby for her mother. Brianne sent back a photo album. I have letters and money for Megan’s family. There is a letter for our family from Ashlee, as well. And since everyone back home will want updates on their families, we stop in at several homes just to say hi and pass along the student’s greetings. I’m excited to get to my family’s home today. I have something special for Alvaro.

Francisco peeks out from inside the house when we arrive. There are more strangers in his yard than before. Larkin, Kyle, and Doug have joined us. I pass off my camera to Larkin to get some photos so that Ashlee will be able to see that everyone is healthy and smiling. Gabriella and Christian are off at school this morning, leaving Francisco and Kathia to accept all the presents. I could only bring small things for them: jump ropes and sidewalk chalk and balls and Matchbox cars. Mom sent down a nice body scrub for Santos. And for Alvaro, I have something to help remedy his eyesight issue. Since he is an electrician by trade, I brought a free-standing magnifying glass that he could use to help him see the wiring of his appliances. His eyes light up when I take it out of the bag and demonstrate how to use it. He motions to his table behind the house and beckons for me to sit down with the magnifying glass. Then he hands me a screwdriver and waves to Larkin.

“Un foto!” he says, grinning.

“He wants to have a picture of Lee at his worktable,” Dr. Ross tells Larkin. Larkin leans forward to take the photo of me pretending to unscrew a blender. My dad will get a kick out of this one. Everyone knows I haven’t the slightest clue how to fix anything. Those genes skipped a generation.

Unfortunately, we have to keep moving through the barrio to get to David’s house. I present Alvaro and Santos with letters from both Ashlee and myself, along with a money gift from their RMU nurses. I urge Alvaro to use the money for new mattresses and eyeglasses and whatever other pressing needs they have. His eyes have already welled up with tears, and he buries his face into my arm. He says something to Dr. Ross. “He wants you to know that you coming to see them means more to them than the money. And they can’t thank you and Ashlee enough.” More tears are coming for me, too.

“Oh, I almost forgot! Tell them that Ashlee is getting married very soon, in October!” Dr. Ross relays the message and both the parents’ faces beam with pride, as brightly as if their own daughter were betrothed. This happy news calls for another round of hugs as they wish the happiest blessings upon Ashlee and tell me to take their love home. They don’t want her to forget them, either. I tell Doc to assure them she never has, and never will. No one ever forgets their Nicaraguan family.


This is my first trip to a Nicaraguan bank. David’s savings account is registered with the Banco de America Central, the major banking chain in Nicaragua. The BCA built one of its continental headquarters just a mile or so from our hotel in Managua, and there are branch chains all over the city, recognizable by their trademark insignia of a red lion’s head. Don Pedro has dropped David, Edgar, and me off at the BCA location in the Metro Center mall, the same shopping center where we often eaten lunch on typical clinical days. As we’re walking inside, we pass a Claro kiosk near the entrance.

“Hey, David! Look, its Claro! Sell me a cell phone!” I tease him.

“Oh no! You will buy one and then call me at the call center only to complain!” he laughs. “Like everyone else!” The kid doesn’t relish his job at the call center. During the course of his night shift at the telecommunications center, it’s typical for him to field the insults of dozens of berating customers per night. Even for someone as positive and upbeat as David, it’s a difficult way to earn money.

The entrance of the bank is flanked by guards, which does not surprise me. Just about every public place in Managua stations guards at the entrance. Even the Peace Park is patrolled by rifle-toting security personnel. However, here at the bank, we are also wanded down by the guard. When I try to walk in, the man stops me, points at my camera, and then toward a locked cabinet. I’m given a card in exchange for the camera. I can pick it up when I come out.

“Wow, this place is guarded like a prison,” I whisper to Edgar.

“Yeah, they really take security seriously here,” he replies. “You wouldn’t believe the things that typically happen here. You’re not allowed to talk on your cell phone in line. Thieves will listen to how much people are depositing, then call their guys outside and describe what they’re wearing so they can mug them when they get to their car.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, it happens all the time. Luckily, the BCA has all sorts of rules now. Like, when it’s David’s turn to come to the window, you and I won’t be allowed to stand there with him. As far as they’re concerned, David could be our hostage and we are holding him at knife point. So they’ll ask us to move on.” Sure enough, when it comes time for David to see the teller, Edgar and I are directed to move to the back of the lobby to wait. There we stand while David deposits his check. Five minutes later, David walks over to us, accompanied with a BCA employee. “What’s the problem?” Edgar asks.

“They say that I have an account only for cordobas. And this check is in dollars.”

“What does that mean?” I ask. “What do you have to do to get it deposited?”

“I have to open an account for American dollars,” David tells us. Edgar sighs.

“How long will that take, Edgar?” I ask.

“At least an hour. Opening a new account is really time-consuming.” I know that we don’t have an hour to wait. We have a limited time to see the sights in Managua, and the film crew is already anxious to get moving. Just then, Dr. Ross appears at the door of the bank. Security wands him and lets him in.

“What’s the story?” he asks. “Did you get it deposited?”

“He has to open a new account to be able to deposit it.”

“Okay. That’s going to take a while, huh?” He thinks for a moment. “What if we gave you money for a cab back home? Are you comfortable staying here to open the account?” Dr. Ross asks. David nods. “Okay, do you have what you need to open the account today?” Edgar asks the bank representative. The employee tells us that all David needs are two Nicaraguan references. That won’t be a problem. Both Edgar and Don Pedro can vouch for him. Dr. Ross leaves to send Don Pedro in. A few minutes later, as our driver and translator are sitting at a table filling out David’s reference papers, I broach the subject of saying goodbye.

“When are you coming back?” David asks bluntly.

“I don’t really know, David. I didn’t know the first two times either.”


“I can’t promise that. You know I have my nursing job starting when I get back.”

“But you will come back as soon as you can?”

“As soon as I can, yes, I’ll come back. But in the meantime, you keep studying, and keep working hard. We’re all so proud of you. Here, take this money for the cab ride.”

Edgar walks over to join us. The forms are all in order. David grows uncharacteristically quiet. “David, you okay?” I ask. Whatever it is, he doesn’t want to tell me in English. He mutters something to Edgar in Spanish in a lowered voice. Edgar leans over to me.

“He says he feels horrible that he has to say goodbye to you in the middle of a bank.”

I understand his frustration. I didn’t want to part ways here in the bank either. I put my hand on his shoulder. “David, look at me.” He reluctantly looks up from his shoes.”Listen, I didn’t want to say goodbye here either. But it’s really important that this money gets to you safely and securely. Okay? It’s your money. You earned it.”

“Yes,” he mumbles. “but the money is not as important as the friendship.”

His words hit me right in my gut. This 19-year-old just made more money in one week than he usually makes in one year. But it seems that he couldn’t care less. He just didn’t want to have to say goodbye in a bank. He hugs me tightly, wiping his eyes with his fists. “Come back soon please,” he says in my ear.

“I will, brother. I will do my best. I promise.”

I retrieve my camera from the security guard and step out the glass doors with Edgar into the main corridor of the mall. David watches me walk away, standing there alone in the lobby of the BCA with his personal check from Robert Morris University. I turn around for one last look. That kid is the hero of the whole barrio, I think to myself. He’s my hero, anyway. I grin and wave at my friend. He waves back, smiling. And then I turn and walk quickly away.

I’ve already stated my thoughts on tears, having settled the argument that there ought to be no shame in shedding them over those you love. I stand by that. And so there’s a simple reason that I didn’t want David to see me cry today.

I wanted his last memory of me to be a smile.