Monday, May 5, 2008

Year of service in Nicaragua, Ecuador awaits two Vandy grads

Manna Project International is humanitarian organization formed by Vanderbilt students

"It’s about me saying, ‘Let me enter into this with you.’"

From the Vanderbilt News Service:
La Chureca, the city dump on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua, could be the setting for a dreary, futuristic movie. A city of scavengers, many of them orphans, they live in the filthy heaps of refuse at this municipal garbage dump. Clothed in rags, they rummage for food, scrounging out a meager existence by selling the small trinkets or recyclables they find, or sometimes selling their own bodies to survive.

A graduating senior at Vanderbilt, Emily Lineberger, plans to dedicate a year following graduation this May to helping these otherwise hopeless orphans through Manna Project International, a humanitarian organization formed by Vanderbilt students to bring hope to some of the poorest communities in the Western Hemisphere.

Senior Duncan Fulton, a Spanish and European studies major, also has signed on with Manna. After graduation he’ll spend a year in Quito as a program director for Manna’s newest site in Ecuador. A Dallas native, who studied for a year in Madrid and visited Nicaragua on a spring break trip, has deferred entrance into Tulane University Law School until after his year in Quito. He hopes to create educational and legal aid programs there.

Seniors Holly Ward and Tressa Hoektra have signed on to go to Ecuador and Nicaragua, respectively.

Formed in 2004, Manna is run and staffed predominantly by Vanderbilt students and alumni. The organization is best known for its year-long immersion experience in Managua, and more recently, Quito, but also offers a spring break trip and a summer program.

Lineberger, a human and organizational development major from Winston-Salem, N.C., counts herself among the many in her class who have not lacked for “the creature comforts in life.” While she could have taken the summer off to prepare for graduate school, law school or the corporate world, instead she plans to shed “the Vanderbilt bubble” to serve as a program director for Manna’s Managua site for 13 months.

“I want to stay for a year so that I’m not just another American stepping in to ‘fix’ things and then leave,” Lineberger said. “It’s about me saying, ‘Let me enter into this with you.’ It’s about shedding my vanity, being stripped of materialism and getting outside this beautiful, sheltered place called Vanderbilt.”

During her sophomore year at Vanderbilt, Lineberger heard about Manna from a friend and decided to sign up for a spring break trip to Nicaragua. Her week there included working with children at a pre-school, repairing a playground facility and helping teach English and nutrition classes.

Lineberger thought she was prepared for the country’s living conditions, but found herself overwhelmed when she arrived at La Chureca. An estimated 1,500 people call the city dump home – more than half of them under the age of 18 – and are plagued by malnutrition, disease and heartbreak.

“It was animalistic; I have never seen anything like it,” she said. “It was shocking to hear personal accounts from the children, who sniffed glue because they were so hungry – it was their only escape. And to hear girls saying that their fathers sent them out to prostitute themselves to the garbage collectors in order to get the best scraps – you can’t describe it.”

Lineberger said that week in Nicaragua was less about making a difference in the Nicaraguans’ lives than being changed herself.

“You can’t make much of a difference in a few days. It’s just not possible,” she said. “But once you’ve seen what goes on there, you are forever changed. Once you have seen it, you can’t go back home and forget about it. You have to do something.”

Lineberger will live in a rented house in Managua with other college graduates, many of them from Vanderbilt. Like her fellow volunteers, she has raised $7,000 to pay for her food, housing and program fees for the year. During that time she will set up community outreach programs based on her interest in health education.

“I like the idea of counseling, emotional stability and health,” she said. “I want to work with kids and families and show them how to have a sense of pride in having a healthy body.”

Fulton agrees that the students won’t be able to change the world but they will do what they can.

“I can’t change the legal system,” Fulton said. “But I want to try setting up some programs that will help people. In the end, I think the experience will affect how and in what areas I choose to practice law.”

One of Manna’s founders, Lori Scharffenberg, has been in Nicaragua since the program’s inception. She and others designed the organization to provide a tangible way for students and recent graduates to make a long-term investment in community service. They also wanted students to be able to serve in areas that they enjoyed and were passionate about. That formula seems to be working.

“We believe that by bringing the community together, each with our individual passions, we can serve another community with a holistic approach,” Scharffenberg said.

The organization currently has three staff members and 13 volunteers, and more than 400 individuals have participated in the program since its creation. In addition, approximately 65 Vanderbilt students have traveled under Manna’s banner to other international sites hosted by partner organizations for spring break trips, including Peru, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Mexico and El Salvador.

While traveling abroad presents concerns for personal health, safety and maybe even homesickness, Lineberger is more anxious about how she’ll be changed emotionally by the experience.

“The biggest challenge right now is the idea that I am about to have my whole worldview rocked,” she said. “It’s different than a short-term trip. When you live somewhere for a year, it becomes your community and you are forced to see the issues right in front of you. You can’t hide. It’s going to be scary, but it’s also going to be life-changing.”

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