Carnegie Mellon University track & field student-athletes Autumn Hair and Max Rerkpattanapipat were part of the school's Global Public Health Brigade (GPHB) that traveled to Nicaragua for spring break.
Rerkpattanapipat, a junior neuroscience major, serves as co-president of GPHB and has been a member of the program throughout his time at Carnegie Mellon, which has included three trips to Nicaragua. "Amidst all the business and craziness of the college student-athlete life, the week in Nicaragua is the time of the year I forget all about it and really focus on how we are all part of something greater," he remarked. "I keep returning to the brigades because of the families throughout the communities there. They work day in and day out to simply survive each day and ensure the well-being of their family."
"I first became interested in GPHB because I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone," said Hair, a professional writing major who hopes to work for a magazine or a company where she can create social media content and tell other people's stories. "I am very much an indoor person and I hate bugs, hot weather, and getting down in the dirt. I wash my hands an absurd number of times per day so being dirty all day in Nicaragua was definitely uncomfortable at first."
On the first two days in Nicaragua, the group of 13 Carnegie Mellon, seven West Virginia University, and four University of Tennessee students worked with two families in Jinotega. Following that, the group of 24 split into helping three more families for two days, and then the entire group helped dig a giant trench that would eventually serve as a water source for the community.
The students built a sanitation station for each family they worked with, which included a toilet, shower, and an area to hand-wash clothing. "When we finished with a project, we'd celebrate with the families, give the children toys, and teach members of the community basic hygiene tips," Hair recalled. "The celebration was my favorite part of the entire trip."
"When we go over to help them construct bathrooms and promote public health, they are beyond thankful and smile throughout the days we work in their homes," Rerkpattanapipat added. "It's clear from the beginning how much they appreciate the latrines (sanitation stations) because they know how much of a positive impact it will have on their lives and their childrens' lives."
While the students go to Nicaragua to make a difference, they find that they are greatly impacted as well. "I felt very humbled seeing the families who grew up with so little compared to me, yet were so happy and their family dynamics were so strong," Hair commented. "It made me wonder if we in the U.S. are really better off, especially considering how much emphasis there is on the things we don't have. The Jinotegans have so little, yet they seemed so much happier and more grateful than those of us in the U.S."
"We go in there for a week and do the best we can to help out, but the work we do is a fraction of the hard work that the Nicaraguan people put in every single day of their lives. The families there are diligent, beautiful, friendly, and just amazing," Rerkpattanapipat stated. "As co-president, my mission is to share our story with as many people as possible so that others know how much of an impact we have on these people's lives and see that they can join or contribute to the brigades."