Blauvelt Dominican Sister Jennifer Schaaf recently traveled to Nicaragua with a group of students and two faculty members from Yale University for an Alternative Spring Break program.
Sister Jennifer, known as Sister Jenn has ministered as an Assistant Roman Catholic Chaplain at Yale University’s St. Thomas More Chapel & Center since 2013. During that time, she has led students in Alternative Spring Break programs to the United Nations and Nicaragua. 2016 marks her second trip there with students and in June, she will be returning there, once again with students.
These programs have been a collaboration between students who attend Saint Thomas More and the Yale School of Nursing (YSN). The students from the nursing school receive course credit for the program, while the students from Saint Thomas More receive a partial scholarship, but attend the program as part of the social justice mission of the Church.
Two faculty members from YSN also took part in the program. Pat Ryan-Krause, one of the faculty and co-leader of the trip, worships at St. Thomas More Chapel, which is how this collaborative program originated.
During the most recent program, Sister Jenn and her group arrived in Managua then traveled to Matagalpa to visit an organic coffee farm and stay for one night before traveling to Leon.
A majority of the program was spent in Leon and Troilo, a rural agricultural community nearby where they worked on capacity building through educating Brigadistas, teaching children science and art, while encouraging healthy lifestyles and continuing education. Sister Jenn described Leon as a small city with all the basic amenities, whereas Troilo being more transient.
She noted how houses (in Troilo) are often a combination of tarp, cinder blocks and pieces of scrap metal and even with a health post and elementary school, there is not a lot of infrastructure in the community.
A bus runs between Troilo and Leon, but only twice a day, making it difficult to get back and forth for opportunities. Clean water and food sources are limited in the community.
There is also a private tuition based high school and a pavilion that is used for a Church in Troilo. Most of the people in the community work for a large sugar cane company. It is always hot and there has been a drought in the community for the past two years.
Sister Jenn explained, “We partner with Esperanza, the nurse, Yadira, the doctor, the teachers and CEPAD, a collaborative ecumenical Nicaraguan organization that fosters community building and development. “There is significant poverty but a warm welcoming atmosphere from the people of the community. “
Sister Jenn and her group were able to immerse themselves into the community as they visited as a women's coop and fair trade farm, the Leon Cathedral, a Revolution museum and other historic sites in Leon.
“Learning about the history and what is going well is as important for our students as helping to facilitate hope through direct assistance and education,” Sister Jenn noted. Prior to her time at St. Thomas More Chapel, Sister Jenn has been leading Alternative Spring Break programs throughout her time serving as a Campus Minister. When she served as in Campus Ministry at Ohio Dominican University, she brought students to Appalachia and the Bronx. The Alternative Spring Break programs have truly been meaningful to Sister Jenn and her students as she believes, “The experience of being someplace out of the ordinary and witnessing and serving people living in poverty is often a life-changing experience for students. Understanding their situation and being in solidarity with them is part of our Gospel call.”