SPENDING three months in Central America was a life-changing journey for Clare Wood.
The 31-year-old volunteer travelled to Nicaragua earlier this year to lead a small group of people in helping the community.
As well as leading the group, Clare got stuck in by helping to organise a youth group, transform a community centre and teach English.
But she was also the bridge between the local people in Valle Enoc, a northern community, and her 10 volunteers.
Clare says: ‘I was leading a team of 10 people, half of whom were Latino and the other half English.
‘None of them spoke the others’ language so I was constantly going back and forth translating between them. That was the same for the English-speaking volunteers and the community.
‘They didn’t know English so I had to translate for them too. That’s partly why I was picked as a team leader because I could speak Spanish.’
Clare travelled to Nicaragua with the Department of International Development’s International Citizen Service programme, with Raleigh International.
She had to raise £800 which would help contribute to the different projects and she exceeded this target.
With the money raised, Clare flew out two weeks before the team was due to arrive so she could get a feel of the community and set some foundations with the families they would be staying with.
She adds: ‘I arrived in the community and we had two weeks of really good training from the charity to help us look after the volunteers.
‘So this included emergency evacuation plans, first aid and things like that.
‘When they arrived after we had been there, we were equipped with the knowledge needed to lead them.
‘That was when the real hard work began.’
Clare and the volunteers lived with local families in their mud huts and she says it was ‘really, really basic living conditions’.
‘We were staying in mud huts but luckily for us they had had electricity installed two months before we got there and water installed three months before we got there,’ she says.
‘But it was still basic with latrines for toilets, a bucket for a shower and lots of spiders and scorpions.
‘The electricity was amazing. The cables were just hanging there because the walls were made from mud and they had nowhere else to put them.
‘But they were quite resourceful with how they made the light switches and things like that.’
Throughout the three months, Clare worked on a range of projects.
These included organising charity fun days, fixing wells and building improved ovens.
Her team also helped create family allotments by preparing the soil, cultivating the land and sowing seeds of varying vegetables.
Clare says this was designed to encourage better self sufficiency and provide economic opportunities for the community members as well.
Additional compost and seeds, along with instructions on how to create a family allotment, were also made available to all other members of the community.
Clare and the volunteers painted a community centre too, to brighten up the area and she says this was her favourite memory.
‘The community centre was quite bland to look at,’ she says.
‘It was just brown and grey. So I said it would be amazing if we could paint it and add come colour.
‘However, this turned out to be a bigger project than I thought – with the building requiring serious renovation ahead of any painting and this was outside the scope of our project plan.
‘Our team was keen to help the community though and so we raised money by showing two movies in the local school and holding a raffle for a hamper on our final action day in the community.
‘We raised enough money and rallied enough support from community members to help us with this additional project so we were able to renovate and paint the community centre.’
But the experience was a lot harder than Clare expected.
The Southsea resident adds: ‘The working days were long with hardly any time off for the entire three months.
‘And temperatures were hot – in the mid-30s at least each day.
‘So although it was an amazing experience, it was difficult.’
One of the hardest things for Clare was leading the team and ensuring the volunteers were happy.
She adds: ‘I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be leading the volunteers because there was no downtime.
‘I was constantly going back and forth to help translate and one day, I must have walked around the community about 15 times.
‘It was really surprising at how much you can give when you have nothing left.
‘Especially when you have other people who depend on you to help them.
‘A couple of the volunteers got sunstroke so it was difficult looking after them as well as myself.’
But she says it was a hugely rewarding trip.
‘My time living in Nicaragua was challenging, exhausting but hugely rewarding,’ she says.
‘I learnt a lot about another culture and the real impact of poverty on ordinary people every day. The conditions that others live in are quite remarkable and it never ceases to amaze me how much we take for granted in the developed world.
‘I gained confidence in my Spanish skills and I have a new perspective on leadership and management.
‘But more than anything I know I made a difference to the lives of the members of the community – and probably my volunteers too – and that difference will last a lifetime for us all.’