Students gain insight from sustainable development projects in Central America

<p>Community members of El Naranjo and the Public Health Brigades from Ball State, IUPUI and Cincinnati University worked together to create sanitary infrastructures May 7-13. Photo by Brianna Lisak</p>

Community members of El Naranjo and the Public Health Brigades from Ball State, IUPUI and Cincinnati University worked together to create sanitary infrastructures May 7-13. Photo by Brianna Lisak

On a sunny May afternoon, Brianna Lisak and a group of Ball State students walked through Augusto C. Sandino International Airport, searching for people wearing purple T-shirts with Global Brigades logos on the front.

Lisak, a senior social studies education major and campus chairwoman of Global Brigades at Ball State, said the students had arrived at Managua, Nicaragua, to work with Global Brigades, an international nonprofit that empowers communities to meet their health and economic goals through university volunteers and teams.

She said the staff counted 10 students and directed them toward the Global Brigades bus outside in the hot, humid weather. They shared slices of pepperoni and pineapple pizza during the 90 minute drive to their lodging in Estelimar.

This past academic year, a total of 18 students from the Global Brigades chapter at Ball State sold Buena Vida Coffee, Pulseras and Pura Vida bracelets to fundraise money for the program and airfare costs. The raised funds allowed students to spend one week building sanitary infrastructure and sustainable agriculture projects in underdeveloped communities.

The Public Health Brigade worked with the community in El Naranjo, Nicaragua, and the Environmental Brigade worked with the community in Ipeti Embera, Panama. Despite the different locations, both brigades had one unifying goal: improve the quality of life for all.

Building community

Before boarding the plane at the Indianapolis International Airport, Lisak said she left Indiana with an open mind.

“You always kinda go into brigades not knowing exactly what to expect,” Lisak said. “The biggest thing was trying to come in with an open mind and just being more flexible than I typically am.”

Lisak looked forward to working with the El Naranjo community and the Public Health Brigades of Ball State, IUPUI and University of Cincinnati. The brigades, local masons and multiple families worked together on two family houses.

“The greatest thing about GB is that you’re working with the people, not for them,” Lisak said.

The brigades worked to give each house a cement floor to prevent chagas disease, and a sanitation station, which consists of an eco-latrine, shower and sink.

“We had a little squad of five people who were cement mixers," Lisak said. "We had six buckets of sand, one bucket of gravel and then one bag of cement powder–that was for each batch. We ended up doing probably about 12 batches of that to do the whole floor.”


The Public Health Brigades in Nicaragua built two cement floors and two sanitation stations, which include an eco-latrine (above), shower and sink.

In addition to the community projects, students went to family homes to present charlas (Spanish for "chats") that educate parents and children about waste management, personal hygiene, how to prevent the spread of disease and dental hygiene.

“We had a song for the kids about washing their hands, which was really cute,” Lisak said. “We also did [a presentation] about the transfer of germs and the ways that you can prevent the spread of disease and have a healthier community.”

Derek Tepe, a senior natural resources and environmental management major and president of the Public Health Brigade at Ball State, said in addition to Global Brigades’ holistic model approach to sustainable development and emphasis on cultural exchange, the organization’s main goal is to empower communities for the best quality of life.

“Empowerment is the enabling of communities and individuals to lead their own development in a sense that they kind of dictate what path they want to go on. The power is in their hands,” Tepe said.

Stewards of the land

While the Public Health Brigades worked on sanitation projects in Nicaragua, the Environmental Brigade worked in tropical Panama where they planted plantains, corn and cassava. Brigaders also constructed a rock barrier to prevent erosion on the path leading to the tilapia pond, and educated the indigenous Ipeti Embera community on sustainable composting techniques and waste management.

For Jack Fisher, a sophomore speech pathology major and vice president of marketing and social media for Ball State's Global Brigades, the Environmental Brigade in Panama was his first experience out of the country. In the beginning of the Environmental Brigade, Fisher knew that the group’s work with the community had an impact, however, it was not until the end of the week that he felt rewarded for the work the brigade was doing.

“At the end of the last day, I looked out over the field that we had everything planted in and it just kind of took my breath away,” Fisher said. “It just hit me all at once like ‘wow, we transformed this from, you know, nothing to this farm in three days.’”


Ball State Environmental Brigade members or "Team Corn" plant maize with Ipeti Embera community members in Panama.

The environment in the Ipeti Embera community is currently threatened by both external forces in the region at large and internal unsustainable cultural norms that result from lack of education. Toward the end of the brigade, students presented "charlas" to the Environmental Committee regarding sustainable planting techniques to nourish their dry soil.

“Our main goal with the charla was to teach [the community] sustainable techniques by using the rock barriers and using the compost instead of slashing and burning crops,” Fisher said.

Brigaders worked alongside the Environmental Committee and delivered an educational workshop on their last day about how to maintain the different components of the Model Farm after the brigade left.

“It was different for the Environmental group because [other brigades] see the impact right away or really soon, but ours takes place over time,” Fisher said. “We got to see a small transformation at the farm, but we didn’t really get to see the impact of the corn and the other vegetables and fruit in the community.”


Aside from traveler's constipation and some motion sickness while driving through mountains, the brigaders said the physical challenges of the projects in each community were rewarding.

“I think one of the biggest things on a brigade is just everyone keeping a good attitude and trying to remember what you’re there for – even if it’s hot, even if you need to reapply sunscreen every half an hour and you might get burnt – you’re doing something awesome,” Lisak said.

Brigaders also saw the effects of disease and economic instability. During a Public Health charla in one family’s home, Tepe met Alexander, an 11-year-old boy with severe meningitis. The illness has disabled him from moving his limbs, talking, hearing or seeing. In addition to the medically treatable illness, Alexander experiences consistent pneumonia.

“It was particularly sad because we knew there’s still not much that can be done, mostly because the medical attention required would be way too much for the family,” Tepe said.

The Public Health Brigade was aware that families in underdeveloped communities have less access to adequate health care, however, their encounter with Alexander was the first time brigaders saw and understood the extent of public health issues in Central America.

“It was definitely challenging to walk away from that and not feel shaken by it,” Tepe said.


A Nicaraguan woman in the El Naranjo community stands next to a home. The top needs expressed in the community are for the construction of latrines or hygiene stations, increased number of brigades in the community and for the construction or reconstruction of houses.


Throughout the week-long brigades, students noticed more than just cultural differences. People's attitudes in Nicaragua and Panama seemed more optimistic compared to many in the U.S.

“Every time we would come into the community in a big bus full of brigaders, people would come out of their houses and wave and all the little kids would jump up and down,” Lisak said. “They always have a smile on their face, and you walk around here and people are moping around, so it’s just really interesting to see that and to see how little they have but also how much more they have at the same time.”

For many brigaders, returning home to their normal lives is difficult after a week of working with rural communities and learning from them.

“You just want to keep living there and helping these people,” Lisak said. “Once you see how the rest of the world lives, it definitely changes your perspective when you get home.”

For more information on Global Brigades at Ball State, contact Chairwoman, Brianna Lisak, at or visit the chapter’s Facebook page.


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