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Mary Harp-Jirschele ’76 (right) traveled to Nicaragua with other members of the Volunteer Optometric Service to Humanity group. Among the volunteers was her sister, Marcy Voss (left).

Two Pathways to Service Intersect in Nicaragua

As Mary Harp-Jirschele ’76 prepared to enter the Nicaraguan rain forest with a mission group from the Fox Valley, little did she know another group just completing two weeks with the people of El Ayote included a quartet of current St. Norbert College students.

“I didn’t know there were any St. Norbert students in the group until we were at dinner together that night,” Harp-Jirschele recalls. “As they stood up and introduced themselves, I wanted to jump out of my chair and say, ‘I’m from St. Norbert, too!’ ”

In a stroke of coincidence, the students participating in a spring break TRIPS mission were part of a 20-member Fox Valley mission group that was exiting the Central American nation at the same time as the eye-care volunteers of Volunteer Optometric Service to Humanity were arriving.

“We had a really good time and it was awesome to see another group from the U.S., specifically Wisconsin, coming to help the village,” says Jordan Vrubley ’13, who served as one of the trip leaders for the St. Norbert contingent.

The common denominator between the two groups was Father Glenn Gessner, formerly a priest at St. Clement Parish in Sheboygan, Wis.

“Thank goodness for Father Glenn,” Harp-Jirschele says. “He has parishes throughout that region, so he can get the word out that the eyeglass people are coming this week and schedule them so they don’t show up all at one time. Some places we go, the priest isn’t that organized.

“This little village never sees that kind of attention because of its distance from the city, so it was very special for everyone involved. This was one of those memorable, small-world experiences, to see the St. Norbert students.”

TRIPS break option
TRIPS (Turning Responsibility into Powerful Service) is an alternative break service program that gives students the opportunity to put into action their values, convictions and religious beliefs through service.

This year’s trip stretched from Jan. 4 through Jan. 19, and it was the second to El Ayote for Vrubley. He noticed a perceptible morale improvement with the area’s residents compared to a year ago.

“When we come in on that bus through town, they all know it’s the bus holding people from America,” he says. “We can see it on their faces how much they truly enjoy this contact with us. They have to touch our skin because some have never seen white people before. They ask about our families, what we do and how much money we make. It’s interesting to see that.”

Visitors stay in a large room divided into sections the students refer to as dorms. They have bunk beds with sheets and blankets but no air conditioning. This year’s visit featured temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.

The difference in standard of living was not lost on Vrubley.

“We think, ‘How do they live every day without a running shower, a washer or dryer?’ But that’s what they’re used to and they’re happy with that,” Vrubley observes. “We reflect on that when we get back to the U.S.”

Experiences for a lifetime
Even so, the accommodations were “plush” compared to the dirt floors and Spartan conditions Harp-Jirschele has experienced on previous trips.

Despite the fact that Harp-Jirschele journeys to Nicaragua on a regular basis, she never tires of seeing the gratitude of the people.

“When you put a pair of glasses on a person who has never seen clearly before, you want to sit down and cry with them,” she says. “And when you prepare a meal with your heart and your hands and look the person in the eye when you serve it to them, it warms your heart and their soul.”

Harp-Jirschele recalls her spring break trip to Florida during her college days and respects the St. Norbert students who choose the challenge of taking a mission trip instead.

“I know the experience they had was truly remarkable and something most college students don’t have,” she says. “These students were doing something that will change their lives forever.”

April 2, 2013