For New Haven students, a trip to Nicaraguan sister city Leon brings new perspective

By Brian Zahn, New Haven Register


NEW HAVEN >> After traveling a distance of more than 2,000 miles, a group of Elm City high school students came to see a strong resemblance between New Haven and its sister city, León, Nicaragua.

High School in the Community students Jenna McKechnie, Sean Nelson and Jasalay Mercado said their trip last month, which was organized through the New Haven/León Sister City Project, was eye-opening. On Monday, the students shared details of their trip with Mayor Toni Harp.

Nelson, a junior, said he was surprised to see the difference between what poverty means in the second-poorest Latin American country and what it means locally in New Haven.

“It’s important to have NGOs in Nicaragua and other developing countries,” he said, a reference to non-governmental organizations.

The country, he said, has poverty and inequitable access to education.

These types of lessons fit into HSC’s broader theme around social justice, said building leader Matt Brown.

McKechnie, a senior, said even clean air, water and shoes are not a given in Nicaragua. Her mother, parent chaperone Patricia McKechnie, said there was always a faint smell of smoke in the air as native Nicaraguans must boil water to kill bacteria.

Chris Schweitzer, program director for the NH/LSCP, said the purpose of the program is to deepen the understanding of city residents of life in Nicaragua.

“It’s a great way for students to understand how the world works, to see how they live, how they create schools and programs,” he said. “Our primary mission is helping people understand the realities, but it’s still about Nicaraguans making their world better.”

According to NH/LSCP, since its founding in 1984, more than 1,200 people have made the trip to Nicaragua to do construction and beautification projects and interact with people from Nicaragua.

The students and chaperones all took on their own small projects with young children in the rural Goyena community on the outskirts of León; Patricia McKechnie made lunch bag puppets for the children, Jenna McKechnie did finger painting, and Mercado did yoga.

For the young children, Mercado said, that constituted mostly stretching exercises. However, when older children joined them, they showed an enthusiasm and endurance that surprised her, with the session going for about 30 minutes in the hot weather.

Teacher Jill Savitt, who helped organize the trip, said there is continuity between New Haven and León, meaning people who live in Goyena are more familiar with the culture of New Haven than Americans might expect.