<bt>Nicaragua isn't usually on one's mind as a family vacation destination. Yet this past April, at the urging of her cousin who works in international relief, Vienna resident Leslie Barry, along with her husband, their two children, her parents, her sister and two nieces, went to the Nicaraguan countryside, to Las Conchitas, to help build three homes for the community's poorest families.
Although the visit was short, the family's next question after returning is not if they'll go back, but when.
"It was wonderful. It felt so phenomenal to be able to go down there, although we were there for only one week. To radically enhance one's life in a short amount of time," Leslie Barry said.
Nine members of the Barry family descended on the Nicaraguan countryside last April as part of a 35-member team building houses with Bridges for Community, a New York-based organization, which her cousin founded. Although their main objective in being in Nicaragua was to build three houses for the impoverished community there, the team members received in turn memorable insights from the trip: They experienced the hospitality and gratitude of the people they served, and the trip also reminded them to be grateful for the wealth and opportunities they have in Northern Virginia.
"It was pretty cool because you got to help a lot of people," said Bobby Barry, 13, a rising eighth-grader at Thoreau Middle School. "Everything was just a highlight. Working with the people, working on the houses was fun, too."
FOR ABOUT a year, the Barry family had planned to go to Nicaragua, ever since Bridges for Community established an outpost outside Masaya, a city south of the capital, Managua. The Northern Virginia contingent grew from the Barry family to include her parents, McLean residents John and Barbara Adams; her niece, Alexandria resident Megan Miller; and her sister Julie Buchanan and daughter Chloe, who live in Richmond.
"It was quite a week," said John Adams. "The part I enjoyed was to have my grandchildren experience firsthand the poverty of Latin America and get the joy of helping these people out. ... It's an experience that those four grandchildren will never forget."
Along with several other families from an affluent community outside New York City, the Barrys stayed in Las Conchitas for a week, working on houses by day and sleeping in the community's schoolhouse by night.
The house that the Barrys were in charge of was for a single mother and her four daughters. That family had been living in a small squatter's hut made up of scraps of various kinds.
"It was pieced together with whatever they could find to make some kind of shelter," Leslie Barry said.
The goal for the Barrys was to build a new house for the family, with Bridges for Community giving half of the house as a gift, and the Nicaraguan family paying for the other half of the housing costs through a mortgage, with that money going back eventually to help build more houses.
The house the Barrys built was a 15-foot-by-18-foot concrete blockhouse. Since the house was located in an earthquake and hurricane zone, it had to be constructed with 800 yards of steel reinforcement. It had high ceilings, a tile floor, and doors and windows. The Barrys didn’t have to worry about installing plumbing, because no indoor plumbing was available where the family lived.
"To us, it's like a large bedroom," Leslie Barry said. "To them, it's a palace."
Although members of the Barry family were charged with the building of the house, they weren't the only ones who constructed it. Two local builders helped them, while other members of the community, including those from neighboring areas, volunteered as labor.
"Everybody interchanged," said Adams. "I did a lot of shoveling and mixing of cement. My wife and I did a lot of laying of cinder block. It was a lot of hard work."
"It was fun seeing my mother shoveling cement," Leslie Barry said.
AT NIGHT, the Barrys stayed in a schoolhouse, on cots covered with mosquito nets. Yet that wasn't the only cross-cultural experience they had. They needed to get used to sleeping with animals around them. On the first night, they heard a rooster crowing at midnight, and all they could do was laugh.
When they felt dirty, they took bucket showers, and when they were hungry, two local women cooked the meals.
"There was lots of beans and rice," Leslie Barry said.
When the Barrys weren’t building the house, they explored the countryside. Since they arrived during Holy Week and around Easter, they took in some local celebrations. They also visited an orphanage and climbed a volcano, and the children played with the neighborhood children at the schoolhouse's playground and basketball court.
"It was cool. It was kind of hard in another country, because they didn't speak a lot of English," said Krista Barry, 10, a rising sixth-grader at Freedom Hill Elementary.
In addition to taking themselves, the Barry family took some souvenirs from the United States. Krista and a friend combed out the hair of their Barbies so that they could give them to the girls there, and Barry's employer, Computer Associates, gave them 50 T-shirts.
While the Barry family helped fund its trip to Nicaragua, Leslie Barry, who works as a business development director out of Computer Associates' Herndon office, got a two-for-one matching contribution from her company for her trip. Because her co-workers knew about what she was doing, Barry was also recently given the Distinguished Corporate Citizenship Award at her firm, which gives $1,000 to an organization of her choice.
The Barry family intends to take similar trips in the future, because the rewards are great. Leslie Barry is even encouraging her co-workers to come. When the house was finished at the end of the week, not one dry eye was seen, said Barry, recalling the gratitude expressed on the mother's face.
"Quoting my father, 'It's not how much you get in life, it's what you give,'" Leslie Barry said.