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Guest blogs from our volunteers.

Bossy’s (Bones and Saucy) guide to Fundraising

Written by volunteers Dreana and Brittany:

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Hello! I’m Dreana, aka Bones (a nickname given to me by my D2A family), and this is my third year fundraising for Dreams to Acts. Taking on the goal of fundraising $5,000 can seem overwhelming and downright terrifying. I’m hoping that this post can give you some ideas about how to approach fundraising so that it’s less daunting.

Hiya! Im Britt or Saucy :). I have been involved with Random Acts and volunteering with the Dreams to Acts project since 2014. Just like Dreana, this is my third year fundraising and I want to share some of the tips and tricks I’ve used over the past few years to make this campaign seem less intimidating. Reaching $5,000 is a little scary and a lot intimidating but with solid support from your fellow delegates and a belief in the project anyone can be successful!

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One interactive way to reach your fundraising goal is through specialty events. If you have a family friendly community and a local vendor to work with this may be a good option.

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My most successful event was as simple as a bowling day. I rented out four lanes for the event, was given two tables and access to the bowling alley PA system. Throughout this two hour event we raffled off gift baskets, gift cards to local businesses and restaurants, had 50/50 raffles and offered a door prize donated by the local Italian restaurant. We offered baked goods, creatively decorated to look like a Nicaraguan flag, gave out door prizes like Dreams to Acts bracelets and just walked around and talked about the project with anyone who would listen. I invited friends and family and spread the word using free marketing websites and drowning the local businesses in flyers. But even if you don’t have a lot of people you know attending the event, it can still be a success. On average only about 10% of the people I invited actually showed up. But because of my access to the PA system in the bowling alley and some awesome swag up for raffle, the event was a success raising over $1,500.

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My most successful event was a fundraiser that I held at a local restaurant. The restaurant donated a percentage of their sales from that night if the person handed them the coupon/flyer we had made up for the event. This was, admittedly, a labor-intensive event. I contacted local news stations, and secured a small interview promoting the event, contacted local businesses to receive donations that we put together into raffle baskets, left adverts in break rooms and lunchrooms of local businesses, etc. We ended up setting up a table at the entrance of the restaurant, where we had a raffle baskets as well as posters with information about Dreams to Acts, and I sat at the table talking to people and answering their questions for nearly eight hours. I also handed out information so that those who attended the event could follow my progress on Facebook, make future donations on Crowdrise, and stay up to date on how construction was going. In the end, this event raised well over $500.

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Not every event needs to be this elaborate, though! Throughout the process of fundraising, I hold several smaller scale events. Since I’m in grad school and working part time, many of these fundraisers are online events that I can participate in throughout the day/night by checking in on my phone. Are your friends or family into specific products like LuLaRoe, Perfectly Posh, Jamberry, Scentsy, etc? Find a consultant and ask about a fundraiser! My first ever fundraising event in March of 2015 was an online Jamberry fundraiser. Two years later, now with my mom as a consultant, a group of us who had fundraised for D2A: 2015 and/or 2016 hosted a joint Jamberry fundraiser. Don’t be afraid to reach out to consultants- this benefits them, too, because it brings in new customers and helps them to reach sales goals. This way, your donors also get something nice for themselves while helping you raise money, too. In some cases, they were already going to be doing the shopping, so they won’t even see it as you “asking for money”. Creative fundraising is all about finding ways to make donating less scary for the donor, whether that’s finding a way to receive donations from a purchase that they were already going to make, by giving them something in return for their donation, or by helping them truly connect with the project.

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Just like Dreana, I to do a lot of smaller fundraisers throughout the campaigns. This year I have worked with her and other delegates on an online jamberry fundraiser, we did a combined T-shirt campaign last year and we have worked closely together on multiple different projects. We even created a challenge similar to the ALS ice Bucket challenge and raised over $500.

At least once or twice a month I hold mini two hour fundraisers at my local grocery store. It is as easy as setting up a table out front of the store with pictures, Random Acts flyers and just talking about the project. This is a great way to raise awareness for the project in the community, and to meet new potential donors and volunteers. Generally the people who walk by the table are too busy or seem like they just don’t care, but if you know the project and are able to show your passion and commitment to it you will inspire them to be passionate about the project as well.

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So since there are so many people and organizations competing for attention it is really important to make your campaign unique. One way to do with is to offer fun or one of a kind incentives for donors. You could write them a poem, send them postcards or make them something special to remind them of the project they helped. One of the things I currently do and is the backbone of my 2017 campaign is, necklaces for Nicaragua. I collected earth, rock and discarded building materials from the Free High School on the first day of construction and each time since I have been back in Nicaragua. I use these materials to create custom jewellery and charms for my donors. Each donor receives a little piece of the school for them to carry with them. This allows them something tangible and meaningful from their donation and helps them to feel like they are really involved in the future of the school.
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This will be my third year fundraising for Dreams to Acts, so I like to delude myself into thinking that I’ve learned a few things along the way. First, it’s important to realize that this is probably not going to be a one time event. Sure, in theory, you could hold one HUGE fundraiser that will reach $5,000 or you could have a big enough social circle that asking all of your friends and family to chip in brings you up to $5,000 with or without events. It’s more likely, however, that you’ll have to ask people you know for donations multiple times (with breaks in between), reach out to strangers, and hold multiple fundraising events. Instead of trying to plan One Big Thing, focus on smaller scale projects that will generate interest.

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Try to put yourself in the place of your friends and family. If someone you knew was fundraising, what sort of activities, events, or rewards would make you more likely to contribute? I’ve had more success when I fundraise in ways that give the donors something in return for their donations. Donor rewards really do make a difference. For example, I brought back small souvenirs and cards from Nicaragua and I send these out to people who donate certain amounts so that they can have a physical reminder of Nicaragua. I know others have had success with handmade gifts for their donors. During my first year of fundraising, I would knit squares for Knit-A-Square for every $20 donated. If donors opted in to this, they could choose the color and pattern and I would knit the square and donate it in their honor. This gave them the chance to double their positive impact. Small things like this that motivate people to donate really do make a difference.

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The reality of fundraising

During what ended up being my most successful fundraising event, a man walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, and calmly asked, “Why should I care?” I spent nearly ten minutes explaining why Dreams to Acts is important, including personal stories from my first trip to Nicaragua, but I could see that I was not making much progress with him. At the end of our conversation, he said, “Well, it’s not my problem, is it?”, handed me a one dollar bill, and walked away. This is probably the hardest part of fundraising for me. Being told no when I ask for donations is tough, of course, but interacting with people who simply do not care is even harder. As fundraisers, part of our “job” is to convince people that our cause is worthy of their money. It’s important to be able to explain why the cause matters not only to the people being helped, but also why it should matter to the potential donor. It’s important to make a connection between this school in San Juan del Sur and the person you’re speaking with. This isn’t a foolproof method, though. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the person will not care.

As cliché as it sounds, fundraising $5,000 is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be days and weeks when everything goes right. These are the Good Days. Days when you receive multiple emails from Crowdrise, when an event goes even better than you had anticipated, when you reach a new milestone and feel invincible, days when you talk to a new person who seems to genuinely care about the project. You should definitely cherish these days when they happen, but keep in mind that not every day will be like this. There will also be Bad Days. Days when someone is rude to you, days or even weeks on end with no new donations no matter how hard you try to reach out to others, events that you pour your heart into planning and make little or even no donations from.

I don’t say this to discourage you from fundraising. Please do take the leap and try- I promise that it will be rewarding. I bring up the bad days because not many people talk about them, and I want you to know that this is not a reflection of your fundraising ability. There will be slow times. Not just plateaus, but lows. And these are the times when it’s important to take a step back.

This campaign is a big mountain to climb so don’t feel stressed or overwhelmed. As Random Acts founder stated, donor fatigue is real and something to be aware of, but so is fundraiser fatigue. I have fundraised for Dreams to Acts for three years running and each campaign I have found myself needing to step back, take a break and unplug from the project for a while.

And that’s ok.

You don’t have to hit 5k in a day, a week a month. You don’t have to have a successful event every week. Don’t feel bad if your campaign is moving slowly. No matter how much money or attention you raise for a project in a given day, week, or month, you have already made the project a success by caring at all.

Breathe. Don’t look at how far away you are from $5,000. Look at how much you’ve raised and focus on how much good that amount will do. You have already succeeded. You’ve already made a difference!

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2016 trip post from Rea Nießen

Written by volunteer Andrea Nießen:

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People sometimes ask me why I do what I do. Why I am spending my time off, my money to travel, and all my love on these projects for over 6 years now? And I always tell them the same: Because I experience with all my heart and soul that we are making an actual wonderful difference in people’s lives!

I just came home from my third trip to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua where we opened the first building of the campus for the Free High School we’ve been working on since 2015. Going back to the building site is always special, I love to witness my own reaction to all the progress and I love to see the faces of everybody who travels with me. This year it was even more special, because there it was, the first finished building, so beautiful, the first part of the school that shall provide not only education but hope and a means of fulfilling dreams too. This is one of the many reasons why being in San Juan del Sur is so wonderful: it makes everything we work for at home so real, the actual difference we all make together.

During the beautiful opening ceremony of the first building a day later we met many of the students, some of them already familiar faces, dear people whose stories touched us. I remember that on our way to the ceremony I thought, I will be fine, I will not cry at all, I am a Pro at openings and I did that before with the Jacmel Children’s Center we built in Haiti. When we arrived, the air was filled with excitement, with hope, with expectations, with the energy a group can create when they work together for something with all their hearts, regardless of whether it’s us working for a vision becoming reality or the students working for an education, for a better future. The best reward for volunteering and fundraising is to see the building you helped turn into reality, experiencing how the students fill it with life and their passion to learn. I still see myself quietly walking through the rooms while the building became what it is meant to be, the students in the first finished classrooms, laughing with each other, ready to study, already feeling belonging here, it was wonderful! It showed me that what we do here is so meaningful, how many hearts are hanging on that school and how many lives are touched deeply by it becoming reality. Against my expectations of being a “Pro” ;⁠) I felt very fast how much thinking about this all right there moved me to tears. I wish to bring this feeling home with me to all our supporters that were not physically there but in our hearts. They all make it possible for us to go there, to help with our own hands, to meet the students and to hear the stories of their lives. I wish that every donor can feel what an actual wonderful change they make as an important part of our team!

For the present and the future – there is still much to do. The first building may be finished and we opened it as the space to teach is so necessary. But our wish is to create a campus that meets at least some of the standards we have here. We definitely need more space; right now many of the 350 students are learning in tents. So the second building with more classrooms is a top priority. We also need a little storage space, a handicap bathroom, a social area, and we all carry the dream of a little daycare in our hearts. Our school shall bring education to people who would not have access to it otherwise. Some of them are young moms, right now they have to bring their kids into class. We wish to help them by providing a little day care on the campus so that they can concentrate on working for a better future, not only for them but for their children too. For this we will need more support until next year when we wish to be finished with the whole campus.

I just qualified for the next trip and am excited to see the whole vision become reality, to feel one more time how profound all our support is and to bring the love, the appreciation and experienced knowledge of what we all made happen back to you at home. We, the volunteers will be your bridge between your wonderful, needed support and the campus with its students in Nicaragua. Please help us with a donation if you can and feel how you become a part of something truly meaningful! And I hope to be able to be back with more experiences to share later…

Rea

Pre-trip new volunteer blog: Lorin DeBellis

Written by volunteer Lorin DeBellis:

Here I am only a few days away from making my first trip with Random Acts to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and I still can’t believe I’m going.

It was actually only in January of this year that I learned of RA and the various programs they organize, and in 6 months my involvement with the organization feels like it’s gone from 0 to 60. I had been thinking rather introspectively going into the new year, as a lot of us do, trying to find that thing in life that would give me focus and maybe even bump 2016 up to the top of my “Best Years Ever” list. I’d had a surface level recognition of the non-profit but it wasn’t until I started seeing tweets about people fundraising for a dreams2acts trip and youtube began recommending construction update videos with Austin Drill that I took the time to tune in and learn what all this was about. What I found, opened a door I didn’t even realize was ever shut.

Seeing the updates from construction staff, members of the SJdS community, and the volunteers themselves was nothing short of inspiring. This project was calling to me with every snippet of volunteers passionately speaking about this project and by the time I decided to start fundraising and join the team I was hooked. These testimonials had opened my eyes to the fact that helping others doesn’t have to be something reserved for those with deep pockets and long lists of connections. Every bit helped and anyone could do it if they set their mind to it.

Sure I had joined social change movements in college but never before had I tried to take on a challenge of this size. $5k is a lot of money to try to raise especially when you don’t have any experience to show to potential donors what you’re capable of doing. I’ll admit, I struggled, a lot, and there were days when I thought “How can I actually reach this goal. It’s impossible.” but as I began speaking online with some of the other volunteers who had been on previous trips I realized two important things.

The first was that if I continued with the mindset that this fundraising goal was impossible to achieve it would be. One of the most successful ways I found to get others interested in helping the project was to talk to them about it.  And when you decide you’ve found a cause worth aiding, your natural enthusiasm, compassion and drive for that goal will shine through. If seeing these other women talking so passionately about the work they had done on the previous SJdS trip was enough to motivate me to try harder, then I could only hope some of that motivation seeped into my own words as I spoke to others. I guess it’s safe to say it did.

And second, there is no losing in fundraising for charity. Sure, when you set a goal and you’re working on a deadline to reach that goal, coming up short may seem like a failure. But here I had to keep in mind that regardless of how much money I fundraised, that was all still going to help build sometime lasting in a community that needed it. So whether you raise $5, $500 or $5,000 you’re getting up and making a difference for something you believe is worth it. There’s no possible way to look at that with defeat.

So with those two things in mind I set out to talk to every person, I mean EVERY PERSON,  I could find and now, 2 months later I’m procrastinating packing my suitcase by writing this blog post.

I surely can’t begin to guess the impact this next week is going to have on me but I can’t imagine I’ll come home exactly as I left. I’m about to meet a whole bunch of those inspiring people in person, as well as a whole community of people I’ve heard amazing things about. And in the end knowing that I’ve at least already helped ensure the success of this project is enough. So, with that I’m sure I”ll have more to say as the week goes on, but for now, I guess I better go pack.

Pre-trip new volunteer blog: Angela Nevin

Written by volunteer Angela Nevin: 

I have been a participant and follower of Random Acts for quite some time.  I drive a little yellow Mini Cooper that I regularly turn into a mobile message board working to make little changes mean big things. 

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I love the stares, honks, and thumbs up that I get when driving around Denver. When I saw the posting for the Dreams to Act trip earlier this year, I knew I needed to make every effort to play with the team – it is the perfect mix of the key pieces of my life.

GIVE: I was raised by a family of giving people and taught to put others before myself. Add to that the fact that my family is slightly off-kilter (in a good way), and Random Acts became the perfect charity for me – one that encourages odd-ball behavior to the benefit of others. Mostly, I have found that through Random Acts I can participate in charitable actions and events without feeling the need to be a big money supporter – it’s the acts, not the money that makes the difference.

BUILD: I also inherited my dad and grandpa’s love for building.  My dad taught me early how to swing a hammer, replace old pipes, and safely use power tools. (I’m a better plumber than cook..) As an artist, I work with ordinary items and repurpose them into art and beauty. (Give me a torch and Dremel and the hours fly by.)  I love to build things, rig things, and just plain make things up. I fix, I tinker, I create, I design. I have cunning plans and harebrained schemes. I am happiest covered in sawdust, dirt, or dust – making something beautiful or useful out of trash. I have fond memories from childhood of my grandpa looking at the thumb I had just bashed with a hammer and saying (in a Minnesota Swede accent), “Oh that’ll be a good one.”

TEACH: I am a teacher.  I started out as a special education teacher, building a program for middle school kids with severe and profound needs.  When I left teaching for the corporate world, I continued to volunteer as an autism teacher, a Special Olympics coach, and work with a myriad of other education based programs.

GIFT: My 49th birthday is the 4th of July, When I saw the trip was from the 1st to the 8th of July, I knew the gift I wanted this year was to join the team going to Nicaragua. This became the basis for my fundraising efforts – I asked my friends, family, and strangers, to help me make a birthday gift out of raising funds to build a school – and they did, in a big way. My donations came through Facebook connections to former and current students, high school and college classmates, friends far and wide, and family members I am close to as well as some I haven’t seen (or talked to) in many years.  I rebuilt connections and made new ones – an unexpected side effect from working to raise funds.

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All this brings us to this week – getting ready to head to Nicaragua and tie all these elements together.  I am excited, scared, thrilled, and hesitant. I am an outgoing and vibrant person, but also reluctant to meet new people. This is a big risk for me – putting myself out there with people I don’t know. I have a terrible memory for names and am always afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.  But this charity is one that embraces everyone with open arms regardless of their shortcomings. The weird and wild find a home with the geek and eccentric. I know I will find family and friends among those that are currently strangers.  I trust and believe that this will be one of the best birthday gifts I could have received… ever.

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Pre-trip returning volunteer blog: Deidre Slingerland

Written by volunteer Deidre Slingerland:

It’s almost here! In just a few short days, I will find myself again making the journey to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua with Random Acts.

But why? One could argue that I am simply a fan of the organization as a whole. This wouldn’t be untrue. Also, I was a part of the final Hope 2 Haiti trip in 2013. That did in fact play a large role in why I decided to fundraise last year when RA rolled out with Dreams 2 Acts. I was successful in that venture, and joined the team in SJdS in November 2015. But the biggest factor? It’s the fact that what I saw last year surprised me. I expected to be completely taken in with the students of the Free High School. I expected to be floored by their determination, humbled by their kindness, and inspired by their hard work. All of these expectations were indeed met and exceeded. What I did not expect was to be utterly blown away by the workers at the construction site.

You see, Random Acts does things differently than many other organizations. A lot of service projects send their own volunteers to complete the work itself. With RA, we are instead helping to employ local people to do the labor. Yes, during our week in SJdS, we sanded, we mixed cement, we dug, we bent metal, we painted… the list goes on. And I’m proud of it. I’m proud to look at the building that is taking such beautiful shape and know that I had a hand in that. However, I was there one week. The construction team is there year-round. And they are incredible! I truly have not been able to stop talking about them since I returned home.

One thing you should know about the workers is that some of them are also students of the very school they are building. This project is personal in a way that is hard to match. The love that they are pouring into this is palpable. They are skilled and take such care. I had no problem returning home and fundraising a second time because I knew that every dollar raised would go to such good use. It’s easy to go door to door in the snow when you know that your efforts help a dedicated worker to feed their family.

Second, they are so patient! I fully own the fact that patience is something that I personally struggle with. Not this group! I often think back on the day I was being taught how to properly bend metal. Let me tell you—it was not one of my strengths! Everyone on that site was so patient, not only with my lack of skill but in regards to the language barrier as well. I never felt like anything less than a part of the team, and I will always be forever grateful for their kindness.

So… I decided to raise money again this year. To be honest, it wasn’t even about making the trip as much as it was seeing to it that the Free High School received the funds that it needed. It was about education. It was about ambition. It was about hard work. It was about love. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that our purpose on this planet is to lift one another up. We are here to support and to encourage. I cannot adequately express how supported and encouraged I felt last year in SJdS. I fundraised this year to give just a little bit of that back.

That brings us to now. Here I am. I made it. On Friday, I’ll be back in Nicaragua. I cannot wait to see the construction site. I am so eager to get my hands dirty again in this project that means so much. With each passing video update from Austin, my anticipation has grown. I am beyond excited and honored to again be working side by side with this group that I admire so much. ¡Vamos a Nicaragua!

Nicaragua Volunteer Perspective: Taylor Hardman

Written by volunteer Taylor Hardman:

It has been nearly two months since we left Nicaragua, and yet, I’m still clinging to the experience. I was still living out of my suitcase up until two weeks ago. I still carry Nicaraguan Cordobas around in my wallet as if there was somehow any possibility of being able to spend them here in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

I am in what I would call “Denial with a capital D”. Because despite a loving family and a comfortable existence here in America, I would pack up and move to Nicaragua in a heartbeat, and I am sure I am not the only team member who feels this way.

When I was fundraising for this trip, I refused to allow myself to believe that I would not make it. I believed so strongly in what Random Acts was doing in Nicaragua, I would not allow myself to be left behind. I discovered Random Acts just as fundraising for the third and final Haiti trip was wrapping up, too late for me to join. I watched from afar all of the wonderful things that Random Acts achieved in Haiti and knew, even all those years ago, that I would not let another trip pass me by. I think many of the volunteers will agree with me when I say that fundraising the $5,000 to be able to go on this trip, it’s no cakewalk. It’s one of the most difficult fundraising endeavours I have ever attempted. But it meant telling every single person I encountered in the 6 months I was fundraising about this incredible project I was a part of. By the time that I left for Nicaragua, every single person in my life knew exactly why I was taking time off work, off school, because I had spent the last six months talking their ear off about this project, making them believe in it as much as I did. That’s what it takes.

Nicaragua changed everything about the way that I look at the world. I left Seattle on day one foolishly hoping that I would be able to help make a positive change in the community of San Juan del Sur by participating in this project. I should have known then, how much San Juan del Sur would change me instead. How much it would change my perception of kindness, how much I took everything that I have for granted. You do not truly appreciate an unlimited supply of clean, drinkable water—easily accessible from a tap—until you have to purify every drop you can drink. You don’t realize how easy it is to pursue education, even despite the rising cost of university, until you see how far people have traveled and how much they have sacrificed just to attend high school. How long many have had to wait for even the opportunity.

Nicaragua has one of the largest wealth distribution gaps in the western hemisphere. I had seen this before in other countries, on other aid trips, but nevermore has that fact hit me so hard as when I was working in the rural community outside of San Juan del Sur. I was a part of the team building bio-sand water filters so that the people of the community could have a source of clean drinking water. While we were there, we saw the well where they would normally retrieve their water from, not much more than a deep hole in the ground filled with murky water. As I stood there, holding part of the piping contraption that would turn this water into something drinkable, I received a text message.

Let me tell you how it feels to be holding evidence of a lack of ability to provide clean water to the people, and receive a text message, proof of at least a decently complex cellular infrastructure fairly far away from the main city. It burns away at your insides. Yes, on the news, you hear all the time about clean drinking water being a problem in many parts of the world. Always, it seems like it’s happening a world away, as long as it doesn’t affect ‘ME’, it’s easy to file away and not think about it while you eat Taco Bell and enjoy the free Wifi. There, in a small ditch on the side of the road in Nicaragua, I finally understood. Somehow, cellular service had become either more important or easier to provide than the most basic needs of the poor. It both broke my heart and strengthened my resolve. While I can’t do a lot about creating the infrastructure necessary in the government to make sure the basic needs of these people are met, I can care. I can keep going back, keep helping them to build, keep fundraising to both raise awareness and provide support that their infrastructure hasn’t been able to. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what this community needs, but we have to start somewhere.

I’ll be going back to Nicaragua next year. I know this not because I’ve already raised the qualifying money or anything, but because I refuse to allow myself to fail. Which is probably one of the biggest changes Nicaragua has made to me personally. It’s given me the fire and drive to refuse to allow myself to fail. Sure, there will be stumbling blocks along the way, there always are. But I’m not going to let this community down that I’ve grown to care for so deeply. I’m not saying it won’t be difficult. Getting the general public to care about something happening a long way from here is sometimes like pulling teeth. Other times it can be the most rewarding experience you will ever find.

In Nicaragua, we didn’t like to talk about leaving, because it made us sad to know that soon, we would have to leave this community that we loved, and we would have to leave each other, these sisters we had bonded with so quickly. Instead of talking about leaving we would say “Wombat”. So, until next year rolls around, I’ll be here, still telling everybody I know about this project.

I refuse to wombat.

-Taylor

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Nicaragua Volunteer Perspective: Taylor Kauffman

Written by volunteer Taylor Kauffman:

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When people ask me how the trip was I respond with something along the lines of “awesome,” “amazing,” “one of the best experiences of my life”, all of which are true but none fully encompass the way I feel. In fact, it took me so long to write this because I had so many thoughts swirling around in my head, I couldn’t decide which to write about. So, in an attempt to organize my whirlwind of feelings, I figured I’d just start from the beginning:

I found out about the Dreams 2 Acts campaign about two months before the contest deadline. Though the odds were not in my favor, I’ve always loved a challenge and, more importantly, the story of The Free High School really inspired me. So I decided to fundraise. I won’t bore you with the details of my efforts, so long story short, I failed to reach my $5,000 goal. I was terribly disappointed, but satisfied knowing the money I raised was going to a great cause.

To my pleasant surprise, several weeks later I received a notification that I had won the raffle and was welcome to attend the Nicaragua trip in November. I was so excited, not just for the adventure of travel, but because I would meet all of the super cool people who had been involved in D2A (both the recipients of its efforts and those who contributed to it). I expected to see some fascinating things, but I never expected the depth of experience the trip would provide. It left me with an appreciation for a different way of life and a realization of the blessings I have in my own.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip was working on the construction of the new campus. There I was, all 5’1” of me, up on the scaffolding, bending metal, welding iron… I can continue but I won’t. Looking back at the photos I quickly realized I felt much cooler than I actually looked. But whether or not my metalwork technique could make the cover of Construction Weekly, it felt amazing to see an idea turning into something tangible, and to know that I was playing a part in that (however small a part it was).

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Working on the campus was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. But another thing that really resonated with me was meeting the people of San Juan del Sur. Before the trip, I didn’t have many preconceptions of what it would be like, but what I experienced was beyond anything I had imagined. The locals were some of the most welcoming, compassionate and hardworking individuals I have encountered. I remember one day in the rural communities a little girl, about six years old, grabbed my finger and dragged me around her house, showing me anything and everything in sight. Though her house was made only of thin strips of wood, corrugated metal sheets, and a large tarp, she was proud to call this place her home. And through her eyes I could see the beauty in it too. Her family had worked hard for what they had and that was something to be proud of. As cliché as it sounds, seeing this reminded me that the most important things in life are the people in it. And thanks to this trip I now have 32 more amazing people in my life.

Another thing that sticks out in my mind is the work ethic of everyone we met. One afternoon, using my broken Spanish, I spoke with a professor and some students of The Free High School. We started out with the basics: favorite school subjects, sports, music, etc. I learned some new things but we also had a lot in common and that was really cool. Then we began talking about Dreams 2 Acts. Suddenly, one of the students who been quiet all afternoon looked up. Still entertaining the young infant seated on her lap, she turned to me and said, “we know we are not entitled to the things we currently lack and we don’t expect them to be handed to us. All we ask for is access to the resources that will enable us to better our own futures. This is what you are doing, so thank you.” I didn’t know what to say (or frankly, how to express what I wanted to say in Spanish), so we just smiled. Hopefully one day I will get the opportunity to tell her how much her and her classmates’ stories inspired me. Education is something I always took for granted, and hearing how these students struggle to take care their families and work four jobs during the week all so they can spend their weekends in a desk… I can honestly say I no longer think lightly of the opportunities I have been given.

There are a lot of articles on the Internet that comment negatively about international service workers. They rant about how volunteers go, take photos of themselves, and leave having never done anything to truly impact those they were sent to help. I can say for a fact this was not the case for D2A. Yes, selfies were taken, and I know my presence was by no means life changing for any of the people we met. But this experience allowed me to put a face to a name, to be able to truly know the people we had been working so hard to assist. Now that I have, I want to take my experiences and spread their stories in hope that others may become as inspired as I have, and help us continue to help the people of SJDS get the resources they not only need, but also deserve.

I could have never imagined all that this trip would be. The volunteers and staff are a truly extraordinary group of people. The 32 of us: strangers (well, at least at first) from multiple countries and different walks of life coming together to help others. The atmosphere was amazing. What’s more, meeting the people of SJDS made me even more proud to say I played a part – however small – in bringing this dream to fruition. I am incredibly honored to have been given the opportunity to work with everyone involved in Dreams 2 Acts; there isn’t a better group out there and I look forward to keeping them all in my life for years to come. Though this leg of the D2A campaign has come to a close, I know there is much left to do and I can’t wait for whatever comes next. Until next time (hopefully) “¡Si se puede!”

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Nicaragua Volunteer Perspective: Andrea Nießen

Written by volunteer Andrea Nießen:

As a former volunteer and fundraiser for Random Acts’ Hope2Haiti project, I went on this first Nicaragua trip with some expectations, curious about how the projects would differ or where they would be similar. Honestly before the trip I thought that no amazing cause would catch me again in the same emotional way as the orphanage project in Haiti did. I knew the new project was incredibly important, but a part of me could not believe that it would make the same deep emotional impact on me… I was seriously wrong! ;⁠)

rea1As we travelled to Nicaragua and spent our time there we all felt immediately that it was a special and very important difference we were making and how incredibly much this was appreciated by the people of San Juan del Sur. Here in Germany, where I live, people take going to school for granted. The kids and young adults we met in Nicaragua see it as a privilege; education as their way out of poverty.

Some years ago Random Acts raised money for a school bus and already this bus means so much to the students over there. One girl told us that before they got the school bus it was often not possible to be in school for the whole amount of time, they mostly could only arrive late and had to leave before school finished because they had to start on their way back home. Now with the bus it is possible to stay at school for the whole day of lessons. It was touching to see how much that meant to her and how thankful she was. I remember that I donated a few dollars back then for the bus project, but with other people doing the same we created a huge difference in her and in other students’ lives. It leads me back to one of the reasons why I started to volunteer. I have always believed that those of us with financial security can achieve so much by being generous to others, especially when it comes to less wealthy countries. There is so much we can achieve together with our wonderful supporters!rea2

Speaking of our destination, Nicaragua is really beautiful. Aside from the work we did and the projects we visited we had time to enjoy and discover the country and connect with its people. Our team was amazing, we made friendships that will hopefully last for a very long time, and we made experiences that filled our hearts and soul.

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Volunteering is very fulfilling. I do this during my vacations from my job, and often people ask me why I don’t go on a usual holiday trip when I’m not going to work. My response is always that I do it because it gives me so much back. Fundraising is an amazing experience, but going to the place you raised money for, working on something with your own hands, getting a special bond to a project is incredible. You really FEEL that you make a difference. You all should try it. ;⁠)

To come to a conclusion: As Haiti did before – Nicaragua has a special place in my heart now. I hope I will be able to go back and see the finished campus, be able to show all our wonderful supporters at home what we all made happen together, and give them the feeling that they really made a difference. You all are such an important part of our work and we could not do it without you.

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Nicaragua Volunteer Perspective: Dreana Ferguson

Written by volunteer Dreana Ferguson:

On December 31, 2014, I tried to keep my list of New Year’s resolutions short and achievable. I wanted to try new knitting patterns and explore new recipes. I wanted to focus on being kinder and gentler. I wanted to spend more time volunteering in person since, at the time, most of my volunteering was done online. Then, I added a scarier resolution. This one was difficult to write down, because I knew it would be more challenging to follow through with. Living in fear of failure is no way to live, though, and 2015 was going to be the year I changed that. So, I wrote it down: Take more chances.

Fast-forward three months. Random Acts had recently started the Crowdrise page for Dreams to Acts, and I spent a few days staring at the “join the team” button. I knew that I wanted to help, but did I want to try fundraising? What if I sucked at fundraising and didn’t raise any money? In the end, I clicked the button for a combination of reasons. Access to education is incredibly important to me, I was already familiar with the work that Random Acts does and knew that I wanted to support this project in any way possible, and I remembered my resolution to take more chances.

My involvement with Dreams to Acts marked many firsts for me. It was my first time fundraising, my first time flying alone (and my second time flying, ever), my first time leaving the country (or leaving the eastern half of the United States, really), my first time actually using my rusty Spanish to try communicating, my first time welding…. There were many, many firsts.

From the very beginning, the project challenged me and helped me grow. Several people told me that this trip would be life changing. They were right, of course, but I don’t think they realized that the project had already changed my life long before I boarded that plane in Houston. I had spent eight months pouring my heart and soul into fundraising. That alone had taught me several life lessons. I had to overcome my anxiety and learn to reach out and ask for support, knowing that the answer would sometimes be “no.” I had to be creative and persistent and remain optimistic. It was difficult and terrifying, and I’m so glad that I took the chance and experienced it.

Even though I knew this would be one of those “life changing” experiences, nothing could have prepared me for how much my time in Nicaragua actually affected me. I brought my journal with me, expecting to write down every detail of every day. Instead, I was so busy living and learning that I never had time for detailed entries. I used bullet points to mark the most important parts of each day before I fell asleep. Here are some of the highlights:

Day One, November 20th

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I was surprised by how quickly I had bonded with the other volunteers. Although we had talked on Facebook, I had just met the majority of them in person for the first time in Houston. By the time we reached San Juan del Sur, I already considered them family and felt so incredibly lucky to be sharing this experience with them.

Day Two, November 21st

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We visited the current Free High School campus and were able to sit in on classes. Despite my embarrassingly rusty Spanish, Ferdinanda and I were able to work through her English homework together. She earned a 100% on it! It was so great to finally be able to meet Free High School students in person.

Day Three, November 22nd

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We visited the construction site for the first time! Austin Drill talked to us about the work so far, explained his plans for the upcoming months, and gave us a tour of the site. Seeing it all in person was overwhelming in the best way possible. This was it. This was the place we had all worked so hard to get to.

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In the afternoon, we visited the Barrio La Planta Project, where we played icebreaker games and went on a scavenger hunt with the kids. There was a lot of running involved. There was also a lot of fun involved, though, which made the running worth it.

Day Four, November 23rd

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Construction day! I learned that I am not so great at welding, or at bending metal into the squares pictured above. I am, however, very capable of sanding bricks, shoveling and screening dirt, and carrying full buckets from point A to point B. Being able to get my hands dirty and put physical labor into this project was so incredible. I loved every minute of it.

Day Five, November 24th

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We met with a representative from Project WOO (Wave of Optimism) and visited a health center that Austin built. It was so great to see one of his finished projects. Some of the comments he made during our initial tour of the construction site made more sense now that we could actually see what he meant. The health center was beautiful, and the visit made me even more excited about how amazing the new campus will be.

Day Six, November 25th

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This was my favorite day. My group visited a rural community to build EcoStoves and BioSand water filters.

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Oh, and a six year old girl named Vilma stole my phone, my hand, and my heart. She took over one hundred photos, mostly selfies of us and pictures of other volunteers, which she proudly showed off to others. She was fascinated by my old photos and videos, too. Her favorite was a video of my brother singing at his high school graduation.

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She was really upset when it was time for us to leave. I was, too.

Day Seven, November 26th

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I was thankful to spend Thanksgiving Day with an incredible group of people, working at the construction site. This was such a great day. It was amazing to see how much progress had been made on the new campus in such a short period of time.

Day Eight, November 27th

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This was a harder day. We said goodbye to San Juan del Sur and made the long bus ride back to Managua. We also said goodbye to Felix, the amazing man who had driven us everywhere in the bus. Watching the bus leave was more painful than I had anticipated.

Day Nine, November 28th

I was actually relieved when our flight was delayed because it meant spending a little more time with my D2A family.

“Are you excited to be home again?” My grandpa asked when I called to check in with him.

I wasn’t sure how to answer that. Yes, I was excited to see my friends and family again. But I was also already homesick for Nicaragua. I learned so much. I found new family members in my fellow volunteers. I had the time of my life putting physical work into building the campus I had spent so many months fundraising for. I visited amazing places and met incredible people. I was already beginning to try to figure out how to return to this place that I love so much.

I’m not so afraid of taking chances anymore.

Until next time, Nicaragua.

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You can also watch Dreana’s videos below:

Nicaragua Volunteer Perspective: Alicia Kim

Written by volunteer Alicia Kim:

More often than not, the attention surrounding a service trip focuses on the good being performed by its participants. This is, of course, natural and unsurprising, given that the trip’s objectives and accomplishments are what garner excitement about the cause and how it benefits the recipients. That being said, with each volunteer project I take part in, the more I realize that the experience brings just as much complementary good and value to my life.

Two months before Nicaragua, I was at a loss about whether I could join the team in San Juan del Sur as planned. My dad had been admitted to the hospital, which turned my world upside down overnight, and soon, my mom and I were devoting all of our waking hours to his care. However, a sudden event like this distills your priorities to the most important, and after weeks of contemplation, the list was narrowed to family, school, and service. I had been drawn to Dreams2Acts due to my passion for access to education, and I knew that I would regret not seeing the project’s progress firsthand. I’ll admit I was a nervous wreck, leaving the country during a time when things at home were up in the air. I was restless on the flight, biting my nails when I lost phone service, but in hindsight I can say with certainty that Dreams2Acts was worth it all – and more.

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What I had looked forward to the most on this trip was working at the Free High School construction site. Fundraising for the project was one thing, but pouring my own sweat into the building was a feeling unlike any other. Each metal piece I welded together had me picturing beams supporting the library, or the brand new computer room. The tiles I cut would be laid in a hallway; the brick walls we sanded providing shelter. Even though our team’s work is only a fraction of what the crew will do in the next few years, I still left a piece of my heart behind when we flew back to the States at the end of our trip.

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Being away from my real family also didn’t mean I found none in Nicaragua. In fact, I’m amazed by how I formed such incredible friendships on this trip. Two individuals stand out to me – sisters, really, whom I found through Dreams2Acts. At work sites, we were a sawing/welding/shoveling/hammering trio, and during downtimes, they were my rock, a sounding board for my personal concerns. They also made me laugh when I felt like I couldn’t smile again, were constantly inspirational and supportive. We even impressed our supervisor Don Felipe, to whom we promised we would come back next year.

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Dreams2Acts is so very special because it brings together those who might otherwise never meet and connect. This trip would not have been the same without the hugs, the conversations, the pairs of hands passing tools back and forth, mixing cement, tying wires, hauling large bricks up an unpaved hill. It was different personalities becoming a team and finding common ground in a cause very dear to our hearts. That kind of drive and positivity hold a lot of genuine power, and for that reason I believe the Free High School project will be successful until its completion.

Through this trip, I gained great friends, a family, beautiful memories. As much as I feel proud of the work that we did, the experience in return did me good in ways I had never expected. It both reaffirmed and bolstered my faith that kindness can carry us through times of trouble; holding onto compassion has been a lighthouse in a recent storm of fears and uncertainties.

This time next year, I’ll be on the opposite coast, in my first term of graduate school. Several of my teammates from this year may also be moving to start the next phases of their lives. Regardless, I have no doubt that our paths will cross again, and hopefully through Dreams2Acts 2016, not only because we believe in this campaign and the work that’s still to be done, but also due to the fact that we have become a real unit. So, in the end it doesn’t matter where we are geographically, or where we move to, because in life, it’s not where we go, but who we travel with.

Can’t wait for next year, Team. :⁠)

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