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Pinecrest seniors take annual trip
Need is great in Nicaragua
Pinecrest girls
Pinecrest Academy student Meghan Flanigan takes a photo with two orphans after she decorated their hair with flowers during her class’ recent humanitarian visit to Nicaragua. - photo by Sum
As the rickety bus drove through the night streets of Nicaragua, 39 high school students on their senior trip grew silent.

Parent chaperone Kathy Swygman said it must have been, for most, their first look at poverty in a third world country.

“Everything was so different and we were just kind of in shock,” student Elizabeth Welty said, describing sights of roofs made from palm fronds.
“This was the norm here.”

Pinecrest Academy’s recently graduated seniors packed up after their final exams and headed straight to Nicaragua for a one-week mission trip, returning just in time for their graduation May 29.

Of the 53 seniors, 39 traveled to the Central American nation from May 22 to 27.

The 20 male students worked on building three homes for families in need, while the 19 female students spent time at a nearby orphanage for physically and sexually abused girls.

Few spoke Spanish, but Welty said she quickly learned that just a hug can mean a lot.

Marina Carlisle said the orphaned girls, ages 7-17,  had no families and were so “excited to be loved by us.”

“I didn’t realize how attached they got to us,” she said. “Our bus pulled up [to leave] and they all started crying.”

Swygman said the Pinecrest students did little things for the orphans, including giving the girls photos they had taken of them, something many never had.

“It was beautiful to watch our seniors interact with the girls there and hear their stories,” she said.

Swygman had helped arrange the trip to Nicaragua with a friend and mother of a Pinecrest student who had family in the country.

The two traveled ahead of the group in October to survey places to stay and work for the trip.

This year marked the Catholic school’s fourth senior class. Each has taken a mission trip to conclude the school year, marketing director Nancy Palmer said.

The tradition of volunteer work began four years ago with a journey to Jamaica.

Palmer said the school tries to instill a sense of service in their students, something that leads Father Todd Belardi to encourage the mission trip.

“Through sacrifice and hard work, you bond and you learn lessons that you couldn’t learn any other way,” she said, describing Belardi’s philosophy.

The male Pinecrest students had plenty of hard work, building three homes for needy families after raising money at home for the supplies.

“When I say houses, I use that term loosely,” said student Kevin Metz, who said for most in the U.S. the homes would likely be described as “shacks.”

Despite the hardships of the people impacting him, Metz said they connected easily with the locals and enjoyed their time together.

“They were really joyful,” he said. “You couldn’t even tell that they were living a rough life.”

When the students presented the new homes along with surprise clothing donations, he said the families “went wild.”

Metz, along with two other students, had arrived a little later on the trip with trophy in hand after winning a state soccer championship.

Upon return, the seniors had graduation the next day.

It was an “intense week,” said Metz, adding that he felt much closer to his longtime classmates after the life-changing events.

Carlisle agreed that the trip made her feel united with her peers, especially during the graduation ceremony.

“It was the perfect ending to high school,” she said.

Metz and Carlisle, along with 11 other classmates, will take a year off for mission work through Legionaries of Christ before heading off to college.

Swygman said she’ll be heading back to Nicaragua soon with her family members, some friends and younger children at Pinecrest.

With her daughter also taking a year off to participate in the missionary program, Swygman said she wouldn’t be surprised if many of the school’s students continue to travel, volunteer or push boundaries.

“I think this gave them the courage to go outside their comfort zones,” she said. “It opened their minds and their hearts.”