Fund helps SLU students ‘accompany’ Nicaraguans

Photo courtesy of Suzy Kickham

Last summer, St. Louis University student Suzy Kickham volunteered on a project in Nicaragua in an impoverished rural community without paved roads or running water. Kickham doesn't speak much Spanish but connected with a 7-year-old child who made her comfortable and became a friend.

"She showed me how to accompany others. It's wild to think that someone that age can teach you something that profound," Kickham said.

A sophomore, Kickham is a philosophy major with a keen interest in social issues. She is still sifting through the impact of the 10-week immersion experience with Escuela AKF and other nonprofits made possible by the Mev Puleo Scholarship Program in Latin American Theology and Culture at SLU.

"It's a whirlwind of emotions," said Kickham, who attended Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Groves. "A lot of it was shock. Shock at the immense poverty and our country's part in that. And shock too at the people's resilience and how they've coped with the trauma in their lives."

Kickham viewed the trip as "walking with the people" and allowing people into her life. She expected to provide service, but instead of just giving she became a gracious receiver of their generosity and life lessons. The faces and stories of the people stick with her.

Puleo's parents, Peter and Evelyn Puleo, hoped for this when they established the scholarship 10 years ago. They recognized that their daughter's travels and encounters changed her and deepened her faith and commitment, so they wanted to give other students an opportunity for similar transformations. Mev Puleo was a photojournalist who focused on the lives of poor people around the world. She died in St. Louis in 1996 at age 32.

The trip made Kickham think more about her Catholic faith and its role in her life. "It definitely led me to question things, but I think it made me stronger in my own faith and my own convictions," she said. "It put a face on what love and accompaniment looks like. Seeing how committed they were in their love for Christ and their trust in God, the impact and love they made on me."

While presenting other people's stories and faces, Puleo "kept herself rooted in love, no matter who she was talking to or what she was talking about, even to people who opposed her," Kickham said. "To do that means to be with people, to learn from them. I think that's how Christ lived, I think that's how Mev lived."

Brittany Butler, a junior occupational therapy student, also was among the three students who went to Nicaragua with SLU alumna Abbie Amico. They took classes, lived with host families and volunteered with local nonprofit organizations.

Butler, who attended a Catholic high school in Nashville, Tenn., said that in college she's explored her faith more, "really making it my own," and the experience in Nicaragua continued that learning. Butler was impressed with a program helping people with disabilities. Just being with the people there, seeing the love they have to give and the love she and her group could provide in return was rewarding for her.

Sophomore theology student Julia Nouse was raised Lutheran, attended Catholic high school in Akron, Ohio and entered the Catholic Church while attending SLU. She'll return to Nicaragua in the fall, studying at a Jesuit university in Managua, Nicaragua. Her experience showed her that "Catholicism is community, and more than anything else that's what matters."

Her host mother was "the embodiment of love," Nouse said. Upon returning from service work or classes, Nouse would see the woman, who referred to her as "hija," or "daughter," looking out the window and waiting for her.

Nouse tried to imitate Puleo by praying the Rosary and, for each bead, stating what she's grateful for that day. "The more difficult things we saw, the less able I was to go through and do that every night," Nouse said, later realizing that Puleo had the same struggles.

"She went and recorded people's stories, she didn't write them for them. So for me, it was about remembering people's stories not retelling them with my spin. That's something I've tried to hold onto," Nouse said. 

>> Mev Puleo

Photographer and writer Mev Puleo's legacy and love for the people of Latin America lives on through a gift following the photojournalist's death from brain cancer in 1996. The Mev Puleo Scholarship in Latin America Theology and Culture helps SLU students spend 10 weeks living, learning and working in Nicaragua.

The dedicated photojournalist, a graduate of Visitation Academy and SLU, sought to put her craft at the service of people struggling to transform their lives and culture.

Puleo's husband, Mark Chmiel, who is involved with the scholarship program and wrote "The Book of Mev," said that his wife reminded him of Jack Kerouac's saying, "Be in love with your life."

Chmiel added, "Anyone who spent even five minutes with her would notice her exuberance, outgoingness of heart, and sense of gratitude.

When she was afflicted with a brain tumor, she wrote in her journal, "As a young girl I recall vividly, walking home from Our Lady of the Pillar grade school and seeing the trees on my lane as if for the first time. They stood out in all their beauty, splendor — and treeness. I was overwhelmed, in awe of Creation — marveling that I could not make a tree!"

Whether it was people she met in Mexico, Brazil, Haiti or El Salvador, Chmiel stated, "Mev listened to them, respected them, and learned from them. For instance, she dedicated her book 'The Struggle Is One' to two Brazilian women who embodied liberation spirituality in their neighborhood in Brazil. They inspired Mev to a deeper Christian commitment to justice and solidarity."

In a 1993 letter to SLU president Father Lawrence Biondi, Puleo stated, "My own moral consciousness was shaped at SLU — through the example of professors and campus ministers — in a way that inspired me to devote my energies toward building a more compassionate and just world community."

Among other recognition, she received the 1995 U.S. Catholic Award for furthering the cause of women in the Church and was one of three masters of ceremony at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver attended by St. John Paul II.

For information on the scholarship, visit www.stlouisreview.com/jvZ. 

Nicaragua

Despite being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Nicaragua has improved its access to potable water and sanitation and has ameliorated its life expectancy, infant and child mortality and immunization rates. However, income distribution is very uneven, and the poor, agriculturalists and indigenous people continue to have less access to health care services. Nicaragua's fertility rate has fallen from around six children per woman in 1980 to below replacement level today, but the high birth rate among adolescents perpetuates a cycle of poverty and low educational attainment.

Source: World Factbook 

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