It’s hard to believe, as I sit in my house watching this blizzard, that just three weeks ago I was in 85 degree weather in sunny Nicaragua.

This was my second mission trip with the University of Rhode Island’s Catholic Center to Mustard Seed Communities in Nicaragua, a part of a Catholic organization with orphanages in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica as well as Zimbabwe.

Mustard Seed Nicaragua has two locations. The first is in the capital city of Managua.  There they have primarily toddlers, infants and some older children with severe immobility.  About an hour and a half away in the town of Diriamba is Mustard Seed’s second location in Nicaragua.  This is where kids from Managua may go when they grow too old for the younger kids’ orphanage.   Diriamba is a much larger property, giving the kids more room to play.  This is where we stayed for the week and did our work project.

We arrived in the afternoon of January 2 and it was raining, unusual for Nicaragua this time of year.  We got off the buses and began bringing our luggage into the mission house, all the while wondering where the kids were.  As we were unloading the second bus, the kids all came out of the chapel, which is right next to the mission house.

One of the most remarkable things about the kids at Mustard Seed is their love, which they showed us right away.  They came out of their daily reflection in the chapel and went around hugging every missionary.  Some of the kids, Santos, Brayan and Sarita, remembered me and the six other returning missionaries were thrilled to see us.

Each kid has such a unique personality.  Brayan, 16, is deaf but is the big man on campus, flirting with the girls and a bit of a ball hog on the soccer field, but overall he just loves having fun.  His ability to communicate without words is remarkable.  I actually was able to have more in depth conversations with him than any of the kids.

Santos, who walks around with a crutch due to his right leg being underdeveloped, is one of the kindest kids there.  Santos is also 16 and with the exception of his leg, is no different than you and I.  He enjoys talking to the missionaries and teaching them how to speak Spanish and was interested in learning some English from us as well.

Some of the kids are more severely disabled, but it doesn’t keep them from showing their love.  Omar, who never speaks a word, often takes missionaries by the hand and then takes them wherever he so wishes.  Juancito, who’s in his upper 20s, also never speaks but is always smiling and loves giving hugs.  Just don’t give him your watch, because he likes to trade them for candy!

We began our work project the Saturday after we arrived.  We were assigned to scrape the dirt off and paint the inside of the wall surrounding the orphanage.  Caked with dirt, the wall required a great amount of scrubbing with wire brushes.  As one group worked down the wall with brushes, another followed, painting with rollers and brushes.  We had a wrench thrown in our gears when we started painting on Monday and the paint was the wrong color.  We painted the wall anyway, because the orphanage couldn’t afford to not use it, so we used it as a primer.

Tuesday and Wednesday we spent with the little kids in Managua.  Last year we worked in Managua every day, but didn’t spend much time with the kids because the work took up most of the day, so it was a great opportunity this year to go there purely for spending time with them.

When we arrived, one little girl I spent a lot of time with last year came right up to me.  Alicia, 4, has down syndrome and has the brightest smile you could imagine.  We took the kids to a local playground and Alicia refused to be carried by anyone else the whole time we were there.  We left that day not knowing for sure if we would be back the next day, so we said goodbye, which is never easy.  Luckily we were able to return the next day, and when I came in to the kids’ play area, Alicia saw me and her face lit up, throwing her arms in the air wanting to be picked up.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget that look on her face.

Leaving the little kids for the last time that day was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.  For the returning missionaries, this was truly goodbye as you can only go on the trip twice.  It felt like saying goodbye to your own family and there weren’t too many dry eyes among those of us who were leaving for the last time.

The connection you feel with these kids is hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it.  It really is unlike anything here at home.  You come into the orphanages and the kids don’t know you at all and yet they love you with every ounce of love their hearts have.

Aside from the weather, adjusting to the social environment upon returning home is a little difficult.  At the orphanage you can just walk up to anyone, missionary or kid and greet him or her with a hug.  You can’t really do that on the quad here at URI without getting weird looks from people.

On Friday, my eyes were really opened to how hard the caretakers work.  Out of paint, we did various jobs around the complex in Diriamba.  Wanting to really put myself in the shoes of one of the hardest working ladies in the orphanage, I chose laundry duty.  Rosa, the woman who does the laundry, washes clothes by hand practically all day, every day.  It wasn’t long before Brayan came in and teased me for doing what is usually a chore for the girls, but little did he know how grueling a job it was.  Myself and three other missionaries spent hours bent over, washing clothes by hand.

It’s amazing to see how hard the staff and caretakers work.  One woman who works in the kitchen works an incredible amount of hours.  She would be in the kitchen when we got up at seven and would still be there after our dinner, which was often as late as nine.  The most impressive part was that she had a two-mile walk home every night and five kids of her own to care for.  But the workers there are incredibly proud of their jobs.  Nicaragua’s unemployment rate is about 45 percent, so to have a job is an incredible privilege.

Leaving Nicaragua is hard.  Despite only being there a week, I felt such a deep connection with the kids and the country as a whole.  The kids welcome you as their own and leaving that bond behind is hard to do.  Before leaving, I gave Santos my pocket Spanish-English dictionary.  He told me it was the greatest gift he had ever received.

I like to think that I’m not done going to Nicaragua.  I’ve gone twice now with the URI Catholic Center and can’t go with that trip again, but the children of Mustard Seed left such an impression on me, it’s hard to tell myself that I’ll never go back there again.

Whether I go back again or not, a part of me will always be there and I’ll always carry the memories made there with me.