The bus rattled down a busy street on the Nicaraguan island of Ometepe as Bainbridge High School senior Emma Spickard and 14 of her classmates made their way from the ferry to their homestay families.
She watched the familiar colorful stucco storefronts pass by, motorcyclists puffing exhaust down the wide streets, and Ometepinos running errands on foot, sometimes with small children in tow.
It was the first time Spickard was on the island since her last visit one year before, and she wondered when she’d have an opportunity to reunite with her former host mother and siblings.
“All of a sudden I spotted my mom walking alongside the road,” Spickard recalled.
Although, Kiuptza knew her American daughter was returning, she didn’t know when.
All at once, Spickard frantically yelled out the window, Kiuptza spotted her in the bus, and began running and calling for the bus to stop.
The two bounded into a hug in the road and her former siblings, moments later, came running out of the nearby school to greet her.
The tearful reunion set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Spickard was one of two BHS students to return for a second time on the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association’s (BOSIA) annual student delegation this past summer.
For the past 25 years of the organization’s nearly 30-year-old lifetime, 15 students are selected for a two-week trip to Ometepe, where the group is divided into three village communities.
There, Bainbridge youth polish their Spanish speaking and participate in collaborative community projects with Ometepinos.
But most importantly, the past quarter century of BOSIA student delegations has been characterized by Bainbridge teens immersing themselves in Nicaraguan culture and developing bonds with their homestay families and Ometepe community, much like Spickard.
“The thing they kept telling us, is the minute you go down, it’s such a welcoming culture,” Spickard recalled of her first trip to Ometepe.
“The idea your host family would really become your second family — when I was on Bainbridge Island, I would think, ‘Oh well, that’s all well and good. I bet they just say that.’
“But after being there, and living with my family, it’s honestly unbelievable how close you become with these people.”
In her first visit, Spickard lived with Kiuptza, her husband Gilberto and their two young children, 4-year-old Thaivy and 9-year-old Wildrey.
At 21, Kiuptza studied and taught English on Ometepe.
It allowed for a unique opportunity between the two.
Over the two weeks, Spickard and Kiuptza would share late night conversations talking about everything in a mixture of Spanish and English.
During the day, Spickard got in the habit of joining Wildrey on the soccer field and braiding Thaivy’s hair.
By the end of her stay, she wasn’t quite ready to leave.
“I feel definitely when you go on vacations, there comes a point in the trip where you’re like, ‘I’m ready to go home. I can’t stay here forever,’” Spickard explained.
“But in Ometepe, it was very different … I didn’t leave feeling satiated, like ‘Oh, I had my Ometepe experience, that was fun,’” Spickard said.
Loading onto the bus after that first visit, she felt a lot of emotions, but was reminded that it didn’t have to be “adios” it could be “hasta luego.”
So it was only natural for Spickard to apply for a second term on the student delegation the following year.
“The projects we do are secondary to the relationships we build,” Spickard said, quoting a favorite BOSIA motto.
On her return trip, she was given the opportunity to stay one night with her former host family.
Kiuptza had gone through a divorce in the past year, so many things that had previously furnished her home were now gone.
But nevertheless, that night, she showed Spickard to her old room where everything was the same.
The rest of the family went into the second room and closed the door.
“It wasn’t until the next day that I realized they’d gotten rid of their other bed, and they only had one,” Spickard said.
Kiuptza and her two children had slept on small cots on the floor.
“It was like the most literal sense of giving everything they had to me,” Spickard recalled.
She burst into tears at the realization.
“It was the epitome of sharing everything you have with anyone who needs it,” she said.
“I feel so much in our society here, that this is my house, this is your house. But there it’s — these are our children.”
“It really shaped my values, in terms of what I care about and what I look for in life. It made me crave another experience like that,” Spickard added.
At her second homestay, the generosity and familial openness carried over.
There were nights Spickard had to walk through a small banana field to the outhouse to use the bathroom.
When her host mother heard her get up in the small house and walk outside in the middle of the night, she assumed the motherly role of walking her out of the house and waiting for her to return.
“You’re too brave,” Hilda, her second host mother, told her.
“You’re going to get yourself killed if you go to the latrine at night.”
Much like with Kiuptza, Spickard and Hilda bonded through conversation as well.
“She actually lived in the same town, in the same house since the Contra Revolution in the 1980s,” Spickard explained.
Through her, Spickard learned the realities and the impact the war had on the village community.
“Stories of soldiers coming and tearing up families,” Spickard said.
“She actually lived through it, the fear they lived with every day.”
Both years, Spickard joined the rest of her classmates in service projects, but they were never too far removed from their host families.
It’s a collaborative working environment, Spickard explained.
The families are part of the community and the community is crucially involved in all of BOSIA’s work.
The community asks for what they need. BOSIA supplies the materials, and Bainbridge Islanders and Ometepinos work together to make it happen.
This year, along with dental education at the schools and delivering school supplies, the student delegates built a ramp connecting the community’s dirt road to the main town.
About 50 members of the surrounding communities showed up to help on the road project and see it through its completion, Spickard said.
In this way, BOSIA gives an added perspective to its student delegates.
“I think it’s very easy to feel removed from volunteer work around the world,” Spickard explained.
“When people donate money to BOSIA they don’t necessarily know where it goes. But because we are the student delegates that work down there and see the actual relationship, I think it’s really taught me that even the smallest of an organization, like BOSIA, really has an impact.”
For Ometepinos and Bainbridge Islanders, BOSIA exemplifies the power of engagement — both as individuals and as communities — to foster peace and understanding between cultures.
For its student delegates, it imparts insight into the kind of world they can help build.
“It’s given me a renewed sense of confidence, in the impact I can have and trusting other people,” Spickard said.
“When you open your heart, you can get a second family.”