Welding

Taking that first step to leave the path of social work was not easy. I invested a lot of time and energy learning how people worked. Years of classes, projects, homework, and tests were just going to be shelved and forgotten. Granted, I wasn’t getting anywhere by wishing upon every star in the galaxy for that fabled phone call from a social service agency. Nonetheless, it was still sad and frustrating that I can’t put anything I learned into practice. So, after ignoring the cold reality social work route has reached a dead-end, I finally started research on a new track, welding.

The first steps to learning more about welding were terrifying for I was on my own. I didn’t have KAP (Kelly Autism Program) to hold my hand and no one in my family has ever taken this path before. I was taking a real-world risk were this was going to pay off or I will be worse off than I started. I was walking into this field on a wing and a prayer and the fear of failure was crippling. So much so I decided to tiptoe into this field by only taking the introductory course.

In Fall of 2016, I arrived early to my first day of class, expecting to walk into a classroom I have sat in a hundred times over. A plain and clean room facing a whiteboard with a teacher behind a podium. What I actually walked into was a gigantic industrial grade garage. Everywhere I looked the classroom(?) disorganized mess of large machines, powerful grinders, tanks of gases, and welders that were twice the size of what I used before. Even the air was saturated with the smell of hot iron and metal shavings, informing me that this room has been well used. I couldn’t see one clean place to sit down, I thought to myself “was this really a classroom?” It also occurred to me that it was a mistake to wear blue jean shorts and tennis shoes this morning.

That first day was spent looking over the syllabus, meeting our professor, meeting our professor’s assistant, meeting our new classmates, and raiding the workshop lockers for tools that have been abandoned by former students.

The first few weeks was split between doing bookwork at home and practice welding in the workshop. The bookwork was composed reading chapters, filling out workbook pages, learning terminology, and learning the individual parts of the welder itself. These sessions did not last long though. After reviewing 2 chapters from the book, the session shifted from lecture to an open lab.

The practice portion involved me actually using a welder to complete certain tasks. The first task I had to complete was drawing a straight line on a small plate of metal with the welder. Sounds insultingly simple, right? Maybe to expert metal-smith, but not to a novice like me. I can’t tell you how many hours (and curse words) I spent trying to get this project right. It seemed like anytime I pushed the nozzle of the weld gun to a piece of metal, all that would come out is a lumpy string instead of a straight line. After 15 or so tries, I realized that welding, although is a type of engineering, is not an exact science but a practiced art. There was hand-eye coordination, precision, technique, patience, and lots and lots of practice. When I learned that, the straight line got easier and I FINALLY was able to move the next project.

At times when I weld, I feel like I’m operating a paint brush instead of a fire-spiting gun. When I wasn’t working on my assignments, I was practicing in other ways. Sometimes my parents needed a trailer hitch for their lawnmower. Sometimes there would be some old chairs frames that needed to be repaired. And sometimes I felt like making some art.

Working on little projects like these are fun for me. I am finally becoming a craftsman and making something extraordinary out of ordinary. Now I get to finally walk in the footsteps of other metal artist. Not to mention, very informative for me. When I am tasked to fix or make something, I am learning about different materials, how to adjust my welder, and putting what I learned to practical use.

I’m not entirely certain where this new direction will take me. Will welding  bring me fortune, adventure, or happiness? I don’t know, but I’m the one that made this decision for better or for worse and i know deep in my heart that it is a step in the right direction.

Jumping the Tracks

My job has been offering tuition reimbursement for its employees for years. However, because I was still tied up with loans from my first run through of college I couldn’t consider re-enrollment so soon. Now debt free, it was time to warmup the java and hit the books again. But… as what?

The job tuition program does offer coverage for a multitude of professions, but not social work oddly enough. Not that I think it would help now. The reason I was turned down from any social service job in the first place was not for my intelligence or lack of trying, but my lack of real-world experience. So even if I went back to school and earned a doctorate in social work, I would still only be book-smart and that is not what the social service industry wants. Being book-smart was not the same as being street-smart and no amount of studying would change that. I realize that now. As such, I made the difficult decision to forsake the road of social work and began looking for a new direction.

One day in the Spring of 2016, I was at work contemplating what to do with my life when came across a familiar poster. I have seen this poster several times to and from my work brakes, but that day it looked a little different somehow. The poster was advertising the need for welders and my warehouse can pay for the classes. “Welding?” I thought. The talent of being able to assemble pieces of metal for buildings, machines, and vehicles. My mind began to wonder.

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My original passion in life was building. Legos, Knex, Erector Sets, furniture kits. I enjoyed taking little parts and making something new. Before I entered into social work, I tried to pursue engineering at WKU to fulfill my desire of assembling for a career, but I could not get past the intense mathematics required for the profession. Maybe…just maybe, I could resume my original passion through trade school.

Nicaragua: Sunday…again

“We are homeward bound and off the ground!” is what I was singing in my head at the airport. Another Sunday has come, and it was already time to leave my new friends and Nicaragua. Even when we were lifting off, part of me wanted to stay behind and finish Catharine’s house along with her two children. I have always been a completest at heart. Whenever I start something, I want to see it through till it’s done. I knew the house would be completed by Javier and his crew, but I wouldn’t see pictures of it until weeks later. I suppose for this reason alone I preferred working on the Belize project. Nothing like seeing your labor of love, sweat, and camaraderie finished and fulfilled when you leave on the last day. That is not to say I regret coming to Nicaragua. I have learned much in this short time, and I do what to come back again. Next time I will learn the local language. Definitely.

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(Souvenirs I brought back from Nicaragua)

Nicaragua: Saturday

With our commitment to the house project done and having already visited half the continent, you would have thought all that was left for us was to sit back and relax till it was time to go home. Well, you would be half right. The last event on our agenda that week was a day at the Pacific Ocean beach resort. While we there, we were free to play in the ocean, walk along the beach, take surfing lessons, or just sit back and relax in the hammocks and read our favorite book while enjoying in the tropical breeze.

But we before we left and did any of that, our trip organizers wanted us to have one last group reflection, to share what we felt during the week, to share our most memorable experiences, and how we planned to prevent throwback (an act of forgetting our experiences and to return to our daily lives unaltered). My lasting impressions for the week included a better awareness of how some charities can inadvertently be more hurtful that helpful, how fortunate that our country’s children are to be able to afford an good education, how fortunate I am to have a roof over my head even if I think it is small, and how much I can really accomplish in one day. My throwback prevention took the form of my daily journals that I have been sketching throughout the week. I explained to group that I was writing a book (which would later become a blog), and I was writing down all of my tasks, deeds, and feelings from that week. That way I could never forget what happened and everyone who reads my work can see what I saw and experienced what I’ve felt. Perhaps I could even inspire a new generation of mission trippers through my stories.

Nicaragua: Friday

I woke up this morning stiff and tired from the long day of travel the day before. But both my crew and I had to put that aside, for today was the last day of construction for us before we had to go home on Sunday.

Construction on Catherine’s house has come a surprising long way despite our absence. When we left it on Wednesday afternoon, the back wall was almost level with the other building’s wall next to Catherine’s and the front wall was just short of the halfway point. The freelance engineers were already going to use part of the brother’s house as the left wall, so that was already covered but the right-hand was yet to be started. When we came back that morning, the back wall was finished and was being fitted with an electrical outlet. The front wall was now halfway up and the foundation for the right wall has been laid down.

We resumed our usual positions and got immediately to work. Our time was short but productive. When it became time to clean the tools, we managed to bring up the front wall three levels of blocks, just enough to see where the window was going to be. And the right wall was up to knee level.

Before leaving, there was one last thing to do before saying goodbye, a house blessing ceremony. Although the house was not ready to move into yet, we still wanted to wish Catherine and her children good blessings in their new home. Just like in the Belize ceremony, we offered a few gifts to bless the occasion and help out the family one last time. The gifts included sacks of rice, beans, and cooking oil for provisions; a picture frame with a group photo of everyone involved in the project; a photo album of everyone working to build the house; a prayer crystal that embodies all of our love and blessings for Catherine’s family; and I provided a sturdy tote bag for groceries and a Kentucky horseshoe, a symbol of luck and our home to bless their new home.

We spent the remainder of the time on the work-site hugging, crying, and taking as many photographs as possible before leaving for good. I still felt bad leaving such important work half-finished, but our organizers assured us that the house would be complete in one to two weeks. I looked forward to that day.

Tiredly, we headed home for the day. The rest of the day was occupied with lounging, card games, and hosting a pool party with the HHM-sponsored schoolchildren from the youth center. Once again spending some quality time with the future prospects of Managua. Although I still lacked the language, I spent some time with the little ones in the pool playing ball or wading on inner tubes. The kids all had a good time, and so did we.

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(Catherine with her two children, Jose and Kelvin)

Nicaragua: Thursday

Thursday came as a free day for our crew. Today Javier and his crew were left alone with Catherine and her family to work on the house while we went exploring into the deeper regions of Nicaragua.

As soon as we were ready, we set off for San Juan de Oriente, a countryside village in deep Nicaragua. The trip was long and bumpy; the village was about 25 miles from the outskirts of Managua with ill-maintained roads to lead the way. I didn’t mind so much. The smell of the clean, fresh air and beautiful green landscape was enough made my trip relaxing. Along the way we began to see lots of farmhouses. Some had goats mowing the grass, and some had chickens that looked like they wanted to cross the road. As we were getting closer, we started to see more family business shops, most of which turned out to be furniture stores and pottery shops.

When we finally arrived in town, we stopped in front of a potter’s shop with which HHM usually does business. Like all the other shops in San Juan de Oriete, the shop is privately owned and family managed. The proprietor took my group back into his shop and began explaining how he creates his clay crafts.

After our lesson on the effort that goes into each pot, we were given the opportunity to buy from the vast selection of colorful clay art. There were simple clay pots with elaborate designs of fish, birds, lizards, or butterflies in bright earthy colors. There were small cups with decorative borders. There were blowfish pots for incense, sea-turtle flutes, and clay lanterns. I had to temper my enthusiasm with caution when making my selection. So as to (1) not to break anything in the shop and (2) ensure that it could survive the trip through airport security and the ensuing flight.

It was times like this when I wished I had a bottomless inventory pocket like you would find in a “point-and-click” adventure game, the kind where you can store any amount of absurd knickknacks within a coat pocket without fear of being destroyed by an outside force. We gathered and wrapped our new fragile belongings and begun to make our way to our next destination: Mombacno.

Mombacno’s attraction of was its high-ropes zip-lining course, a physical sport that I have had no practice in. If I had, I would have known beforehand how terrifying it was to be 50 feet in the air, walking on a rope bridge from one zip-line platform to another, and have the possibility of being stranded mid-flight

if I applied the brake for my line too soon! Well, despite all of my fearful gripes I could make about my experience, I still had a good time. It was almost liberating to be able to fly through the trees at soaring speeds that I could only experience in a dream.

It was nearing lunch time when the last person in our group rocketed down the last leg of the zip-lining course. We crowded back into the bus and set off for Granada, a bustling metropolis off the coast of Nicaragua Lake. For our first stop in Granada, was lunch. Our leader chose a serene café for its relaxing, open-aired garden and for its tasty lunch specials. This town also proved very accommodating to tourists. Despite that, it seemed like every corner had a vendor trying to pawn off something to an unsuspecting passerby. We did stop for some locally made goods, but not with the street merchants. Our last stop in Granada was the market place, where a multitude of sellers gathered to sell their finest wares. Some sold clothing; others, mugs, wood sculptures, knifes, hammocks, ships in a bottle and other things you would come to expect from a tourist market. It was here I chose to buy a communal present for my family. The other members of my group had similar interests in mind.

The day was not over yet. We still had one more stop to make before going home for the day: Masaya, the home of Nicaragua’s Masaya Volcano. For the next hour we traveled through green valleys and on dirt roads. The area surrounding the volcano has remained barren of human encroachment or attraction, and the closer we got to its epicenter, the fewer trees and greenery we saw. Never had I seen a place so vast and so empty.

At last we came to the volcano’s open mouth. Although the volcano has stopped gushing forth lava years ago, it was hard at work billowing white clouds of sulfur dioxide like a factory chimney. The discharge also made the air a little hard to breathe. The only signs of any human influence on this place were the volcano’s warning signs for tourists, the stone remains of a small building, a large metal cross placed high above the smoky crater, and a dirt walk path that leads up and around the opening’s edge.

After some pictures in front of the opening, we started to take the dare and walk around the edge of the volcano to get a bird’s eye view and maybe even see any lava remained in this volcano. The dirt trek didn’t sound so bad at first. As a Boy Scout, I have been on rough hiking trails before with 50 pounds of gear strapped to my back. And as a runner, I have been in races that have uphill courses. So this should be easy! Eh, not so much. The further we went, the more treacherous the trail became. The ground got softer with loose gravel and soot. The path got steeper with 45 degree angle climbs. And the air got thinner and thinner as we climbed. By the time we reached the top, the sun had begun its descent behind the other side of the volcano. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Our missionary group, on top of the world, over an active volcano, and witnessing a sunset that you cannot find anywhere else.

Nicaragua: Wednesday

After each day at the work site, our crew and Javier’s crew reconvenes at the HHM youth center for lunch before continuing with the rest of our day. Today was little different. We still had lunch at the usual place, but this time we had some company, the children of the youth center. Today was our day to play and interact with some of the local kids that HHM helps on a daily basis.

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The festivities started with the kids reading their favorite books to us. Some chose simple picture books that had more cartoon illustrations than words while others showcased their fascination for bugs by reading the contents of an encyclopedia. Through it all, I had a nagging sense of guilt for not knowing how to talk to the little ones. Although I had two years of Spanish under my belt from high school, none of it helped me in this time and place. My little one was reading to me a story about Princess Rosa and that was the only part of her book I understood. I tried to follow along as best I could, but only recognized bits and pieces of the words and I only followed what little I could make out from the few pictures the book had. From my time in Belize, the local’s English/Spanish dependence ratio was about 50/50, and I figured it would be the same here. I was wrong. Dead wrong.

I had time. I could have dug out my old Spanish books. I could have downloaded a learning app on my phone. But I didn’t. And know I will never know what happened to Princess Rosa nor truly appreciate this little girl’s story-telling skills.

After a while we moved on to a different activity, finger-painting. This was an activity I could help with my limited local vocabulary. The kids had their choice of rojo, azul, or amarillo (red, blue, or yellow) to be painted on their hands to make hand-print butterflies and tree leaves as is or they could squish their hands together to make verde, anaranjado, or morado (green, orange, or purple) for their creations.

The last activity for the day (after clean-up, of course) was bubble chasing! A common question that pops up every time I’m on a mission trip that involves a children center is whether or not we could bring the kids something fun to play with. I don’t mean start up a multi-thousand-dollar toy drive, just a few inexpensive gifts (cars, dolls, puzzles, etc.) to show how much we want to be there and how much we care. HHM’s only recommendations were bubble wands and candy, which puzzled me. Even if money or the number of kids weren’t an issue, surely these children would want to play with other kinds of communal toys, like marbles, chalk, plush animals, or wood blocks? As a kid, the cheapest toys I played with were much more intricate than soap and water, and I’m sure lots of other people’s toys were, too.

Such doubts left my mind as soon as a reached for the first wand. I was swarmed with 7-10-year-olds wanting me to either drop the wand or initiate the first wave of sky born suds. They finally settled down somewhat when other members of my crew started blowing bubbles in the more open areas of the center. The children jumped and cheered as they raced to catch as many bubbles as they could before they float to the ground.

These kids didn’t need expensive video games, the latest cellphone, or the most popular toy on the market. They were content with running crazy with their friends and chasing bubbles. Another lesson from Nicaragua.