Alumni Spotlight – Billy Byrnes

Billy and Kristin Byrnes in Nicaragua

We interviewed Billy Byrnes ’02 for our Alumni Spotlight on what it means to be an ambassador of service. Billy graduated in 2002 with a BA in Political Science and Religious Studies, and he and his wife Kristin are now volunteering with the Volunteer Missionary Movement in Waslala, Nicaragua. They are currently teaching and experiencing the day to day life in Nicaragua by actively participating in the community. Billy wrote an incredibly insightful response to our questions about his life at Mercyhurst, after Mercyhurst and his experience as a volunteer, and we wanted to share with you in his words how Mercyhurst and the Mercy mission shaped his decision to go to Waslala and commit himself to  volunteering.  Enjoy his piece below and for more information and stories about Billy and Kristin, you can visit their blog:

1.) What professor did you find to be the most inspiring during your time at Mercyhurst?

This is too difficult a question to answer because there was more than one teacher who inspired me and left a lasting impact on my life. I remember being forever changed by Dr. David Livingston when I took his Religious Persons and Traditions course during my freshmen year, and over the years I took a few more courses taught by him. I also attribute my deep faith and intellectual curiosity to Dr. Mary Hembrow-Snyder. I had the privilege of being her student a few times, and I have been forever grateful. There are others, Dr. Clemons, Dr. Federici, Sister Stoner, and Dr. Foresthoefel, who definitely inspired me over my four years at Mercyhurst. While there were many faculty that inspired me, there were an equal number of staff members who inspired me as well. I had a dear relationship with Sister Damien, Jean and Ruthie in the bookstore, Sister Kathleen Marie Leap, Jean in the mailroom, Sister Geri Rosinski in Campus Ministry, Cass Shimek in Student Government, Dr. Garvey, Cathy Anderson, Gerry Tobin, Steve Zinram, and Laura Zirkle, plus many others around campus. And, I continue to keep in regular contact with my dear friend Earleen Glaser in the library.

2.) What about your time at Mercyhurst motivated you to pursue you current career path?

I believe it was the mission of the college, rooted in the ideals of the Sisters of Mercy. I always felt a connection with the Sisters and what they spent their lives trying to achieve. This mission was lived out in the courses that were offered in all the disciplines and the classes that I took in my majors. I know for certain that it was Dr. Hembrow-Snyder’s classes, Liberation Theology and Christology, that motivated me to want to pursue further theological education, and led me here to Nicaragua to want to live and work with the most marginalized people of our world. I also attribute my time spent in Campus Ministry and attending the various retreats they offered. I have fond memories of retreats at Findlay Lake. I was also motivated by the community service I did that was part of the Religious Studies curriculum. Lastly, I was motivated by my involvement with Student Government. This helped me to recognize my leadership skills, and I have always sought to want to listen and affect change.

3.) What did you do after you graduated from Mercyhurst?

I continued my education at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, CA, which is associated with the Graduate Theological Union. I received my Masters of Arts in Theology, with an emphasis in Ethics and Social Theory. Two years after I graduated from Mercyhurst, while I was finishing up my masters, I began teaching religion at Archbishop Mitty High School (my alma mater) in San Jose. After four years there, I accepted a position in Campus Ministry at Bellarmine College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in San Jose. I got married in the fall of 2009, and now my wife, Kristin, and I are volunteering in Nicaragua through Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM).

4.) What sort of work are you currently doing in Waslala, Nicaragua?

I teach English and Theology at the Instituto Agropecuario in Waslala. We live on the grounds of the school and since the school is an agricultural institute, that teaches farming practices, I also help out on the farm, milking cows three times a week. Just last week I learned how to make cheese using the milk I get from the cows. I have also been able to help out by planting cacao (chocolate) trees and I am learning a lot about coffee trees as well. We try to get to the anciano (elderly) home once a week, where we just stay and chat with the residents. The primary role of our volunteer position is accompaniment, and in all we do, we remember that we are here to accompany the people of Waslala.

5.) What made you decide to travel to Nicaragua and volunteer?

This could be a long answer, but in an effort to be brief, I would attribute it to the many mentors I have had in my life, both before Mercyhurst and during my time there. I consider myself blessed to have been inspired by modern day prophets, those teachers, colleagues, friends, and family who have opened my eyes to the realities of our world. The people who made me question the status quo, the ones who told me it was okay to challenge authority, the ones who helped me realize the disparity in this world, the ones who shared their wisdom and experience, and those who made me truly believe that I could change the world. Through them and the ways they challenged me, I built a strong faith in God, a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to be in solidarity with those in need.

I can practically pinpoint the reason why I decided to volunteer, and it was in Dr. Mary Hembrow-Snyder’s class, Liberation Theology. We had studied the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four North American churchwomen who were raped and murdered in El Salvador, and I wanted to be living my faith the way they lived theirs. I wanted to not just read about working with the poor and marginalized, I wanted to actually be doing it. My plans took a backseat when I went to graduate school and eventually started working, though the lingering desire was always in my heart and prayer. When I met my wife and she shared her experiences of traveling to El Salvador during college and then living there for a year after she graduated, I recognized her passion for helping the poor and oppressed. We knew volunteering abroad was something we could do together. After our first year of marriage we began to discern and pray about the possibility of leaving our comforts of the Bay Area and working with the people of Central America. We researched various organizations and applied to VMM. They accepted us and offered us a position in rural Nicaragua, and we have been in Waslala since September 2011.

6.) What is your most memorable moment during your time there?

It has only been a short five months since we arrived, but memories are made every day. There have been many stories we have shared on our blog, and a few that come to mind are: helping inseminate the cows are on our farm, killing the turkey we ate for Christmas dinner, taking the 6 hours bus ride from Matagalpa to our home in Waslala in an old Blue Bird School Bus on a dirt road, the night our 29 year-old security guard died and we went to the hospital to take care of his body and bring his casket to his family’s house, being in the hospital 10 minutes after our friend Silvia gave birth and seeing a room full of young pregnant mothers sharing beds without sheets or family around to support them, participating in the protest at the parish when the bishops tried to close the Institute where we work, walking in to a small mud house in the campo that was shared by a large family and having them offer us a sweet corn tortilla and coffee, seeing people ride up on their horses to come to mass on Sunday afternoon…There are many memories I can recount after just five months, but if I am allowed only one, then it would be:

My first day of teaching and I finally met my students. The class only has eight students and we only meet every other weekend. Class is held here only every 15 days (distancia) because students come from many of the surrounding communities and it can be difficult to get to Waslala. They come by foot, horse, and bus (sometimes all three) to get their degree. Also, many of them work on their farms throughout the week and it is difficult to get away for class. So, on the first day when I met my eight students ranging in age from 14 to 28, and I asked them where they lived and how far their community was, and each one came from a place that was four, five, even seven hours away and they said they took their horse for an hour, walked another two, and then rode the bus for three hours, and then planned to spend the night on a thin mattress in my classroom for class on Sunday, I was humbled to be their teacher. Eddie, one of my students, said that he really likes English and wants to study hard to learn more. Eddie and his brother, Bismark, spent the night in my classroom on Sunday too, and they left at 4:00 am Monday morning to catch the bus back to their community. They were here because they want to learn English, they want to learn basic math, they want to improve their Spanish, and they want to become better farmers. Each one of them sacrificed so much to be enrolled in this school and in my class, and it was in this moment I realized my vocation; to teach those who want to learn, much like my mentors at Mercyhurst did for me.

One other story: Life in rural Nicaragua is slow, at times difficult, and in some ways it is all about survival. For many people the day is spent figuring out what dinner will be. Trekking wood to burn in your stove to cook your beans and rice, hauling water almost a mile so you can boil your beans and take a shower, carrying 50 lbs of bananas to sell on the street to make enough money to buy your beans and rice, this is the life for many people in Waslala. One particular story was when I went on a hike one day to look at the water source for the Institute where we live and work, and when we got to the river there was a young woman with a five-gallon bucket of water on her shoulder and she had to climb up a mountain and down a hill to get back to her house. On our way back, I took a moment to catch my breath and I looked up and saw the incredibly verdant panorama that is the Waslala “postcard”. The hillsides are many shades of green, trees grow everywhere, and when the sky is clear and blue, as it was on this day, the sight was something to behold. I took a moment to thank God for the spectacular view. On our way down the hill, we passed an elderly man walking, hunched over with a stack of wood on his back and shoulders. He had his rubber boots on like me, and he was straining to get to where he was going. I realized in between these two experiences of humans struggling for something I take for granted in the States, water and an energy source, I had a theophany. Both when I realized the sacrifice people make here on a daily basis to survive and saw the face of God in their struggle, and when I stopped to look up and see God amidst the surrounding natural beauty that abounds in Waslala. This is how I experience God on a daily basis.

7.) What do you hope current students at Mercyhurst can take away from their education? Any advice you have for anyone hoping to travel abroad and do volunteer work?

My hope for what Mercyhurst students can take away from their experience at Mercyhurst is more than their education. While I do not want to diminish the benefit and power of a Mercyhurst education and the many doors it can open, I believe students can learn so much from outside the classroom too. The relationships they build with their faculty, the staff, and the administrators. The relationship they have with their coach, teammates, and roommates can be a life-long gift. Their involvement with Student Government, participating in an alternative Spring Break trip, going on a retreat that Campus Ministry offers, becoming politically active, becoming an R.A. or an Ambassador, or going to mass in Christ The King Chapel, all of these are what enhances a Mercyhurst degree. The faculty are wonderful and their courses open your mind in a way nothing ever will, but I would challenge them to do more, like St. Ignatius’ magis. The opportunities are endless as a Laker.

My advice for students who are hoping to study or work abroad is, “Carpe Diem!” I was able to study abroad while I was at Mercyhurst and I attribute my desire to see the world with my experience studying abroad. It gave me a whole new perspective on culture, language, history, religion, and the world. It is an invaluable experience and I would hope all students that want to study abroad are able to do it. For those that are looking to work or travel abroad, I would say that it is best if you go into your situation with minimal expectations, a willingness to adapt, and a desire to inculturate yourself. You cannot expect to live the same way or have the same things you are used to in your life in the States. That is the great thing about being part of another culture, as you get to see how other people worship, eat, cook, travel, live, and work. There is more than one way to live.

For those who are looking to volunteer abroad, or even domestically, my advice would be to pray fervently and discern often before you make your decision. It helps once you begin your ministry. Lastly, we have found it helpful having built a network of supporters back home who pray for us. To know that family, friends, and even strangers are thinking of us, praying for us, and keeping the good of the Waslala community in their minds is one of the reasons I get up every morning.

Check out our blog from more stories, photos, and reflections:

Here is some information about Waslala, Nicaragua:

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America. It is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. It is also the safest country in Central America.

Waslala is 100 miles north east of Managua, the capital, but it takes 8 hours to get there by bus. The city of Waslala has about 7,000 inhabitants and the region of Waslala has about 60,000 inhabitants. Coffee, cacao and cattle are the main sources of income.


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