Lending a hand to the most vulnerable: Cabrini Student makes a difference in Nicaragua

Video by Marissa Roberto and Shannon Finn


Photo submitted by Samantha Penecale

Samantha Penecale had never been on a missions trip before her time at Cabrini and did not really know what to expect when she signed up to attend a service trip to Nicaragua.

She decided to venture to a third-world country in hopes of making a difference and that is exactly what she wound up doing.

A short-term mission (STM) is often defined as the mobilization of a Christian missionary for a short period of time ranging from days to a year.

According to barna.com, research found that only 9 percent of Americans have ever been on a short-term missions trip.

Penecale is a part of that 9 percent. She is a junior, early education major pre-k to four with special education pre-k to eight. Her background in teaching has inspired her to want to lend a helping hand to as many people as she possibly can.

Before her first trip to Nicaragua, Penecale was nervous but once she got there she felt almost at home. During the week she got the opportunity to make lasting bonds with the people she encountered there. She recalled how those in the community there were all so welcoming and grateful for the help that was being provided to them.

Photo submitted by Samantha Penecale

Penecale partnered with Amigos for Christ for her missions trip a nonprofit organization which was founded in 1999. Since then, it has grown from a small youth-group-based mission to one that now includes thousands of volunteers and works alongside over 150 communities.

Amigos for Christ has an ultimate vision and goal to “be a model community development organization that facilitates water, health, education, economic, and infrastructure improvements in rural Nicaragua.”

“You’re going on a one week missions trip, what that really lets you do is to open your eyes to things you didn’t understand in a real experienced way,” Margaret Rakus, assistant professor of communication who studies cultural experiences among college-aged students, said. “So you might have understood it in a – ‘you read about it, you might have seen some videos about it, you might have even been moved in some ways’ but nothing compares to experiential learning.”

The bonds Penecale made and hands-on service learning that she experienced with Amigos for Christ were so extraordinary that first time she went to Nicaragua that she decided her first trip would not be her last.

Joe Fiore, junior exercise science and health promotion major, had the privilege of going to Nicaragua for the past two summers along with Sam.

During one of their summer visits they helped dig areas to put in pipes so the community they were working in could have running water and more modern bathrooms. They also helped to build a much-needed school in the area.

While there, “all of the Nicaraguan children flocked to Sam,” Fiore said. “I think that definitely says something about her as a person.”

Photo submitted by Samantha Penecale

While in Nicaragua, Penecale grew to love a three-year-old boy named Gabriel. He showed her how he picks mangos and they would have lunches together every day at noon. His grandmother spent one afternoon making her a home cooked meal after she spent a few days eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“Going on these trips, the experience of it makes it a person,” Rakus, said. “So all the students come back and they have met at least one person or they played with a child and that connection – you can’t beat that. Reading 15 books is not going to equal that kind of connection, it’s sort of a different kind of knowledge [gained].”

The bond Penecale wound up making with Gabriel is one that has left a lasting impact on her life.

“The second year we went, Sam wanted to make it a point to see Gabriel and his family, even though we weren’t working in his community,” Fiore said. “Gabriel and his uncle walked miles to find Sam and that just shows the impact she had on them.”

Penecale still keeps in touch and gets calls from Gabriel and his family back in Nicaragua which always brightens her day.

“The trip made me realize there are still good people in the world and that life does not always have to be so crazy,” Penecale said.

Junior Brittany Runyen, one of Penecale’s close teammates from the Cabrini soccer team, went to Nicaragua with her in the summer of 2015.

“The experience was incredible,” Runyen said. “Everyone takes away something different from that kind of trip and I could really see the effect that it had on Sam.”

Runyen noted how much Penecale loved the culture and lifestyle in Nicaragua

“She wanted to go back immediately,” Runyen said.

Photo submitted by Samantha Penecale

Penecale has now visited Nicaragua on three occasions over the course of her time at Cabrini and she has a fourth trip planned for this upcoming summer.

“I’m going back again to see my friends,” she said. “It sort of has become a home away from home for me. I have a lot of friends who are natives who I cannot wait to see.”

Visiting Nicaragua has not only inspired Penecale and helped her to see the world in a new light but it also helped to restore her faith in God, something she will forever be grateful for.

“I am going back because I feel like it’s where God has lead me,” Penecale said. “I wasn’t really practicing my faith and then I got down there and you see God shine through everyone in everything they do down in Nicaragua.”

Penecale’s missions trip experience with Amigos for Christ has changed her life for the better from rekindling her relationship with God to meeting friends that will last a lifetime.

According to barna.com those who go on missions trips most commonly consider them to be “life-changing.”

After a mission trip people typically respond that they, “have become more aware of other people’s struggles, learned more about poverty, justice or the world, deepened their faith and boosted their financial generosity.”

Graphic created by Emily Rowan


Because many people understand the benefits of mission trips especially in early adulthood, most colleges and universities offer ways to get involved with service based learning or study abroad experiences to expand cultural competence.

“Most universities and colleges, as their overall mission now, are really trying to increase global awareness, awareness of other countries, of other religions, of other government organizations, of other policies and politics and so sort of any time when we get the opportunity to leave where we are and and go somewhere, it helps to meet that need,” Rakus said.

Photo submitted by Samantha Penecale

“Even in just a week you’re learning a lot of things,” Rakus said. “If you go somewhere where they don’t speak your native language you learning how does it feel to be somewhere were people don’t speak like me, how does it feel when people look at me because I look different than everybody else.”

After immersing herself in a new culture, Penecale has come to realize that she can do anything she puts her mind to and that there is so much more beyond her hometown and college campus.

During her upcoming trip, Penecale is looking forward to getting to see the school that she helped to build during her second trip which is said to be completed now.

“Overall these experiences have changed my life for the better,” Penecale said. “They have taught me that my problems, which I might see as big at the time, are really small compared to what others go through.”

Penecale’s biggest advice to everyone is, “lend your hand and I promise you will not be disappointed.”