SOUTHINGTON — Shortly after graduating Endicott College this spring, softball player Hayley Arduini of Southington spent 10 days in Central America. She came home with a new perspective on life.
The liberal studies/education major was in Jiquilillo, Nicaragua, from June 10-20 as part of the GIVE Back volunteer program.
There, along the Pacific coast, Arduini did some teaching and helped build new homes for families in danger of losing their dwellings — or had lost them already — to rising sea levels.
Arduini’s group moved 800 cinder blocks and mixed concrete for a house that is now home to 50-year-old Dona Socorro and her two young children.
“We were the ones filling in the concrete and building the house up,” Arduini said. “The walls were halfway done after our time was up. A second group came in and completed the house and sent us pictures with the house.
“It’s beautiful. I started that and I was a part of that, and now they have a roof over their heads. I got emotional when I saw the pictures. I helped build a house.”
Arduini said she came out of her comfort zone in Nicaragua and came back a different person.
“I have never done anything like this before,” she said. “I’ve never traveled anywhere without my family. I was so preoccupied with softball and graduation that I didn’t have much time to think about going to another country. But I wanted to give back and make a difference. That was the driving force.”
Arduini graduated Southington High in 2015. She was part of a nine-player senior class that graduated that year with 70 consecutive wins and three straight state titles. She moved on to play four years of Division III softball at Endicott. Arduini said her time playing softball at both schools was special and she made relationships she will never forget.
At Endicott, Arduini was a DH her freshman year and the starting left fielder the next three. She also described herself as the loudest one in the dugout.
Arduini will return to Endicott for the coming school year to earn her master’s degree in elementary education. She taught English to some children while in Jiquilillo.
“I did stuff that I never thought I would do,” Arduini said. “It was right up my alley. I could handle this. It was a culture shock the first few days. I was looking around the village and it was different from anything that I’ve ever seen before. I was constantly covered in dirt and it was 95 degrees with no air conditioning. The sun just beats down on you.”
Arduini said she adjusted and got into a routine. By the end, she didn’t want to leave.
“I’m outgoing, but I grew a lot and found out more about myself in those 10 days,” Arduini said. “It was hard to say goodbye to the people we met down there. Even with the language barrier, just a smile saying ‘Hola’ meant so much.”
Arduini also said her experience in Central America put her life into perspective.
“It reminds me how fortunate I am. Coming home, I don’t need too much to be happy. I came from that small village and they didn’t have much but each other. I felt like I was around the most happy people ever. They make the most of their situation.
“I don’t need material things to be happy. A smile can go a long way. Smile at a stranger and it really could make your day. A lot of people instead are looking at their phones all day. Down there, everyone says hello.”
Arduini said she was happy to disconnect for the 10 days. Only occasionally did she check in with her mom with a call or a text.
“My life changed in 10 days and I want to educate others about this experience,” Arduini said. “There are so many volunteer programs out there, but this is a special one.”
In addition to helping build a house, Arduini learned how to surf and scaled an active volcano. She saw the sunset at the top and used a sled to get back down, using only her feet to slow down.
She learned the history of Nicaragua and visited cathedrals and was able to do some shopping.
“I was most looking forward to hiking up a volcano on our days off,” Arduini said. “I’m a college athlete. I thought I was in shape and I could handle this, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
There were three sections on the hike up. The first was 20-25 minutes up a slight incline with occasional breaks.
The second part proved to be the biggest challenge, Arduini equated it to doing 20 minutes on the StairMaster at the gym. The final stretch to the top was supposed to be the easiest, but it was the most windy.
“Once I got to the top, all of the pain went away,” Arduini said. “The views were so amazing. I was on top of an active volcano. I was blown away and we stayed up there for 30 minutes. We all took pictures and I texted my mom.
“Then there was only one way to get down: on a sled. I couldn’t believe I was sledding down an active volcano. When I got to the bottom, there was dirt all over me. It was just unbelievable.”
With her softball career behind her, Arduini is now focusing on her future career in the classroom. She said her dream job would be teaching third-graders. She said she will teach any subject, but she has a passion for math.
“It truly was an incredible experience getting to work with these children and it ultimately furthered my desire to want to be an educator one day,” Arduini said of working with the Nicarguan students. “Many would say that I was changing these students’ lives, but they were the ones changing mine.”