Volunteering in the Community Development Department these past two months has brought to life the struggles that several sugarcane working communities in Nicaragua are facing every day.

Working hands-on with community members that have been directly impacted by the epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of nontraditional causes (CKDnT) has really made this public health and human rights issue a reality for me. And it has impacted me on a much deeper level.

On Monday and Thursday afternoons, I help teach a beginner’s English class for adults. Recently, a new student named Axel attended class. He is the cousin of another one of our students, Julio, who also volunteers with us in the La Isla community. That day, Axel had decided to tag along and attend English class with his cousin, Julio.

My first impression of Axel was that he was very young. He was quite shy, but he was happy to be present in the classroom. To my surprise, for being in the beginner’s class and having never attended previously, he caught on quickly. He was great with memorization, asked clever questions, and had relatively clear pronunciation of most words.

I really enjoyed teaching him and hoped that he would return to attend another class in the future. It’s always such a pleasure to have students like Axel.

To my dismay, once all the students had left, I learned a little bit more about Axel’s story. Julio told us that Axel is planning on working for the local sugar mill this coming year. This statement in and of itself greatly upset me, but to top it off, I was told that Axel is only 15 years old. Worse, he is planning on working in one of the most dangerous jobs offered at the sugar mill.

Not only is Axel too young to be working, but his circumstance has also led him to labor in a life-threatening position, picking up debris and trash in the fields, jumping on and off trucks with the constant risk of being hit or run over and killed. Even if he doesn’t develop CKDnT from causes related to the harsh working conditions in the cane fields, Axel is still at risk of injury or death.

One of the saddest parts about hearing Axel’s story, and it’s something that is hard for me to accept, is the great potential he has in the classroom. Axel is a smart, healthy, kind young man who will not only be robbed of his childhood, but possibly even his life at a very young age. He deserves the opportunity for so much more.

I can only hope that La Isla Foundation’s efforts to create safer working conditions and alternative job opportunities for sugarcane workers will create a much happier outlook for young boys like Axel in the future.

Chelsea Carpentier is a third year biomedical student at Antioch College. For the past two months, she has volunteered at La Isla Foundation in the Community Development Department. Outside of work, Chelsea enjoys travel, sports, music, cooking, and art & photography.