Homeward bound

April 6, 2006, midnight | By Pria Anand | 17 years, 8 months ago

Blair community rallies to fund cafeteria worker's return to Nicaragua after family disaster

Cafeteria worker Rosa Lopez lives with her sister, over 900 miles away from their nearest brother in Miami and almost 2,000 miles away from their mother and relatives in Nicaragua. Which is why Lopez was understandably annoyed when, in the midst of switching service providers, she found her telephone — one last link to distant family and friends — disconnected on Feb. 16.

What she couldn't know at the time was that her brother in Nicaragua had spent that day trying desperately to reach her.

It wasn't until Lopez called her mother from her cell phone on Feb. 17 that she heard the news. The list seemed never-ending. Her brother Orlando. Her pregnant niece, Rosa, and Rosa's three-year-old daughter, Gabriela. Orlando's wife's nephew and two family friends. All six had died in a car accident just outside the Nicaraguan city of Estelí.

Somewhere in the middle of that litany, Lopez realized that Nicaragua was where she needed to be, but because of the distance and expense, traveling there seemed impossible. Now, with the help of a school-sponsored fund and a collection started by building services and cafeteria workers, Lopez hopes that in June, she will be able to reunite with her family when it needs her the most.

Ties that bind

When she heard about the accident, Lopez was alone. Her sister had gone home for Christmas and was in Nicaragua when it happened. Her brother in Miami flew back to Nicaragua to be with the family as soon as he heard. But what had meant only a four-hour plane ride for him meant too much time off from work and too much money for Lopez. She couldn't make it home in time for the funeral.

It was a consolation for her family that all of Orlando's friends came to pay their respects. So many people attended the Catholic funeral, held for all of the victims of the crash, that it had to take place outdoors: Even in Estelí, the second-largest city in Nicaragua, no church could contain all of the guests. And because one of the family friends who died in the accident was the mayor of a nearby town, the President of Nicaragua visited Lopez's mother to offer his condolences, Lopez says.

Still, the fact that she couldn't be there to comfort her family made Lopez's pain even more intense.
Lopez is no stranger to distance. By the time she was 15, the age when most girls in Latin America are just being inducted into womanhood with a quinceañera, she had moved from her family's home in El Jícaro to the Nicaraguan capital city, Managua, to work in a factory and help support her three sisters and four brothers. Thirty-nine years ago, she moved to the United States because she wanted to travel, and since then, Lopez has seen her brother Orlando, seven years her junior, only once every four years.

The date of her last meeting with Orlando has seeped out of Lopez's memory. She has no photographs of any of the six victims, and she had never even met Gabriela, who was born after herlast trip to Nicaragua over three years ago.

The accident

It's still hard for Lopez to discuss the accident. "I always feel pain," she says. "That kind of news is so sad." She smoothes her hair and folds her hands as she speaks about the five family members who were killed — she counts her niece's unborn child among the deceased.

The group had driven to Estelí to take Rosa, one month from her due date, to a checkup. Orlando had no children, and in Lopez's close-knit family, she says, he took care of his brother's daughter as if she were his own. When the accident happened, the car was weaving between lanes on the potholed, hilly roads outside the city. An oncoming truck lost its brakes and rolled over the car, dragging it almost 50 meters before hitting a wall. None of the car's passengers survived, although the truck driver, who was transporting materials for a construction company, escaped unharmed.

It took firemen and police hours to extricate the bodies from the crushed car, still lodged beneath the truck. When they finally removed Orlando, they wouldn't let Lopez's family view his mangled face and neck.
When Lopez first broke the news to her son, also living in Maryland, he searched on the Internet until he found a Feb. 17 article on the accident in a Nicaraguan newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, that she printed out and still keeps in her home. It was from this article — written in her native Spanish — that Lopez learned most of the specifics of the accident. "Varios familiares de las víctimas se mostraron consternados cuando llegaron al lugar del accidente," it reads, translating to: "Various relatives of the victims appeared dismayed when they arrived at the place of the accident."

Half a continent away, Lopez was no less dismayed. When she received the news, she took a week off from work to cope with the grief.

A helping hand

On a Friday morning in early March, Lopez is back in the Blair kitchen, sorting peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches into black plastic containers before the lunch rush begins. "We still have to make lunch for 1,000 students by 10:15," explains cafeteria manager Maddalena Bianchini.

Bianchini was the first member of Blair staff to learn of the accident from Lopez, who called her to request time off. The following Monday, Bianchini started the collection among cafeteria and building services workers to send Lopez home, and by March, she had received donations from all 12 staffers in Blair's cafeteria and from six building services workers. To Bianchini, the collection seemed like the only logical gesture at the time. "By the time [Lopez] found out, the funeral had occurred already," she says. "It would have been senseless to send flowers or anything else."

Besides, Blair's cafeteria and building services workers have a tradition of fundraising for staff members dealing with tragedies, says Bianchini. "It's something we've always done — just giving a helping hand," she explains.

In February, Bianchini contacted Assistant Principal Linda Wanner to tell her about the collection. Wanner, who had planned to raise funds only among administrators, soon realized that other staff members might also be willing to contribute. On Feb. 27, Wanner sent out an e-mail to Blair staff, and the financial office set up a school-wide account to collect donations.

Lopez treats the fund as a blessing: Going home in June will allow her to visit family members scattered throughout Nicaragua and to spend time with her mother. Right now, she says, because she is away from her family, "being here is very hard." All she can do is call her mother as often as possible.

When she started the fund, Wanner knew that the Blair community would share her empathy for Lopez's difficult burden. "You feel so desperately sorry about someone who just lost five people," she says. "It seems like a humanitarian thing to do, to donate."

But for Bianchini, the fund is not simply humanitarian. As she explains, she looks through her office window at the metal table where Lopez is still carefully sealing sandwich containers. "It's not just for Rosa," she says. "She would have done the same for any of us."

To donate to the Rosa Lopez Fund, stop by the financial office or contact financial assistant Donna Franklin at (301) 649-2824.

Pria Anand. Pria is a senior. She loves Silver Chips, movies and, most likely, you. More »

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