What began as a supplier-sponsored FAM trip, business meeting and humanitarian mission last year has grown into determination to turn what has been seen by many as marketing junkets into exercises in corporate social responsibility. One of the idea's supporters is Jeannie Eisenhart, newly-elected president of Florida First Coast BTA. She was a member of the expedition and is looking for sponsors to send FCBTA members on a similar mission. Her enthusiasm is echoed by other participants, representing both local and international organizations, including NBTA and ACTE.

Eisenhart was among a diverse group of 22 travel professionals who went to Nicaragua on a trip sponsored by Continental Airlines, AirPlus International, Hilton Princess Managua and National Car Rental.

The mission was organized by Laurie Reasons, sales manager with Continental Airlines, who sent a sample letter to each participant, recounting the plight of Nicaraguan orphans. The letter was then personalized by the group members and forwarded to their colleagues, coworkers, friends and family, and inviting them to participate by giving money — anything from one dollar up — clothing, medicine and school supplies.

The response was overwhelming. According to Marc Marling, vice president and general counsel of GMA CGM (America) LLC. Participants raised more than $11,000 to purchase food, school uniforms, and water filtration equipment, plus funds for a farming school and bakery in a very poor area. The group also took toiletries, clothing, and thousands of shoes to hundreds of families in and around Managua.

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Their first stop was the infant and toddler orphanage with 18 children under age four, locked inside a cement compound behind a metal fence. There the group distributed grain, fruits, vegetables, a water filter, diapers, clothes and toys.

Next they handed out 128 backpacks and uniforms at the Gothel Valley Public School, surrounded by dirt and no play area. They also gave over $500 so each girl could have a new uniform, new clothes, hair clips and candy.

Next, the Isaac Home for Senior Citizens, where they distributed ceiling fans, food, bedliners and other items that some would call necessities. They were luxuries to the seniors though, and the visitors were welcome company.

Two hundred of the needier families had been chosen by local churches and community elders to receive food, clothing, toiletries, toys, etc. Distribution at this point became a lesson in grim reality. "This is when things went wrong," recounts Kathy Kaden of HRG. "Approximately 1,000 people started pushing forward for food and supplies, and a small boy was pressed against a table. One of the orphanage workers was on the table yelling in Spanish but no one paid any attention to her. I jumped on the table and screamed at the top of my lungs. I think it scared them, as everyone was quiet for about 30 seconds.

"At that moment, Reasons decided it was best to get out of there immediately, as there was concern for everyone's safety. We quickly departed, pleased with what we had accomplished but disappointed by what had occurred."

"It was a first-time experience for our group and there wasn't any way we could anticipate what the reaction would be, or how truly desperate people can be for things we take for granted," says Eisenhart. "We were facing a mob scene and it broke my heart that we had to close down while we still had more to give."

It was not forgotten that the trip was also a four-day business meeting, says Johnson. "We had fun with tours and ziplines and such, but ultimately I think all participants would say it improved their ability to do their jobs through professional and personal development." Business discussions focused on travel management best practices, vendor relations, forms of payment and reconciliation solutions, corporate programs, and other industry topics.

Dual missions accomplished. "This trip not only helped the people of Nicaragua, but changed our lives as well. I found a new purpose for my life," says Bob Lawrence, a member of DWFBTA and director of sales for AirPlus International.

Last year's participants are enthused about a new mission. "From the moment we arrived in Managua I knew this was no ordinary trip. What brought us together and built lasting bonds was helping those significantly less fortunate than ourselves," says Marling. "Think about it: I took a trip where I did back-breaking work — hauling around 50 kg sacks of rice, beans and sugar. I was swarmed by malaria-infected mosquitoes, standing for hours in temperatures with humidity equivalent to Houston in the summer but without the benefit of air conditioning. Yet I am not complaining. In fact, just the opposite!"

"I cannot explain in words what I saw and experienced while I was there and I was amazed by what we were able to accomplish in such a short time," says Christy Watkins, travel coordinator for AIM Headquarters. "Words or even pictures can't do it justice — it was a life-changing experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat."

"I was a bit shell-shocked our first day there and it took quite a while to mentally process what I saw, heard and felt," admits Robby Yeager, corporate manager of government and industry affairs for FedEx. "The trip was humbling and profound; the experience was moving and I believe everyone agreed that we will be forever changed by it. One of my New Year's resolutions was to be more grateful for what I have, and the trip to Nicaragua really brought that point home. You can't prepare yourself for something like that, as the need and poverty can't be explained — you need to see it. The take-away for me is that it is possible to change a huge number of lives at one time. I would be honored to be invited back."