Nick & Sandi - Part I
By Bryan Nichols
Nick: In 2010, we had been praying to do something for God’s Kingdom. Now, I’m a tinkerer, I like to build things, so my wish would be to go down to Haiti and build a school or build a house or paint something or chop some wood or do something physical. I put Haiti on Sandi’s radar, but it seemed like everywhere we tried, we couldn’t get on to a trip to Haiti. In our house church, a friend told us, “Oh, we’re going to take a mission trip down to Nicaragua at the end of July. Do you guys want to participate?” It was going to be sort of orphanage-based, and it didn’t really sound terribly exciting. I didn’t really think it was something that I wanted to do, and so I kinda blew it off. We kept pursuing this Haiti idea and then finally realized that Haiti, for whatever reason, probably wasn’t going to happen. We committed to this Nicaragua trip, and away we went.
It was a difficult trip. We don’t have children – we like kids, but we’re not all about kids, and so there were many things on this trip that – and I’ll speak for myself – made me uncomfortable. You had to walk into a school or an orphanage and there were... kids, everywhere. And people just started playing with them and picking them up and hugging them. But I was a complete fish out of water. I had no idea how to hold a child, bounce a ball, or carry them this way, or tickle them – I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m like two left feet on a dance floor with children. I just don’t get ’em. (Sandi laughs.) I don’t know what to do with them. To me, it’s difficult.
In and amongst this, we sort of started hearing stories about these children being trafficked in the garbage dump*, that families have reached a degree of poverty and a degree of desperation where the parents and guardians of these children were essentially forced to sell these children into some form of slavery, either sex trafficking for girls, and sometimes boys, or to work-gangs that would go out into the garbage dump and pick garbage. These kids are addicted to sniffing glue and alcohol to sort of stave off the hunger pains, and these girls, at a very young age, are trafficked to dump truck drivers.
And so – again, us not being parents – the idea that you could do that to your flesh and blood, especially a six-year-old girl, was unfathomable. It created in us a sense where… like, we couldn’t sleep at night after that trip. You can watch all kinds of television shows about that, but you can always just change the channel. That just happens over there, to those people, and, you know, that’s just too bad. But when we saw it firsthand, and we saw in these orphanages little girls that had been trafficked… the idea of looking into their eyes was difficult. You just hate to think a child that young had gone through this type of a life.
Some of them end up in orphanages, and they get rescued and schooled, and there is a path for a better life, but for others there isn’t. And that life, that hardship, is something that will continue every single day. It’s not like, This is something I have to deal with for a week, a month, a year, and then I’m gonna be out of it. This is their path, and it seemed like something needed to be done, and I think God definitely used that week – those five days that we were in Nicaragua – to take our lives and turn them 180 degrees from where we were. We were comfortable. No real responsibilities, great jobs – but it was one of those things where everything got called into question.
After the mission trip, we went back on our own to Nicaragua. We were thinking, What could we do? How could we help? What does that look like for us? Do we write bigger checks to organizations or churches or what?
Working with Under Armor, I have access to sewing machines, fabrics. And, when we were down there, the idea sort of bubbled up: could we create an environment where... maybe it’s not rescuing children by taking them physically out of the garbage dump, but maybe it’s something with their parents where we could provide some sort of safety net, where they could be trained and have a job that provided them with an income. And they could use their creativity and their sense of style. They’re incredibly innovative – like, when you walk through the garbage dump, since they have nothing, they pretty much have to make everything.
With these elements in mind, Nick and his wife Sandi partnered with an organization and a church in Managua, both of which aid and support the residents in Managua’s garbage dump, and presented a business plan to Under Armour, where Nick is Senior Director, Innovation, with Under Armour’s Special Projects. (Sandi is a professional photographer and artist.) Under Armour donated $20,000, sewing machines, cutting tables, and fabric to the project.
“We helped them create a store,” Sandi says. “To have a spot where people can come and see what’s going on there, but also be able to buy things.”
Residents of the dump received training on the machines and the process of assembling garments so they can create and sell whatever they creatively devise. Original clothes, jewelry, purses, and other creations are sold in the retail space.
“We realized that, in order to make a difference, we needed a lot of money,” says Nick, who is tall with a rich timbre to his voice. He is in his mid-forties.
Nick: The question then became, how can we create an environment where we can raise a lot of money? And how can we take that money and do things with it? Not that we were gonna do all the work – rather, how could we support, say, the orphanages in the garbage dump so that they are better suited to take on more rescued children? And how can we support their rescuing efforts and their teaching efforts? As we started thinking about that funding idea, we started drawing parallels between Managua and Baltimore; we discovered how bad sex trafficking is here in Baltimore, and how young these kids are. So, what we’re doing down there is kinda what needs to be done back here as well. Then the concept of, “What do we do to go and find money?” became, “Well, we need more money cause we got this thing in Baltimore now.”
For me, thinking about that, I sort of went back to what I knew to do, and that was climbing mountains. I did that all through my twenties, which I spent, basically, in the Himalayas. I made it through Everest and K2 and a lot of these other mountains; I skied on them, snowboarded on them. I was always very, sort of, mountain-focused, so I went back to that. And I remembered, in 1989, when I was coming down from Everest, a friend and I were asking, “What’s never been done in the Himalayas?” The idea of climbing all fourteen of the world’s highest mountains – and those are all mountains that are above 8,000 meters, and there’s just fourteen of them – in a single year would be amazing. Those fourteen are the “grandslam” of mountaineering. There’s probably just twenty-five people today that have climbed all fourteen, and it’s taken them anywhere between eight and sixteen years to accomplish that goal.
We joked about what it would cost and how you would do it and what the strategy would be, etc. But since ’89, it’s been lodged in the back of my mind as something to do – or something incredible to watch somebody do. Nobody has attempted it. So when we started thinking about a spectacle to raise an incredible amount of awareness, media, money, etc., I went back to that spot in ’89, pulled that story back out, and said: “Here’s something that’s never been done. Here’s something that’s going to be very difficult, and because of its difficulty, maybe now is the time to go out and try this.”
There’s a lot around today that help this adventure make sense, like reality television, the technology that’s available, camera sizes – back in ’89, all that was big and clunky or didn’t exist; today, there are a lot of things that could make that adventure safer and much more doable than what we originally thought about. I got on the phone with some friends of mine in Pakistan and Nepal and kicked this idea around. How do we find out what this thing would cost? How do we do it? What will we do first and second? What will difficulties be physically? Logistically? And in a fairly short amount of time, we mapped this out, and it became Mission 14.
*Editor's note: In Nicaragua's capital city, Managua, thousands of impoverished locals have taken residency in the garbage dump.