The 16-year-old junior at Bear Creek School first visited this Central American country last Christmas when she and her father embarked on a mission trip with Eastlake Church.
The goal was to build a roof, floor and door for a neighborhood church in a very poor, crime-ridden area of Leon.
In addition, the group also held Vacation Bible School sessions and events for the local children.
The experience made a deep impression on the teen and before she left for home, she was already planning a return visit.
“The love I experienced there inspired me and the way there is so much beauty in such an awful place gave me so much happiness and hope,” says Eppenauer. “Also, the relationship I developed with the families and people down there really made me want to return.”
Six months later, the teen flew back to Leon, this time with her mother, Jamie, and a group of people from Florida, via an organization called Twelve Churches.
The trip was a gift for Eppenauer’s 16th birthday from her parents.
Before the Woodinville teen left the U.S., however, she made a video and sent out a letter to raise money to buy shoes for the children of Leon, who typically run around in the dirt and trash barefoot.
She raised enough money to bring several suitcases full of shoes and supplies, and present a $1500 donation to the church to build a community restroom.
“The conditions in this neighborhood are devastating,” comments Eppenauer. “Drug abuse is rampant and the ‘houses’ are made out of sticks and tarp if they’re lucky. One area I went to broke my heart. The people there literally lived in a dump. They got their food from the garbage, lived in the garbage and hardly had houses at all.”
Eppenauer comments that the recipients of the gifts she brought were incredibly happy and so very appreciative of the items.
She notes that most of the people never had anything new to wear before and they were overjoyed with the brand new shoes and clothes.
“They were very grateful, but I was also grateful for the support my friends and family at home showed me by being so responsive and generous in their contributions,” adds the teen.
During the June trip, Eppenauer established an even closer relationship with two particular families.
One family, consisting of a mom, dad and six children, had been homeless for several years after the promise of a job in Costa Rica for the father failed to pan out.
The father, Pedro, who was born by the sea, went to work fishing and was able to save to buy the land he and his family currently live on, but it is in the worst part of Leon, which is rampant with drugs and violence.
The family’s house is a small structure made of scrap metal and garbage bags.
A few months ago, the father got a hernia doing heavy labor and so he is now unemployed once again.
The mother has been supporting the family by selling tortillas, but the smoke from cooking over the open fire has given her asthma.
Eppenauer first met one of the family’s sons, Maykol, when she made her initial trip to Nicaragua.
She kept in touch with him and his two brothers, Jonathan and Justin, through Facebook.
Over Thanksgiving, she and her family traveled to Leon, where they bought a gas stove for Maykol’s mother to enable her to continue selling tortillas without damaging her health.
They also built a house for the Killian family, who live in deplorable conditions.
The father is gone, leaving mom to support her five kids by tending to the chickens and pigs and toiling in the fields picking peanuts.
“My family paid to build them a house,” comments Eppenauer. “A house is only about $1500 to $2000 in Nicaragua.”
The teen plans to return to the country and people she has come to love, hopefully in the coming year.
She strongly believes she is making a difference in the lives of the residents of Leon, emphasizing that it’s not all about material goods.
She says, “Knowing that there is someone out there who loves them and is praying for them gives the people hope.”
She adds, “Sure, I can only do so much financially to help them, but even a little goes a long way there. Walking back to Maykol’s house, I know so many kids who come up and hug me and say my name along the way. Knowing that there are a bunch of kids in Nicaragua who are praying for me has changed my life, too.”
Eppenauer is looking toward the future with an aim of continuing to help the people of Nicaragua. She says, “I would love to be able to start my own foundation someday and spend my life helping and loving them. I wish I could live there now!”