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“My bucket is empty. I need a hug.”

“Thanks for putting a drop in my bucket when you said those nice words to me!”

Those phrases might not make sense to you, but at Nicaragua Christian Academy International (NCAI), our Circle of Friends groups are now keenly aware of the invisible buckets that float above our heads each day after spending a month on this theme, based on books by Carol McCloud.

Each circle is made up of six-to-eight children from a grade level, formed to help students learn something that isn’t always a part of the curriculum: how to be a good friend.

Good friends learn how to pay close attention to those mysterious floating buckets. On great days of easy friendships and passing grades, buckets are overflowing. On the worst days, the carefully collected drops seem to gush out, leaving buckets completely empty and the bucket owners feeling sad and alone.

Bucket-Filling Moments

Working as the inclusive special education coordinator in the SOAAR program (Students of All Abilities Recognized), I have the opportunity to fill buckets each day through simple interactions, which in turn fills up my own bucket:

Telling a student with a learning disability that he “got it” in first grade math and could help his friends finish their work as the designated group expert.

Complimenting a teacher on the fact that she is doing an incredible job using flexible groups to include her learners with disabilities.

Sharing with parents about their young son with severe language needs talking: “Your child used the iPad today to say, ‘I want water!’ for the first time!”

Bucket-Spilling Moments

There are moments when my own bucket is empty at work, my invisible drops spilling out like tears down my cheeks.

Seeing a student sitting alone on our playground “Buddy Bench” with absolutely no response from classmates. (“Mr. Ippel,” I hear later. “Your Buddy Bench doesn’t work.”)

Hearing the words of an assistant overwhelmed by the needs of a student. “Is NCA really the best place for him? Isn’t there a better place just for kids ‘like him’?” she thinks aloud.

Sharing the burden of a SOAAR assistant’s overwhelming home life when she’d rather stay at work than go home.

Listening to a parent describe through tears her isolating and overwhelming journey of raising a child with a disability.

Comforting a student with an autism spectrum disorder who is sobbing in my classroom after feeling rejected by his classmates for a third time in a day. “Why is this so hard for me?” he moans.

During one of our recent Circle of Friends meetings, each participant held an empty plastic cup above their head. We shared with one another about our “empty bucket days”—the days when even our family and friends seem to cause more spilling than filling.

Together, we reflected that as Christians, we have deep promises from God that he will fill our buckets even on our worst days.

I will never leave you.

I made you.

I love you, and even when you mess up, I forgive you.

As we spoke God’s bucket-filling promises, we steadily filled our “buckets” with edible ingredients—dry chocolate pudding mix, milk, crushed Oreos, gummy worms—eventually filling the cups and stirring together to create something delicious! (The kids loved telling their parents that Mr. Ippel made them eat dirt!)

It’s a joy and privilege to fill buckets as a teacher at Nicaragua Christian Academy. Thank you so much for your support, and for allowing our family to share in so many bucket-filling moments during our sixth ministry year as a family in Nicaragua.


Andrew and Ruth Ippel serve as missionaries with Resonate Global Mission at Nicaragua Christian Academy, where Andrew coordinates the SOAAR (Students of All Abilities Recognized) program at Nicaragua Christian Academy. Andrew also volunteers at Tesoros de Dios, an organization that serves people with disabilities. Ruth is a nurse at NCA and teaches childbirth classes. Learn more about their work here

This reflection was originally published on The Network.