Finding Common Ground

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 4:45pm
Ecuador immersion

“We were not working for the poor; rather, we were working with the poor,” Kailey Walker ’12 reflected on her service immersion experience in Belize City.

During their spring break in March, Walker and nine other Spring Hill students helped to build a house for the Wade family, who worked alongside the immersion participants every day at the work site. “The moment the house blessing began, I looked over at the house and had a feeling that it was no longer our house but Mrs. Wade’s house,” Walker said. “Knowing that her house will be the ticket to providing her grandchildren with a better life and a greater opportunity for success took any frustration I had with hammering, the heat, or the crazy chickens running around, and turned it into nothing short of Agape.”

While on the trip, Walker, a secondary education/social science major from Murphysboro, Ill., took a “great leap of faith” and decided to apply to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. “Being in Belize this year, something just clicked inside of me that told me, yes, Kailey, you have to at least apply to JVC and the rest will be in God’s hands.”

Walker’s experience is all too familiar for veterans of Spring Hill’s International Service Immersion Program. Once bitten by the immersion “bug,” they participate year after year and often devote themselves to a life of service through volunteer programs.

Since its inception eight years ago, Campus Ministry’s immersion program has grown to include trips to Belize, Nicaragua, El Salvador and, this year’s addition, Ecuador. Students, faculty and staff raised more than $30,000 to fund the trips through activities such as sending begging letters, selling Christmas wreaths, and singing Christmas carols. For the past two years, the program has benefitted from a $25,000 grant from The Catholic Church Extension Society.

In Belize City, immersion participants work with Hand in Hand Ministries’ Building for Change program, which has constructed more than 150 homes for qualified recipients over the last few years. Groups also spend time at Hand in Hand’s outreach center for children infected with and affected by the HIV/AIDS virus and visit partner schools to witness the results of the organization's scholarship and tutoring efforts.

Spring Hill collaborates with Hand in Hand’s Pathway to Change program in Managua, Nicaragua, where volunteers construct or renovate homes and preschools in the poorest area of the city. Immersion participants do activities with the children, such as taking them swimming or to the zoo or helping out in their classrooms.

This year the group in Nicaragua built a home for a woman named Lorena. “I experienced God’s love on our last day on the site while building Lorena’s house,” said Kearney Cole ’13, a nursing major from Kirkwood, Mo. At the end of the workday, the group had a closing prayer service with the family. “I looked around the circle and saw that Lorena was singing along and crying,” Cole said. “She told us after that we would be in her heart forever and how grateful she was to have us come to help with the construction of her new home.”

Alexandra Golik ’13, a nursing major from Village of Palmetto Bay, Fla., said she felt a deep connection with the Nicaraguans she met on the trip. “I thought before this trip it would be difficult to connect with the local people, for we live in what would seem two different worlds” she said. “While spending time with the family we constructed a house for, I was fortunate to form a close bond with the family members. It took no time to become friends and now nothing can break that bond.”

Spring Hill visited Ecuador for the first time this year. The group worked with Rostro de Cristo (Face of Christ), a volunteer and retreat program based in Durán, Ecuador.

The Ecuador trip was the fourth immersion experience for Gina Pambianchi ’11 of Cleveland, Miss. “This was the first non-service trip I had ever been on. It was all about just being with the people, getting to know a different culture in the short time that we had,” she said.

Joined by SHC President Richard Salmi, S.J., the students met with families from Durán and the “invasion” communities, people from the countryside who have invaded privately owned land, usually to be closer to the major city of Guayaquil.

In the afternoons, they visited Rostro de Cristo’s after-school programs for children in the surrounding impoverished communities. “The smiles of the kids are what I remember the most from experiences like these,” Pambianchi said.

They also visited Damien House, a treatment center for Ecuadorans with Hansen’s disease, commonly known as leprosy. Pambianchi, a biology/pre-health major, said one of the most touching aspects of the trip was interacting with people who have the disease and learning about the stigma associated with it.

In 2010, Campus Ministry added a trip to El Salvador to the immersion roster. A true immersion experience rather than a service-oriented trip, the El Salvador encounter focuses on living in solidarity with the Salvadoran people. Coordinated through CRISPAZ (Christians for Peace in El Salvador), delegations heard from survivors of the country’s civil war.

Among those who told their stories were CoMadres, the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared. The women shared their personal accounts of brutal torture and their family members’ “forced disappearances.” Kelly Lucash ’12, a nursing major from Manchester, Mo., said, “I have never met, nor do I think I will ever again encounter, a group of women who inspire me to the extent that these women managed with their courage and fortitude.”

A major component of the El Salvador immersion experience is living with families in the rural village of Guarjila. “The people we met live very simple lives, yet they are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met,” said Alex Griffin ’12. “I felt challenged to live a more simple life, and I think this is a challenge worth taking.”

Griffin, a political science major from Cincinnati, said the Salvadorans inspired him to appreciate his blessings and use them to help others. “After hearing so many horrific stories from people, and knowing that they still have faith, gave me reason to not lose faith in what really are trivial matters,” he said, “especially compared to some of the hardships the people of El Salvador have had to face.”

In Punta Gorda, Belize, Spring Hill partners with St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit parish and school that serves the pastoral and educational needs of indigenous Maya and Garifuna villages nearby. Our immersion group helped to lay the cement foundation for an elementary school library in a Maya village and interacted with the children of the school.

“This trip gave me a sense of peace that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced yet in my life,” said Carleigh Lanclos ’13 of Baton Rouge, La. An international studies major, she has participated in three immersion trips and is contemplating applying to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. “This trip was just a humbling reminder that I don’t have everything figured out, but I trust God that everything’s going to fall into place,” she said.

Lanclos summarizes a sentiment felt by many seasoned immersion participants. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think back to my Punta Gorda trip or one of the other trips I’ve been on. I don’t think you can go on trips like these and not come back changed in some way,” she said. “In my everyday life I think I just try to live my life to the fullest now – embrace every second I can, help wherever I can.”