Students are Making a Difference on Mission Matters Trips

News Story: May 15, 2013
From left are the 2013 Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala Mission Matters delegations.

Sacred Heart University has been sending students on international mission, service and immersion trips through the Office of Volunteer Programs Service Learning for years, and this past spring was no exception. A total of 34 students traveled to Central America during spring break, with delegates returning to El Salvador for the 21st year and two brand new groups heading to Guatemala and Costa Rica. Each trip has a different origin and purpose; however, the overall mission is for Sacred Heart students to stand in solidarity with Salvadorans, Costa Ricans and Guatemalans.

“The international immersion/mission trips are being reconstructed to develop students’ understanding of poverty. This aligns with the University’s commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said Matthew Kaye, director of the Office of Volunteer Programs and Service Learning. This past year, 15 students enrolled in the International Education course that was offered along with participation in one of the three international trips. In the upcoming academic year two additional three-unit courses will be added. These service learning courses will be tied to students’ participation in one of the three Central American trips.”

These trips offer a unique experience that blends community service with a study abroad experience. Javier Vidal ’13, SHU student leader on the trip to Costa Rica, said that the residents were very welcoming from the moment the 14 eager delegates arrived. “The highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to live with an amazing host family who taught us a lot about Costa Rican culture. They embraced our curiosity and willingness to learn,” he said.

Mia James ’13 is a student leader who has been traveling on the Mission Matters international trips since she was a sophomore. She has been to El Salvador twice and was one of only five Sacred Heart students in the pilot delegation to Guatemala this year. “I have grown tremendously as an individual as a result of these trips, and I can guarantee that any student who has had the opportunity to participate would agree,” she said.

Before participants can attend the trips, they need to fundraise. Mission Matters delegates have raised approximately $20,000 each year, which is donated to community organizations that primarily focus on health, nutrition, education and community development. While students are visiting the countries, they work and spend time with each organization that has received donations.

For many years, Sacred Heart has donated to a lunch program for children in the community of Tierra Blanca, El Salvador. “Each year, we eat many lunches with the program while we are there,” James said. “In addition, in Guatemala this year, we were able to visit a nutrition clinic called CERNE that provides two meals a day to malnourished children in the area.”

Ashley Chory ’15, a student delegate who also went to Guatemala, discussed the issue of gender inequality in a Mayan community where the group spent some time. “The women had no voice or opinion in the community,” she said. Chory also recalled one particular moment that solidified the intercultural bond that is formed on these trips. “We went through the woods; it was steep, wet and muddy. I slipped and a woman of less than half my size grabbed me and kept me up. That is when I realized that regardless of the many differences between us, we had that same feeling of equality, love and even protectiveness,” she said.

Most participants described their experience as “life changing,” adding that the new personal relationships mean the most. Kayla Fonseca ’13 is the vice president of judicial affairs, president of Psi Chi National Honor Society and co-chair of Forever Pioneers at Sacred Heart. As a student delegate leader on her second trip to El Salvador, she continued to “marvel at the bridge that was built between two cultures through the friendships students formed with many of the community youth leaders. After taking part in this trip, many students – myself included – find that there is not a day that passes when El Salvador does not come to mind,” she said.

Abby O’Keefe ’14, an El Salvador participant, feels the same way about the feeling of community that was fostered this year. “The greatest memories were the times when the people from El Salvador and our delegation came together as one through dance, song, laughter and games and simply enjoyed the unbreakable friendships that we had created,” she said.

Terry Neu, an education professor from the Griswold campus, completed his 15th trip with Sacred Heart to El Salvador this year. “The conversations and sharing are something that both delegates and local people in the community truly remember for a lifetime," said the adviser for the 15 students on the mission. “While conditions in a struggling nation like El Salvador can be an eye opening experience for SHU students, the end result for many participants is an appreciation for daily living in the United States and a developed sense of solidarity for those less fortunate.”

Amanda Francini, a Campus Ministry graduate assistant advisor to the El Salvador delegates, said that the program encourages students to grow intellectually, academically and spiritually. She explained that “students venture onto the trip to help others, but return home having been taught by those with whom they worked.” One such student, who had a powerful experience in a Salvadorian mass service, was student leader Lauren Bonistalli ’14. “One memory that stands out for me was singing in the church choir with a few other delegates during Sunday mass. Singing with them was amazing because, although I did not understand the lyrics, I felt like nothing else mattered at that moment,” she said. “Even though the power was out and it was dark in the church, everyone kept going without a glitch—even those playing instruments and using sheet music.”  

The students found that the most difficult part was seeing the hardships the local people go through and then trying to readjust to the American lifestyle once they return home. “Through the words I heard, the places I saw and the emotions of the people, my heart was broken, and I was left in disbelief,” said O’Keefe. James put it in plain terms. “It is frustrating to know I will live here with a bed, clothes, an excess of food and anything I want, while they live in poverty. Although they are surviving, they are not thriving,” she said. “Our fundraising helps to address that stark inequality, but there is still a long way to go.”