Through summer service trips, Catholic School students serve those in need
Aug. 29, 2017
During a time when most students are eager to leave classrooms behind and bask in the sun or sleep in until noon, many students from Archdiocese of Washington Catholic schools decided to dedicate some of their time to serving others during the summer. They traveled all over the country, and sometimes internationally, to help those most in need by repairing homes, delivering healthy meals, or simply being a friend to someone who needed one. These are just a sampling of the places where students spent their time serving this summer.
Three students from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda traveled to Chicago to join a group of students from other Sacred Heart schools across the country to learn about the juvenile justice system there. During the first few days of their June 24-July 1 trip, the girls watched documentaries to learn about the topic, and then had the opportunity to talk to various leaders in Chicago’s juvenile justice system.
The girls learned that once children enter the justice system, a very high percentage never come out due to recurring crimes. Cate Willing, a senior at Stone Ridge, was also surprised to hear that many Chicago public schools have police stations inside of them, and kids are arrested during the school day.
In an effort to find a solution to this, the girls leaned about restorative justice, which would focus less on punishment and more on working with the youth to figure out the problem. Willing said the trip helped her get a better idea of what she might be interested in doing later in life, and is considering becoming a probation officer.
“It is really important that you work with the kids,” she said. “Some of them are incarcerated at (age) 12. It is really hard to grow once you are put in the system.”
Willing found a connection between the work that she does at So Others Might Eat (S.O.M.E), a soup kitchen in Washington, and what she was learning about juvenile justice, since many of the crimes the youth commit are “crimes of poverty,” like stealing food or clothes that they don’t have the resources to buy.
A group of students from Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda made a similar connection, when during their June 4-10 trip to Los Angeles, they would begin every day by serving breakfast to the homeless from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and then often visit Homeboy Industries, a company founded by Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle that employs people who were formerly gang-involved and incarcerated.
There, they would listen to the employees tell their stories, and on the days when they did not visit that company, they would volunteer at an afterschool program that aims to keep kids off of the streets.
“I think the biggest thing I took from the trip is that they are no different than us at all,” said senior Jack Aiello, about the people he met through all of his service experiences in Los Angeles. “…They are just people, just like us. They want a conversation, they have intelligent things to say, they just got themselves in a bad situation.”
Students from Gonzaga College High School in Washington spent June 11-16 in New Orleans, serving with St. Bernard’s Project, which works on rebuilding and rehabilitating homes for families who were affected by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.
Federico Martinez, a senior at Gonzaga, was one of the 12 students in the group. He learned that following the hurricane, many contracting companies had offered services not held to proper standards that resulted in the homes continuing to break. St. Bernard’s Project aims to fix these issues and help families “get their lives back,” Martinez said.
While they were there, they put the finishing touches on a lot of these homes, doing things like tiling and painting. Every night the group had a reflection where they prayed about the day and shared things that had inspired them. They also kept a daily journal for their own personal reflections.
“I think it definitely made a difference,” said Martinez. “It made me in a way kind of check myself and see how thankful I am to God for the opportunities I have and how thankful I am for this opportunity that I can help change someone’s life for the better.”
A group of 14 students from Georgetown Preparatory School traveled to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to do similar work of repairing houses and painting fences, but quickly learned their real job was to “make a mark on the kids there…to do something that would last longer than fixing a yard or house,” said senior Logan Miller.
Every day, the boys would wake up, do work on houses or yards for several hours, and then in the evening do a group reflection before going to play basketball with the kids on the reservation. Miller said he had heard about the drug and alcohol problems on reservations, but during his weeklong stay there, he was able to get to know the people behind the statistics and see the problems first hand.
Miller recalled how every evening at the conclusion of their basketball game, all of the kids from ages 7 to 14 would reach into their pockets and light cigarettes, which shocked the group from Georgetown Prep. While they were there, they saw similarly young children drinking, and heard stories about how many people die from circumstances such as hypothermia, being attacked by dogs, or falling into a dam. All of this, on top of being in the poorest county in the United States with an employment rate of about 80 percent, contributes to a sense of hopelessness that Miller said his group wanted to combat.
“We hoped to make a lasting impression and instill hope in these kids who are so hopeless,” said Miller.
But despite the hopelessness, Miller was struck by how inviting everyone was to them. One kid who they got to know well and still keep in touch with invited them all into his home to get to know his family, and another man invited them to participate in a prayer ritual called the “sweat lodge.”
In the sweat lodge, which Miller said is about six feet in diameter, they took 28 rocks that had been burning in a fire for several hours and put them in the small lodge made of sticks and rope. The group then all piled in together for four rounds of five minutes, and the leader poured water with sage over the hot rocks, creating lots of steam. Each cycle had a specific prayer intention, like praying for someone who needs help or something that they individually need to work on.
“It was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had with prayer,” said Miller, who added that it gave him an opportunity to “sit down and take in their culture and apply it to how I pray and the way we in a Jesuit school are taught to pray.”
At St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia from June 10-16, a group of seven girls from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington prepared food for the homeless and worked in a clothing store, which senior Anne Elizabeth Barr said taught her the importance of treating people with dignity.
Many days, the girls would pick up food to prepare and serve to the homeless people who came to the “inn.” While many soup kitchens operate like an assembly line, St. Francis Inn operates more like a restaurant, said Barr. When it was time for the meal, the students would walk up to the guests, ask them what they would like to eat, and then serve it to them, which she said was all about “serving with dignity.” Afterward, they would take time to sit down and talk to the people they had served. Barr said she found that she had a lot of things in common with the people that she spoke with, whom she described as “the kindest people in the world and just down on their luck.”
“I had never had that experience where you had so much one on one time with the people you serve and able to have conversations with them and be fully present with them,” said Barr. “I thought that was so beautiful that we were able to do that.”
On other days, the girls would work in a “Marie’s Closet,” a center that distributes donated clothing that is run out of the inn. But no matter what they were doing, they always began the day with Mass and ended it with a prayer service. Barr said the experience taught her how close she could feel to God through serving others.
“You could really feel God there. When we walked in the room, you could feel that presence of God, especially in the interactions with others,” she said. “When you talk to most of the guests, most of them would be like ‘God bless you,’ and you would have that connection with them through God.”
Six students from Stone Ridge traveled to Atherton, California, where they also worked on issues of hunger, but they began right at the source of the food. The students volunteered at an organic farm, where they learned about farming, gardening, and preparing healthy meals.
On a daily basis, the girls did farm work like getting eggs from the chicken coup, feeding the chicken or rabbits, and milking the goats. They then prepared meals, and one day went to San Francisco to feed the homeless with food they had prepared and visit with them.
“You could tell the homeless people were grateful for our fresh, organic food,” said junior Melanie Pane. “That food is sometimes really expensive.”
Instead of joining many of her classmates who traveled to the beach for one last hurrah during “Beach Week,” Lexi Lutz, who graduated from Good Counsel High School in Olney in May, decided to spend June 3-12 traveling to the Dominican Republic with the school’s choir.
“I have learned through Good Counsel that no matter how much we believe in and talk to ourselves about God, we haven’t put it to the test until we go to other places and have our faith challenged,” said Lutz.
From about 9 a.m. to noon every day, the Good Counsel students would go and teach kids music at a local school. Then, during recess they would play with the kids. And in the afternoon, they would return to teach 6th grade, which Lutz said included kids of many different ages.
“I’m not into all of the stuff that happens at beach week, so the Dominican trip was such a breath of fresh air,” said Lutz. “The people down there were so full of soul and genuinely happy, they don’t fall in love with material things that we do. Nobody has air conditioning, which in the states we take for granted . . . It was really joyful to learn about their culture and how they have little to nothing and they are so better off than we are in their spirit and their walk with God.”
During her trip to Peru, Christina Dropulic, a senior at Georgetown Visitation, grew to have a similar admiration for the native people she met there. By the end of their June 28-July 8 trip, she said she had become “infatuated by the Quechuan culture.”
During their trip, students had the opportunity to travel through different sites in Peru, such as the Incan Ruins and Machu Picchu, and also to serve with various non-governmental organizations in the country. While they were there, the 16 girls stayed with Peruvian host families, where they shared all of their meals.
One day, they spent time with Quechuan women in a weaving cooperative through the organization Awamaki, which aims to create sustainable tourism and to help women have sustainable income to contribute to their families. Another, they volunteered with Ayni Wasi, or Sacred Valley Health, which seeks to increase access to health care for remote communities and educate people about proper sanitation. Finally, they volunteered at an English-immersion school that educates children and trains them in trades that will help them to positively contribute to their community, such as farming or weaving.
“I love their hospitality and their kindness towards others and their way of life,” Dropulic said. “Before we were a little overwhelmed and culture shocked and hesitant to interact with this group of people, but by the end we learned they are just as hardworking and loving as us and just because they do something different doesn’t mean it is wrong at all.”
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