College students spend spring break helping others

By Michele Chan Santos

Correspondent

Most people associate college students on spring break with parties on the beach. But for hundreds of Catholic college students in the Austin Diocese, spring break this year meant volunteering on a mission trip in another state or country, helping those in need.

Alison Tate, the diocesan director of Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministry, said mission trips give students the opportunity to learn about the church, as well as justice and mercy on a different level.

"When students travel on a mission trip, they get involved with justice they learn about in the Gospel and in Catholic social teaching. These immersive service experiences promote justice and peace and raise consciousness of social issues on campus and among their peers," she said.

Whether they were rebuilding tornado-ravaged neighborhoods in Joplin, Mo., serving the poor in Honduras, assisting kids at an inner-city elementary school in Chicago or building houses in Belize, the students devoted their time, hard work and energy to improving the lives of others. Many campuses throughout the diocese sent students to do good works; here is a sample of what some of them did.

Joplin

On May 22, 2011, a tornado struck Joplin, killing 161 people and destroying a third of the city, including the high school and St. John’s Regional Medical Center (which are both being rebuilt). The tornado caused more than $2 billion in damage.

Troy Menendez, a senior at Texas A&M University majoring in mechanical engineering and an intern at St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station, led a group of 10 students on a trip to Joplin.

"We’ve been doing a domestic mission trip every year since Hurricane Katrina," Menendez said. "We chose Joplin because the town is still very much recovering from the tornado."

For a week, the students volunteered with Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, doing home repair and reconstruction.

"In Joplin, there are a lot of empty lots with bare basements. We helped clean some of those up," Menendez said. "Joplin is in a semi-forested area but where the tornado struck there is not a single tree. You can still see the path of the tornado."

The students enjoyed getting to know the people of Joplin.

"It was wonderful how grateful the community was, how welcoming everyone was," Menendez said. "People would come up to us all the time and thank us for being there. I think we all admired the resilience of the people in Joplin, how they have been able to persevere."

Honduras

Father Will Straten, the associate pastor at St. Mary Catholic Center in College Station, and Rachael Cadena, a campus minister at St. Mary, led a group of 13 to Honduras.

"It was an evangelization mission," Father Straten said. "In Honduras a lot of people live in the hills in small villages. The area we went to had only one priest, who oversees 100 village missions. Because there are so many, he only gets to them two times a year. We went to do little missions in those towns."

The volunteers from A&M and another group went into the remote mountain villages to give separate programs for children, youth and adults.

Some of the topics were "What is Lent," "How to Love and Respect One Another," and teaching the children praise and worship songs with hand motions. Some of the students spoke Spanish and there were translators for the other students.

Father Straten stayed very busy celebrating the sacraments. Because the towns do not see a priest very often, he celebrated Mass and administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick many times. He took care of many baptisms and first Holy communions as well.

The greatest spiritual lesson for the students was "the realization that even though they might not speak the language they could all speak the language of love. One of our students mentioned that. You could smile, sing, color, play with the children," Father Straten said. "To realize that even with the language barrier and cultural barrier we are still one church."

Eleven missions

The Alternative Spring Break program at St. Edward’s University in Austin was very successful, sending a total of 105 St. Edward’s students, faculty, staff and alumni on 11 different service trips, held in locations across the country and in Canada.

Liza Manjarrez, assistant director of campus ministry at St. Edward’s, said the trips provide opportunities for students to practice their faith through service.

"Our four pillars are doing justice, living simply, engaging spiritually and building community," Manjarrez said. "For at least 10 years we’ve been engaged in service to different communities. In the last five years the program has more than doubled in size."

The alternative spring break trips were Apache Awareness –– volunteering with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in White River, Ariz.; Border Experience –– working with local groups that assist immigrants in El Paso; Entertaining Angels –– helping at-risk youth in Los Angeles, Calif.; Gulf Coast Recovery –– helping with oil spill recovery in Louisiana; Homelessness and Hospitality –– working at Andre House, a shelter for the homeless in Phoenix, Ariz.; Hurricane Katrina Relief –– building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Biloxi, Miss.; Inner City Education –– tutoring and counseling at a school in New York City; Mile High Poverty –– assisting the homeless in Denver, Colo.; Poverty in Appalachia –– volunteering with nonprofits to help in the poor in Appalachia; and Urban Immersion –– doing service at local agencies and a school in inner-city Chicago. The final trip brought students to Montreal, Canada, to work at the L’Arche Community, an organization that assists adults with mental and physical disabilities.

The trips have a genuine and deep impact on the students, Manjarrez said. She organizes the trips for St. Edward’s and went on the Apache Awareness trip this year.

"It’s easy to talk about Catholic social teaching from the outside. It’s so different when we can put a face to that name," she said. "Now, when we talk about immigration, it’s not a faceless issue anymore. When we learn about people who are homeless, students have said, ‘I know their names and their stories and their story enriches my life.’"

Continued Manjarrez, "We hope they can take the lessons they learn on the trip and apply them in other parts of their lives."

Belize

Nine students from the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas in Austin traveled to Belize City, Belize, to volunteer with Hand in Hand Ministries, an international organization that helps the poor.

While many Americans think of Belize as a popular cruise destination, what they don’t realize is that 65 percent of Belize’s residents live in extreme poverty.

"In Belize, Hand in Hand Ministries builds houses and volunteer groups do most of the labor," said Lindsay Wilcox, a campus minister at the University Catholic Center. Wilcox organized the trip and accompanied the students.

"We did a little bit of everything –– sawing lumber, roofing, painting," Wilcox said.

The volunteers with Hand in Hand purchase materials for the home and help construct it. The recipients of the houses must provide proof of ownership of a piece of land, help with the building of their home and attend classes. In the last decade, more than 180 families who formerly were living in terrible conditions have received a decent home through this program.

The UT students helped an older couple build their home, Wilcox said.

Programs like the Spring Break Mission Trip "are very crucial to what we do," Wilcox said. "The students travel and have some fun and go to new places, but they go to serve."