by Moira Cullings
BENQUE VIEJO DEL CARMEN, Belize — Millions of Americans will go on a short-term mission trip this year and experience the inevitable sorrow of leaving behind the lives they’ve touched.
But alumni of Benedictine College in Atchison are pushing the boundaries on the impact these types of visits can make — on both sides of the equation.
“I knew [when I started college that] I wanted to go on at least one [mission trip],” said Erin Hunninghake, one of several Benedictine alumni who spent time volunteering in Belize during her college years.
“But I never thought it would grab hold of me the way it did and keep me coming back year after year,” she added.
Hunninghake’s experience was nothing new. The Belize mission trip has been known to open doors for the students who experience it.
“I had never been out of the country before, let alone seen the poverty of a Third World country,” said Pam Heiman about her first trip to the Central American country. “I had no idea it would be as life-changing as it was to me.”
Sarah Krapes believes the leap of faith she took in participating in the Belize trip during her junior year was one of the best decisions of her life.
“Being able to volunteer in a developing country, but a very poor town, was an eye-opening experience,” she said.
“Even in just a short time doing mission work, your life is still going to be different,” said Heiman. “You will see the world differently, be more grateful for what you have and enjoy the people around you.”
On their own
And then something very unhelpful happened to the young missionaries.
And the young women’s new “grown-up” jobs did nothing to feed the need they had developed through several previous trips to connect to the many in Belize whom they had come to think of as almost extended family.
So Hunninghake and her former classmates decided to plan their own “mini” mission trip. Self-funded and organized, the BC alumnae arranged to take days off from their full-time jobs to travel south this past June.
BC in Benque Viejo del Carmen
The work that visiting Benedictine students do in the remote town of Benque Viejo del Carmen includes volunteering at the local elementary school, working on construction projects for the parish and families, and running a soccer camp for kids.
Most students have very different expectations going into their first trip to Benque than the reality plays out.
“I went into that first trip with the mindset that we were going to help out those kids,” said Hunninghake. “I had no clue they would be the ones helping me.”
It only takes one trip, however, to change that mindset.
“Anyone who has been on one of these mission trips to Belize,” she said, “knows how attached you get to the kids and the people there.
“Going back didn’t even seem like an option. I had to see those kids again.”
The community’s hospitality is one of the things that makes such an impression on the college students — and drew the four alumnae back even after they’d graduated from BC.
“These people had close to nothing, but were willing to give a stranger the shirt off their back without thinking twice,” said Krapes.
In preparation for this last trip, the women had gathered medical and other supplies with the help of friends and families. While there, they attended Mass with the local high school kids and volunteered at the elementary school.
But arranging their own trip made it possible for them to spend less time in organized activities and more time with the locals.
This time, they were there less as missionaries — and more as family.
“We were invited to family dinners, graduation celebrations and even meeting newborn infants,” said Krapes.
“We were invited in and loved by the people,” she continued. “I love being in Central America because of the culture found there.”
It is the small moments, the women agree, that make the greatest impressions.
At the end of Hunninghake’s first trip, for example, she gave a photo of herself to a girl with whom she had bonded.
Hunninghake returned the next year and, during her time volunteering at the school, ran into her friend, who quickly pulled out the photo.
The young girl had carried it with her all that time.
“The impact you make on those kids just by listening to them read a book or by playing tag with them at recess is bigger than you realize,” she said. “They remember the time you gave them and the love you showed them.”
The power of those little experiences makes it even harder to go home.
“I remember thinking how sad it was that we left a place of such poverty to [return to] a place of wealth and comfort,” said Hunninghake. “And yet, the joy and love was much harder to find [in the States].”
Social media is one of the ways the BC alums have been able to stay in touch with the people they’d met in Belize.
That was the way, said Krapes, that, between her visits, “I was able to build and maintain relationships with the kids we were able to volunteer with.”
Websites like Facebook and Instagram allow the children to update their friends from Benedictine on their lives through photos, messages and more.
Heartbreak and hope
For some, even these “mini” missions after college have proven not enough.
Mount Carmel High School in Benque actively recruits volunteers interested in teaching there for a year or more, and several students from Benedictine have gone on to do just that, including Katherine Kennedy and Katie Seiwert.
The two made their first trip to Belize during their junior year of college but were unable to return their senior year to Benque due to student teaching obligations.
But that did nothing to address the strong pull they felt to go back.
“Benque left a special place in my heart, and every time I thought about living in Belize, I was just so peaceful,” said Kennedy.
“I wasn’t ready to take a job in the States and settle down. I wanted to do something different and give back to people that made such a strong impact on my life,” she continued.
It was the little things that made the biggest impact on Seiwert’s decision to go back — one in particular.
“I noticed one little girl I worked with in the classroom had been obsessed with this little gold ring all week,” said Seiwert, “and she had said it was her favorite.
“At the end of the week, she gave it to me.”
It’s hard to describe how that made Seiwert feel.
“I think at that moment I learned what charity really was,” she said.
“I had thought that giving away things I didn’t want anymore was charity,” she continued, “and here this girl was giving me a treasure out of her poverty.”
The transition from spending a short amount of time in Benque to living there was a challenge for both women, and they soon discovered that teaching in a Third World country was hardly a simple task.
“It’s hard to watch teenagers who want to change give in to the cycle of poverty and give up on school,” said Seiwert. “I had a lot of students break my heart with their choices.
“And sometimes, it felt like I cared more about their future than they cared themselves.”
Sometimes, she said, all she could offer was a prayer and a smile.
After her first year, Seiwert decided to stay for one more.
“Things just hadn’t come to an organic close, and I knew I needed to come back another year to finish what I had started with my students,” she said.
Although both Kennedy and Seiwert are back home now, they continue to influence their former students from afar. Both women sponsor students financially so that former students can continue their education through high school and even on to college.
The impact the experience had on both of the women’s lives has been tremendous. Kennedy now teaches math at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Seiwert teaches English at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Wichita.
Their experiences also continue to influence their outlook on life.
“‘The world’ isn’t just some blurry faces anymore,” said Seiwert. “‘The world’ has a face with a name and a smile.
“It’s really not so big and scary as some people think.”
For more information on the Benque Viejo del Carmen mission, visit the website or contact Katherine Kennedy by email at: kkennedy@sta saints.net.