Reading the writing on the wall:

Service trip leads students to heart of Catholicism

by Jessica Langdon
jessica.langdon@theleaven.org

TIJUANA, Mexico — They might have needed a little help with the translation. But they quickly took the sentiment of the border wall slogan to heart: “There are dreams on this side, too.”

Seven students from Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, started their summers with a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, where they volunteered at the mission of Father Pat Murphy, CS. Father Pat, who spent a decade in the archdiocese as its animator for Hispanic ministry, is now the director of Casa del Migrante there. Each year, the Casa provides food, shelter, guidance and temporary assistance to thousands of men recently deported from the United States.

Although he can’t do much to fulfill the dreams of the men the Casa serves, Father Pat does his best to offer them a brief respite from their ongoing nightmare.

As he welcomed the arrival of the Ward students, he noted how many of their families he knew from his work in the archdiocese.

“After having spent 10 years working with the Hispanic community in Kansas City,” said Father Pat, “it was like having family visit from home! And it allowed me to share my mission with the group.”

“I have known some of these students for many years,” he continued, “so sharing with them was like sharing with their families what is our mission here in Tijuana.”

Seven students were accompanied on the trip by adult chaperones Carmen Villarreal, Felipe Navarro and Marisol Reyna.

The trip was organized by Ward graduate and now teacher Urse Charbonneau, who also serves as the high school’s director of international relations, and outgoing Ward president Father Michael Hermes, both of whom also accompanied the group.

Stories of struggles

Upon arrival, it didn’t take long before the teens got down to business.

“They seemed to just jump right into the activities of the Casa and, right from the start, felt very much at home,” said Father Pat. “I think, because their family story of origin is so connected to the plight of the immigrants, it was very natural for them to get involved so easily.”

Viviana Lizarraga, who will be a senior, was most surprised at “how different the lifestyles are in the U.S. and in Tijuana.”

Certainly the teens’ typical summer schedule was turned on its head — now up before dawn preparing breakfast for the migrants and working into the evening, cleaning up the dinner they’d made and served.

But the young Cyclones wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Having meals with all the men living in the Casa was really touching because we were able to listen to their stories,” said Ricardo Zamora, who graduated from Bishop Ward in May. “Helping make the meals for the men was a good time, as well.”

Latesha Maxey, who will be a junior, talked with one man determined to return to his daughter because he didn’t want her to grow up without him.

“He wants to go back, and he’s going to find a way to get back to them,” said Latesha. “He doesn’t care how much he has to work.”

“A lot of their stories were basically them being separated from their families,” said Jessica Gomez, who will be a junior.

For many migrants, life in the United States is all they know.

“A lot of them have their jobs here [in the United States], their house, their families,” said Jessica. “A lot of them also were brought here when they were very young, so this was more their country for them.”

“And a lot of them spoke perfect English, too,” added Jessica. “So for a lot of them — being in Mexico — they have nothing there.”

The migrants’ struggles deeply touched Reyna, an immigrant herself.

“I was born and raised in Mexico until the age of 10,” she said. “I know what it is like to struggle and grow up half your childhood without a dad. It wasn’t easy to know that my dad had to be thousands of miles away in order to provide the bare necessities of life for us.”

The trip reminded Reyna of the struggles many families still face, yet also filled her with hope.

“They view life with such optimism despite their circumstances,” she said, “with no excuses and only results!”

Not just another mission trip

In preparation for what turned out to be a life-changing experience, the Ward students did a lot of research on the issue of immigration, explained Charbonneau, although the subject wasn’t a new one to them.

“A lot of people who live in KCK are intimately familiar with these issues because they’re a part of our community,” said Charbonneau.

The group also involved the entire Kansas City, Kansas, Catholic community in their plans. The students prepared speeches in both English and Spanish to deliver at local parishes, asking for support for their trip, and for help raising $1,000 to donate to Casa del Migrante.

Parishioners responded generously.

Across the border, Father Pat and Gilberto Martinez, administrator at the Casa, crafted an experience they hoped would stay with the students long after their time in Mexico was over.

Father Pat witnessed the students seeing “first and foremost how blessed their lives are and how many opportunities they have to make something of themselves.”

By extension, he said, they also learned to “treat the poor with humble respect because you have been blessed and have a responsibility to make a difference.”

Into the neighborhood

The group’s experience of Tijuana did not stop at the Casa’s doors, however.

The neighborhoods they visited offered a look at life as they had never experienced it.

The high school students helped drywall a house in a neighborhood called Fausto Gonzalez, home to a woman and her daughters.

“The back part of her house was sliding,” said Jessica. “It was being held up with tires. . . . She didn’t know how long it was going to be able to stay like that.”

The neighborhood was built there originally, the students learned, because it was close to the dump, where early residents picked through the trash to furnish their homes.

The repair of her home was right up Ricardo’s alley.

“I really enjoy more hands-on hard work when I volunteer, so I really liked going to one of the poor neighborhoods to build a home for a family that really needed it,” said Ricardo.

But the repairs the students made to the woman’s house, said Charbonneau, were as much about the teens as they were about her.

“One of the real goals of the trip was to provide an instance of service that would inspire a life of service,” said Charbonneau.

“The end goal of putting drywall on a house is not necessarily putting drywall on a house,” she continued. “It was to give these kids an experience and to help provide them with some role models for a good kind of Christian life to live.”

One such model was Karen Muro, a Tijuana native who was giving almost a year of her life in service at Casa del Migrante, a contribution the Kansas students started considering as a possibility for their own futures.

Other models of the Christian life were found among some of the residents they met.

“Even the poorest of the poor make the most out of what they have and still keep a smile on their face!” said Viviana.

Latesha saw a lot of that quality in the woman whose house needed drywall. She didn’t have much, but she gave what she could, making sure the volunteers had sodas and snacks.

“She was just really kind, and being around people like that makes you realize, ‘Wow, I should be grateful for what I have now,’” said Latesha.

Gratitude was a frequent theme of the students’ conversations, both during and after the trip.

Adrian Villarreal, who will be a senior, found that going on a trip like this has a lot to offer a high school student: “To realize how fortunate we are and how we take everything for granted, while in Tijuana anything that is given is appreciated because it can be the change to their lives.”

In a reflection shared during the trip, one of the students said that it’s impossible to be both grateful and selfish at the same time, said Charbonneau.

She hopes to see this trip become an annual event, with students taking on many of the leadership roles in the future.

Service now and in the future

The trip brought together students engaged in many activities at Ward, but who maybe didn’t know each other well before they left.

On the trip, said Latesha, they bonded in new ways that she feels will open up conversations in the future.

They served together, but also talked and laughed together, even spending some time on the beach and writing in the sand after the work was done, she said.

“I have no doubt it will give them a new perspective on life, and they should use what they have been given by God to the best of their ability,” said Father Pat of their experience.

“I hope it might help them to decide what they want to do with their lives and perhaps at some point spend some time serving others.”

Latesha is not talking about somewhere down the line — she already knows she wants to make the Ward trip next year.

And Jessica is thinking of volunteering a year like Muro; when you think about it, she said, it’s really not that long.

The students saw a tremendous need in Tijuana, but agree there are plenty of ways to make an impact through volunteering even in their own community.

“It was heartbreaking to see all of the poor families, but, most of all, it was an eye-opening experience that I know will help us figure out our calling,” said senior Mercedes Caballero.

Lesslie Martinez, another senior, takes away from the trip feelings that are almost indescribable.

“In no way could I have expected the immense impact these five days have had on me,” she said.

“If everyone could live these five days as I did, people would realize why as Catholics our job is to serve, serve and serve.”

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