Students use summer to leave their comfort zones — and comfortable lives — for community service

Some travel abroad; some just head Downtown
Living among impoverished opens students' hearts
Living among impoverished opens students' hearts
Posted at 12:00 PM, Jun 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-21 12:00:08-04

School may be out for the summer, but many Tri-State high school students are using the time to learn outside of their classrooms — and their comfort zones.

Groups of teens are spending part of their summer traveling to impoverished areas across the country and abroad to learn about the world around them and to offer their time to others.

Catholic and other religious-based high schools typically place a strong emphasis on community service and involvement throughout the school year, which includes offering service-related classes and employing staff members dedicated to facilitating these growth opportunities for their students.

The summer months offer the chance for immersive weekend or week-long mission or service trips to far-flung destinations or right here in the U.S.

Students at St. Xavier High School can choose from 10 trips, ranging from a week in urban Detroit or rural Tennessee to Ecuador or Guatemala.

Drew Jung, a senior at St. Xavier, returned June 4 from a week in Guatemala with a dozen of his classmates and a couple of chaperones. The boys spent their time at a local kindergarten teaching English, landscaping at a park and plastering walls for homes. Jung connected with the young students in his class — they each made him a card when he left to return home.

“I was surprised at how impoverished it was,” Jung said of the Guatemalan towns he visited. “But the people were so happy and so nice and so talkative, even though they weren’t blessed with the opportunities that we have. It has taught me to be more grateful, and I look at life with more optimism.”

Mount Notre Dame High School students recently traveled to El Salvador for an immersive experience. Students learned about the people of El Salvador, their struggles and the country’s history, said Jessica Stein, a West Chester resident and 2016 graduate.

The students visited with representatives from the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, went to a fair-trade coffee co-op to learn how the local small farmers pool their crop to export their coffee using fair trade, and learned about immigration issues. Stein said the students broke up into small groups and stayed one night with local families to experience firsthand how they live. Many of the families had dirt floors, no running water or electricity, she said.

“It has put in perspective just how good I have it here, but it has also motivated me to become an advocate of social justice,” Stein said. “An advocate not just for the people of El Salvador, but for people suffering in general.”

Stein — who hopes to join Doctors Without Borders at some point — said some of the things she thought were important in her life now seem trivial. Students do not use their cell phones on these trips, and when Stein returned home, she scrolled through Instagram, something she used to do often.

“I was seeing all the celebrities’ pictures and people my age going to parties. I was looking at it, and it all seemed so pointless to me,” Stein said. “I was thinking about the people I met in El Salvador who live in fear of gang members coming after them or who fear they won’t be able to feed their children — and then I was looking at a celebrity who was buying six cars because they have enough money to do that, and it is such a huge contrast.”

These summer trips can also be transformative for the adults who chaperone.

Kathy Raffenberg, an accountant at St. Xavier, volunteered to chaperone a school mission trip to South Dakota her son was taking in 2009. The community service office said they never let parents attend, because part of the goal of the trips is to push the students out of their comfort zones. They instead asked Raffenberg to chaperone a trip to Ecuador. Despite some initial hesitation, Raffenberg agreed. The 2016 trip marked her eighth consecutive visit to Ecuador with a dozen St. Xavier students on each trip.

St. Xavier High School students pose in front of a statue of Simon Bolivar in downtown Guayaquil, Ecuador.

The mission trips used to be all about constructing something or giving things to the local people, but they found what was needed more was to create an open communication between people who have resources and people who don’t and creating a community environment, Raffenberg said. Now, the students spend time talking with neighbors and hearing about their problems and trying to understand what they are going through.

“What I try and do is just to show them the disparity of wealth in the world,” Raffenberg said. “In theory, they understand that there are poor people in the world, but to actually see it and to actually meet those people and hear those people talk and know that they are quite intelligent and capable people — it is something entirely different.”

The group helped with an after-school program, met with nuns who work at a center trying to empower women and visited people’s homes.

Not all mission trips take place abroad. There are many opportunities to witness poverty in our own backyard, said Todd Forman, community service events coordinator for Mount Notre Dame. In addition to the El Salvador trip launched this year, MND students can choose to spend a weekend in urban Columbus, a week in downtown Cincinnati with St. Vincent De Paul Society for an “urban plunge” experience or a rural experience in Liberty, Kentucky. One advantage of the more local trips is that they are more easily repeated — and cost less to attend.

“At a lot of schools, a student goes on a trip once and they can’t go back, which makes sense to open up the opportunities to other kids, but it is hard to develop the relationships and life-changing types of things that happen unless you get a chance to relive those experiences and dive more deeply each time you go,” Forman said.

MND students are encouraged to repeat the trips to nearby locations, and many have attended the Liberty trip, for example, five or six times. In Liberty, students put away their cell phones for the week and focus on making human connections. They stay at a special-needs children’s home, work with organic farmers and talk with Mennonite and Amish people in the area.

Mount Notre Dame students volunteering in Liberty, Kentucky.

“They realize how blessed they are,” Forman said of the students. “They see that any preconceived notions about people they don’t know were wrong. They realize that if you are born into poverty, it is difficult to get out of it. They see that their relationships are the most important part of their lives.”

Whether a trip’s goal was to perform a service or create connections and awareness, one theme in all the adventures was that students had a transformative experience that opened their eyes and hearts to the struggles of others.

“It was such a shock, almost, to realize how ignorant I have been to the problems of other people,” Stein said. “I now have an entirely new way of looking at things.”