By Norm Georgina
After years of local service, the Youth Group of St. Mary’s Parish in Farmington, New Mexico prayerfully decided to extend the arms of service, and in that act, found peace in unexpected places.
With the encouragement of Fr. Josh Mayer, pastor of St. Mary’s of Bloomfield, eight youth (and former youth) members and five adults from St. Mary’s ventured to Antigua, Guatemala for an eight-day mission trip. The mission trip was set up to visit the school Escuela Integrada in the village of Jocotenango, as well as home visits and house blessings. Escuela Integrada is a Christian-based school supported by GRACES, a U.S. based non-profit organization. The mission of GRACES is to improve the lives of local children living in poverty. The school hopes for each child to be sponsored for both tuition and two meals a day. The school has an eighty percent graduation rate into high school, in contrast to public schools in Guatemala where graduation rate is about thirty percent.
Fundraising for the last year and a half by the youth at St. Mary’s Parish allowed the group to buy much needed food staples for 17 families, purchase and install four efficiency wood burning stoves, and treat the kindergarten class to a field trip. Walking into the school, our group was welcomed by smiling, joyful, happy faces. Students from kindergarten through eighth grade share a school house with nine small classrooms, a small kitchen – where daily breakfast and lunch were prepared – and a playground created on a long cobblestone driveway which included one basketball hoop and a small wooden swing/slide set.
Right away, our group became engaged in recess activities (jump rope, basketball, soccer skills, puzzles and board games). There was no awkward ‘getting to know you’ between students, staff and youth group, as the students follow the whole social culture of Antigua: friendly, caring, joyful. While on home visits, the group realized the true poverty of the area. One-room homes with blankets for doors, no running water, limited electrical access (for a single light bulb in home), very little furniture, such as beds, cupboard for clothing and plastic stools were typical. Some of the wood burning stoves installed by the group were to be shared by multiple families. With filtered water containers that were installed years earlier by other Escuela Integrada mission groups, the stoves are very efficient, using very little wood to cook large quantities of food.
Yet, within the shadow of poverty, the group found the most joy-filled, gracious, determined and proud people they had ever encountered. The joy radiated from every child, parent, and sibling waiting for a vacant spot in an Escuela Integrada classroom. Although – in our groups’ first-world view of richness – these people lacked the substance of wealth, they found a true richness that possessions will never reveal. We observed a wealth of blessings, joy, love, and peace that many hope to obtain in our busy American lives.
The support and encouragement for education was extremely obvious in Jocotenango. Families shared with the group that they believe education is the way out of financial poverty and many sacrificed much so their children could attend Escuela Integrada. Joyfully, parents worked miles from home to ensure their children could continue at the school. Because of the small size of classrooms, many applicants wait years for a spot at the school. Many of the wonderful, caring teachers and staff are former students of Escuela Integrada, which elevated the passion and commitment of the school. After recess duty, home visits, stove installations, the field trip, after-school homework club, and a little sightseeing, our youth group sadly said goodbye to students and staff in hopes of revisiting in the future.
Many on the trip took a little part of the school with them as they became sponsors for some of the students they met. Our lives were forever changed and challenged to find peace and joy in the simplicity of life.
For more information on how to sponsor a student at Escuela Integrada, please visit the GRACES website: wearegraces.org
Norm Georgina is the youth director at St. Mary Parish in Farmington, NM.