Pius students say mission trip changed their lives

St. Pius X High School students Bennie Palmentere and Gabrielle Tarantino prepare the floor for the installation of a woodburning stove in the hut of a Guatemalen family that includes eight children. (Photo courtesy of Heather Plumb)

By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — She went a week without her Smartphone, and when Mary Carnes got back from Guatemala, she couldn’t stand to look at it.

“We live here with our extravagant lives,” said Carnes, one of several students and recent alums from St. Pius X High School who made a mission trip to an impoverished village in the Central American nation.

“They are living on dirt, cleaning and cooking and sleeping in the same room,” Carnes said.

“Why do we even have these things?” Carnes’ sister Rachelle asked.

Two months after their June 9-16 trip as they gathered again at the southern Platte County home of Wes and Kathy Elkins, the 11 students and their 11 adult chaperones haven’t forgotten Guatemala.

They can’t, said Victoria Masucci. And she won’t.

“There is not a day that has gone by when I don’t think about Guatemala,” Masucci said.

“That is now my home,” she said. “And as of now, when I graduate from medical school, I want to move down there.”

She means it.

“I love that place so much,” said Masucci, whose trip this year to Guatemala on the St. Pius X mission was her second. “Right from when we got there, I was so content, I was so happy to be there again.”

That’s what working with the poor does, veteran missioners will say. You go there thinking you’ll give. You leave with much more than you brought. And high school students learn that lesson fast.

That’s why Mellissa and Dr. Michael Green have taken on the task of organizing the annual mission from St. Pius X High School, now in its fourth year. One mission trip will change lives. Michael has been on three. Mellissa has gone twice.

“What these kids give while they are there is valuable,” Michael said. “What they receive back is priceless.”

And that is why they and the students aren’t satisfied to limit the involvement only to the school. They have drawn in all the Northland Catholic community into the effort to raise money and supplies not for themselves — all students are required to cover the $1,400 cost of airfare, lodging and means themselves, which nearly all of them do through part-time jobs — but for the poor of Guatemala.

“St. Pius is the anchor,” Mellissa said. “It provides relationships with the entire Northland Catholic community.”

The students couldn’t describe in words the emotions they felt of watching children crowd around them for the new shoes they brought with money they raised from parishioners throughout the Northland suburbs of Kansas City.

You could hardly call what many of them had been wearing “shoes” — if they were wearing anything on their feet at all. The only time most of those children get new shoes is when missioners bring them. The “shoes” they were wearing were often broken, cracked, and so old that the children’s long outgrown toes were sticking out the front.

“You see poverty on TV, then the next commercial comes on, and it’s gone from your mind,” Mary Carnes said. “But when you see these children put new shoes on their feet, I’ll never forget it.”

Nor will Masucci ever forget her feeling when they began to realize they had fewer shoes than kids who needed them.

“We all wanted them to have the perfect pair of shoes,” she said. “When we began to run out of one particular size, it hurt to tell them, ‘No mas’ — ‘No more.’”

The students also put in some sweat. While there, they installed cinderblock wood-burning stoves with steel plate cooking surfaces.

These usually were built on a newly installed concrete floor in one-room “homes” about the size of the sheds where middle-class Americans store their riding lawn mowers and garden tools.

Bennie Palmentere remembered breaking down an old, worn out stove, only to have a nest of thousands of biting ants crawl out.

“There were thousands of these ants everywhere,” he said. “We got that stove done faster than anywhere else.”

The Pius students built 10 of those stoves in the week they were there. They also installed inexpensive gravity water filtration systems in the homes of 10 more families.

Then came the hard part, said Gabrielle Tarantino. They had to leave.

“I was crying so hard,” she said, not a hint of embarrassment in her voice to admit that.

“It feels good that you are helping people, but when you go down there, they are just so happy. They are so appreciative of anything you do,” she said. “We were there eight days, and it didn’t feel like that at all. There was just so much more we could do.”

Mary Carnes said she learned something else. The next time she goes to Guatemala, she won’t pack so much stuff for herself. That suitcase space, she said, could be used for simple stuff that the children need. Like the toothbrushes she is beginning to store.

“Every time I buy a toothbrush for myself, I buy two. What are they? A buck fifty?” she said.

“There is so much left to do. They need so much. They could have so much better and healthier lives, and yet they are so happy,” she said.

“We have everything we need and want, and we still aren’t happy.”

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  • Jackson Roberts

    Sometimes mission trips like this pluck a cord with me, and not necessarily a positive one. While trips like this certainly have good intentions, the focus is often much more focused on what the volunteer gets out of it rather than what the community gets. Such trips very much tend to perpetuate “us-and-them” ideologies in which the United States stands on one side reaching down its saving hand to poorer nations. Actions like this perpetuate the “white savior” problem in which we get gratification out of “helping” a poor community. Also, I cannot help but notice the terms focusing on what is missing in these poor communities rather than what is already there. What is there is a vibrant culture and likely traditional leadership structures, so mission trips should focus on supporting these features rather than taking a “giving” or “donating” sort of approach. Sustainability in such projects comes when community members can install stoves and filtration systems on their own, not when untrained children from the United States come down and deliver services. Such donation services can actually become disruptive to the development of the community because the people may become dependent on these donations instead of being supported in their own development process. I do not mean to take anything away from the students who went on this trip, but I do think we should examine what ways we can improve mission trips to make them less disruptive and more focused on supporting rather than helping.

    • Kyle Wright

      Mr. Roberts is right. I’ve spent two years working as a foreign service and development practitioner in both Latin America an the United States. More often than not, these types of trips are far more geared towardsn the development of the “volunteer” than the development of the community. The fact that these young people are their chaperones are often not adequately trained as volunteers (and often barely speak the language or understand the cultural complexities of the target community or region) creates situations that are considerably more detrimental than beneficial for the individuals that really matter – the community. Youth led international service activities cannot be driven by this inherent “white savior” complex. That’s burns the roots of the work itself and reverses the polarity of its impact. But then again, what can you expect from a 7 day trip to Guatemala? From experience, no volunteer on the face of the earth can truly engage with a community in a week.

Saturday
September 23, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph