By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — A month later, the experience can still bring them to tears.
But at the same time, they can’t wait to return.
Nine students and two adult chaperones from Archbishop O’Hara High School, a school in the Christian Brothers tradition, spent Nov. 2 to 10 assisting students at De La Salle Blackfeet School, also a sister school in the Christian Brothers tradition, located in Browning, Mont., in the heart of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
“It was very eye-opening,” said Missy Sayer. “I realized I take a lot for granted, including water.”
The O’Hara students were stunned to see children carrying jugs to the lodge where Christian Brother Dale Mooney and two Christian Brother staff members lived near the school.
They came for water because they didn’t have running water at home, the O’Hara students said.
“That’s how some families got water,” Jillian Kimbrel said. “They came to the house and got water. They get jugs of water once a week.”
Gary White, an Archbishop O’Hara alumnus, has devoted his life to the international agency Water.org he founded to bring potable water to villages. The O’Hara students knew all about White and his work, and O’Hara students have done service projects in support of Water.org.
But seeing such poverty first-hand — and in the United States of America — is different, the O’Hara students said.
“It’s really hard to think about it, to think about all the people who don’t have what we have,” said Cami Koob.
Browning, Mont., population 1,067, is the government headquarters for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, a 3,000 square mile tract bordering Glacier National Park along the Canadian border in northwestern Montana.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports that unemployment in the reservation can run as high as 70 percent. Among those who can find work, more than one in four earn less than poverty-line wages.
Families found shelter from the brutal climate as best they could, and often that meant a broken down, boarded-up trailer.
“If you just drove by them, you wouldn’t think anybody lived there,” said Alexis Bertrand.
“They had broken down cars in the front yard. They would sleep there in the summer because they didn’t have air conditioning,” Kimbrel said.
The disease of alcoholism was both rampant and apparent to them.
“A lot of the kids have fetal alcohol syndrome,” caused by mothers drinking to excess while pregnant, Sayer said.
“We went to the soup kitchen and already some of the people there were drunk at 9 a.m.,” Koob said.
“I felt pity for the people who have to go through that,” said Darryl Fritz.
But it didn’t take long for the O’Hara students to realize why they were there. And it was to serve, they said, and even to bring the light of hope to children who don’t see much hope.
“I’m looking at college already,” said Maggie Novak. “Some of these children weren’t even looking at high school. Nobody else is giving them anything to look forward to.”
“You are helping them, and the more people who go there, the bigger difference it will make,” said Shiri Asangwe.
“We can be the hope they need,” Bertrand said. “What they have now is the only thing they have ever known.”
“Happiness to them right now might mean drugs or alcohol, because that’s all they see,” Novak said. “We can show them that happiness can come from other things, and they don’t have to settle for what they see now.”
They also left with an admiration of the three Christian Brothers at the school, and of their own LaSallian education, a network of schools founded by St. John Baptiste de la Salle to serve the poorest children in Paris.
They are Brother Mooney, who served years on the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan staff of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry as director of Hispanic ministry; Brother Ray Bonderer, an Archbishop O’Hara alumnus, and Brother Michael Flaherty.
“It takes a lot of patience,” Kimbrel said.
“It would be hard to live a totally different lifestyle and help people who are not easy to help,” Fritz said.
But the students left knowing that, even in just nine days, they made a difference.
“You don’t know what you are getting into, but it is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had,” Bertrand said.
“The connections we made, we know that in a way we touched the kids’ lives,” she said.