Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Spokane Diocese teens learn lessons in teamwork, social justice during summer trip to Mexico
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 23, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Forty young people and 18 adult chaperones from parishes in the Spokane Diocese drove to Tijuana, Mexico, in June to spend time helping the poor as part of the Los Embajadores program.
Not all the teens were from Spokane; some came from Walla Walla, some from Pasco and some were from Brewster. There were even some people from outside the diocese.
The trip was coordinated by Dan Glatt, youth minister at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Spokane, and Deacon Kelly Stewart, who holds the same post at Spokane’s Assumption Parish. Glatt has traveled to Mexico more than a dozen times; this was Deacon Stewart’s second trip.
Another youth minister on the trip was Jackie Keyes from St. Patrick, Pasco. Assumption’s pastor, Father Mike Savelesky, took time during a vacation with family members in San Diego to be with the group in Tijuana.
After they reached Mexico, what had been one group became two. Deacon Stewart and one group stayed in Tijuana to work with the Salesian Fathers. Glatt and the second group drove about 200 miles further south to Vicente Guerrero to work with the Franciscans there.
The Tijuana group spent their time helping the Salesians build what are called “oratories.” These buildings are used for different purposes, such as schools and training centers, to help people learn new skills and to improve their communities.
One of the most important structures, though, and usually the first to be built, is the basketball court because, as Deacon Stewart explained, that’s what draws the kids. “When the kids come, then the parents come,” he said.
Schools are also important because many Mexican children cannot afford to attend school or they (or their parents) do not have the necessary paperwork.
The teens spent most of their time in Mexico doing physical labor, working alongside Mexican people. Many of the trip pictures show them hauling wheelbarrows full of wet cement and dirt during their work times.
In Vicente Guerrero the group dug a huge hole that will be used for a septic system. The hole was eight feet deep by the time they were finished and the work was done by hand, with shovel and wheelbarrow.
Explained Laurie Baumeister of Walla Walla, an adult chaperone: “They (the kids) really had to learn to work together in this project. As the hole got deeper, the kids could only lift their shovels of dirt so far and then a second group would take the dirt from there up further to be dumped into a wheelbarrow.”
As the discarded dirt was piled up into a hill, the teens had to help each other get the wheelbarrow full of dirt emptied. “They would take a run at it (the hill),” Baumeister said, “and other kids would grab it and help lift it up to be emptied.”
Not all was work. Glatt and Deacon Stewart made sure the youth experienced Mexican culture elsewhere. The Tijuana group went to the border and held a prayer service there. They were able to see the fence that divides the two countries, a fence which even runs into the ocean. The teens were able to meet some men who had recently been deported and who planned to try crossing over again.
In Vicente Guerrero the teens were taken to a migrant camp, where they met laborers and learned about working conditions. Workers are bused to the camps and work there 10-12 hours a day before being bused back. The teens experienced some of that themselves when they picked strawberries at one place.
One activity the teens enjoyed was playing with the Mexican children. Another was the infrequent visits to Mexican pastry shops.
Some of the teens had never been to Mexico, and for them, to see how the people lived was “an eye-opening experience,” Deacon Stewart said. Many Mexican cities are poor in contrast with Americans, and Tijuana is one of the poorest. The contrast was especially noticeable at the border, where the affluent homes and sky-rise buildings of San Diego are very visible from the multitude of shacks in Tijuana.
Maggie Dickmann was especially touched by this contrast. This was her first trip. She described it as “a good experience but sad.” Her heart was moved by the children too poor to own shoes or go to school.
Dickmann was also impressed meeting people who had tried to cross the border. One man, who has already been caught twice, was planning a third attempt. As Dickmann understood it, if he gets caught the third time, “he will spend life in prison.” She noted that the $4 a day wages in Tijuana pale in comparison to the $5 an hour minimum wage in the U.S. That’s one of the reasons so many Mexicans try to come to the U.S., even illegally.
Alex McCanna, who was making his first trip, also was in the Tijuana group. He found the work they did “the hardest part,” but “it was neat to see how simply they (the Mexican people) lived and what they do on an everyday basis.” He commented on the inconvenience of unsafe drinking water in Tijuana. “We took water bottles with us,” he said, “and would fill them at water purification stations. A five-gallon jug cost about 30 pesos.”
Baumeister knew Glatt from his teaching years at DeSales High School and knew that he made annual trips to Mexico. She and her daughter, Stephanie, went to Mexico with his group two years ago and the youth “kept in touch,” she said. She views such trips as “a good cultural experience” for young people. One cultural example was the simple act of washing dishes. Water is recyled when “the used rinse water becomes the new bowl of dishwashing water.”
For Elizabeth Muhm, the memory she brought home is that of the “brilliantly colored wares of the native women, spread across the church courtyard.” She said the colors “represented the joy among the people (which) served to reaffirm my belief in the goodness of ... life.” She found Mexican life focused on “a few priorities, including their faith and their concern for their families.”
Father Savelesky said he was “deeply impressed with the youths’ sense of teamwork and commitment to serve – however briefly – the needs of people trapped in the poverty of the Third World.”
One of the memorable parts for Father Savelesky was the time they spent with Mexican families in the area. He said the families had “sacrificed for months to provide us with hefty lunches, but most importantly, (they gave) a warm welcome into their homes for a couple of hours.
“To be recipients of such grateful love and generosity was beyond measure,” he said. His hope was that everyone on the trip would “learn from it and to let all the touching moments transform our lives into being true servants of Christ.”
Keyes said that most of the travelers began the trip “task-oriented, and that we Americans were going to work to change the world.” After their experiences in Mexico, she said they realized that “the work we do only makes a small dent, but it puts us in a place where we can develop lasting relationships with people ... that will change us. When we change ourselves, we will make a difference in the world.”