Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spokane Valley teens experience conversion ‘on several levels’ during work trip to Mexico

by Jami LeBrun, Inland Register staff

(From the Sept. 9, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Team from St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley, in Mexico Teens and chaperones from St. Mary Parish in Spokane Valley spent a portion of their summer vacation experiencing and participating in life in one of the more poverty-stricken areas of Mexico. The group’s theme: “We came to make a change in some else’s life, but we came to be changed ourselves.” (IR photo courtesy of Maureen Weisbeck)

Mexico: sandy beaches, tropical sun, resorts, North American honeymooners. But there is another side of Mexico – areas where poverty is debilitating, where not even the water is safe. Areas without electricity, without sewage systems, where small shacks house entire families.

And while many Americans take advantage of the sandy beaches for holiday travel, few would ever consider spending their hard-earned money and precious time off to vacation among the impoverished neighborhoods of Mexico’s cities. Yet, just last month, 26 teenagers from St. Mary Parish in Spokane Valley did. They spent an entire year fund-raising and saving every penny so that they could spend a week of their summer vacation working side by side with America’s poorest neighbors to the south to help build homes.

On Aug. 8, the teenagers, their eight chaperones, and their youth minister, Eric Thomason, met at 4 a.m. at the Spokane airport. Their flight departed at 5 a.m. for San Diego. Once there, the group rented five mini-vans and caravanned to La Gloria, Mexico, a small town just south of Tijuana. They stayed at Esperanza, an organization dedicated to helping Tijuana’s poor to rise above their situations. There, the teens were divided into chore groups. The groups would take turns all week helping with cooking and cleaning.

On Monday morning, the group of teens and their chaperones headed out to their first work site to find out what they were doing that day. It did not take long for many of them to experience the culture shock encountering the standard of living in this poor neighborhood.

“It was pretty shocking at first,” said Hope Latiolais, a sophomore at University High School. “There was sewage running in the streets and dirt everywhere.”

A man named Eduardo met them at their work site. He handed them buckets, shovels and picks and the group began hacking at the ground, digging a foundation for a new home to be built there. Nima, the woman who would eventually receive the completed home, worked side by side with the teens digging into the rocky ground. She and several other women in the neighborhood who had received homes through Esperanza, also made a hearty, home-cooked lunch for the group each day.

With the help of rented jackhammers, they made better progress over the next two days, eventually digging out a seven-foot deep foundation. Later, Esperanza told the group that the three exhausting days they had spent digging was the most difficult labor they had ever had a volunteer group do.

The next few days were spent at a different work site, where they mixed concrete by hand, passed it up the hillside in buckets, and poured a foundation for a home.

“We came to make a change in someone else’s life, but we came to be changed ourselves,” was the theme group’s for the week.

“Change comes by pushing your limits physically, socially, and spiritually,” said Thomason. Mexico is a perfect place to challenge American teens in all three of those areas, he said.

“I look at this trip as an opportunity for them to experience conversion on several levels. They’re forced to push themselves way out of their comfort zones. They’re pushing their physical limits by giving 100 percent and with no breaks. That really changes people. They’re also experiencing conversion on a head level by realizing that the world is a lot different than Spokane. They realize spiritually how fortunate they are and, as a result, become less materialistic,” said Thomason.

They also went to visit an orphanage and played with the children there one evening after work.

“It was heartbreaking to have to walk away from those kids at the end of the evening,” said one teen. “They got so attached so quickly. They don’t have enough human contact. They cried when we left.”

They also visited the border and had a long discussion about border issues. They visited a protest site where names and ages of people who died trying to cross the border are posted. The Esperanza leaders encouraged the teens and chaperones to pick a name of someone close to their age and try to imagine who they were, what they did, and why they might have been trying to cross the border. The activity helped the border issues become more real.

“It’s different to actually go to Mexico and discuss this stuff,” said Nick Studebaker, a junior at East Valley High School. “When you’re on one side looking in, it’s one thing. But when you’re on the Mexican side looking back, it’s another thing and you don’t like it.”

Despite the shock of what some Mexicans face daily just trying to survive, the teens were also impressed by the Mexican people they encountered.

“They have more of what really counts,” said Studebaker. “They’re happy. They really focus on what matters. They have much better family relationships than we do. They appreciate who they have and what they have more.”

And the relationships the teen volunteers developed while they visited Mexico were what they talked about the most. The images they brought home with them and the time they shared will make an impact that lasts far longer than the hours of physical labor.

“I see the Christ really working on people down there,” said Thomason. “This lays the groundwork for young people to develop their relationship with God. It prepares the soil for the Gospel and for Christ. I liken it to dumping someone in a bath of cold water,” he said.

(More pictures from the trip are available on the parish's web site.)

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