Not your average teen job: Mercy kids volunteer in El Salvador

COURTESY PHOTO | Students from McGann-Mercy High School build a house in El Salvador during their missionary trip last August.

When Theresa Spath, a senior at McGann-Mercy High School, went on a trip to El Salvador last year, she thought she was volunteering to help villagers in the area.

But in the end, she said, the people of El Salvador helped her just as much.

“You think that you’re going there to teach them, but they really teach you more about yourself,” Ms. Spath said. “You open up a lot. It’s definitely humbling.”

Theresa was one of 13 Mercy students to travel more than 2,000 miles to Santa Ana, El Salvador, last August as part of a missionary trip with the school arranged by the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, a charity devoted to sponsoring children in developing countries.

The students will discuss their experience during a slide show presentation Thursday evening, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. in the school’s seminar room. It’s open to anyone who’s interested in learning more about the trip and the program. Next year’s trip will be open to McGann-Mercy alumni as well as students.

Last August, the Mercy students and their chaperones spent their six days in El Savador speaking with locals, taking in their customs and helping them with school aid and construction. The program started with a small trip nearly 20 years ago, and has since expanded to include more than a dozen students yearly, said teacher Michelle Nappi, who coordinates and makes the trip each year. She added that it’s an opportunity for students and teachers to meet the children they sponsor through monthly donations.

“On the East End, without exaggeration, there’s probably 400 kids sponsored from our area. We need to thank mostly senior citizens who are doing that.”

During last year’s trip, students helped build a house for a struggling Salvadoran family. Husband and wife Miguel and Jackie, with a 3-year-old son and another child on the way, had been living in a small shack made of garbage bags nailed to wood. With Miguel’s help, the students built them a house made of sheet metal and wood. They students also attended a quinceañera, a birthday party similar to a Sweet 16, celebrated in Latino communities on a girl’s 15th birthday, and spent time volunteering at a nearby school.

Catherine Dickhoff, a Mercy 10th-grader who had been on the trip before, said the day she met with her sponsor child was the best day of the trip.

“I have two sponsor children, one from my sister and one from me, and you really get to see how much they appreciate just $30 a month,” she said. “They love you so much, even the first time they meet you.”

Senior Emily Venesina added that language barrier between visiting students and Salvadoran children was not a problem.

“I can’t speak Spanish and [my sponsor child] only speaks Spanish, but you really didn’t need words to speak to each other. You could just look into each other’s faces and see how happy we were to be in each others presence,” she said. “There was a lot of crying that day, from me anyway,” she added.

Ms. Dickhoff, Ms. Venesina and Ms. Spath all said the trip also caused the students to grow closer.

“We really never even talked to each other, all of us, before the trip,” Ms. Spath said. “But then we went on the trip and developed a really close relationship. We became one big family.”

Ms. Venesina said she had no regrets about traveling so far from home and encouraged others to go on missionary trips.

“You don’t want to second guess it,” she said. “You think about going to El Salvador, and that’s not easy. Don’t think about it, just go.”

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