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Students Volunteer Around Globe During Spring Break

More than 100 students, faculty and staff give their time abroad and stateside

Top, from left: Cape Fear, NC, Ecuador, Guatemala and Oaxaca. Bottom: Colombia, New Bern, NC, Fort Smith, AZ, and Hanover, VA.

By Kim Swartz

Sacred Heart University students, faculty and staff got their hands dirty performing manual labor, immersed themselves in new cultures, helped the less fortunate and created unbelievable experiences during spring break.

Ten groups of students—six with the Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning (VPSL) and four with Sacred Heart’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity—spent the entire week absorbed in projects that benefited families, children and the environment. The groups with VPSL traveled abroad, and the Habitat participants worked in the U.S.

Mexico

In Oaxaca, Mexico, 12 undergraduates and two advisers worked with staff from Simply Smiles, a nonprofit that helps impoverished families and communities. The group worked with locals to build a classroom for a kindergarten school.

“Simply Smiles really prides itself on the positive community partnerships they have formed throughout Greater Oaxaca, and we helped to continue this mission constructing the foundation of a new classroom for a local kindergarten,” said Kaitlyn Thorogood, a senior majoring in finance and accounting who served as a student leader on the trip. “In our time away from the main volunteer project, we spent any spare second we had with the children. Our team of volunteers helped to plan fun, enriching activities each afternoon that ranged from making masks for Mardi Gras, to constructing dream catchers, to even arranging a full-blown water balloon fight. We were lucky enough to be surrounded by 20 of the most caring, brightest, most empathetic and kind children, and the amount of laughs, hugs and genuine happiness created was something like no other.”

Thorogood, who is from Lancaster, MA, said the volunteers experienced many takeaways from the trip. “Love truly has no language barrier, and living in the moment elicits true happiness. All of the children at Simply Smiles proved this to us,” she said. “As a team of volunteers, the 14 of us coming from SHU knew basic Spanish, while the majority of the children knew little-to-no English. What would seem to be a huge issue in communication turned out to be the most heart-warming display of love and affection I have ever witnessed.”

Arianna Bruno of Norfolk, MA, a senior education major, learned about living in the moment. “Oftentimes, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the stresses and demands of life as a college student. Pair that with social media and the abundance of technology present in society, it is easy to get lost and absorbed in this artificial world that technology creates for us,” she said.

The all-female volunteer group mixed cement, filled in cement blocks around the building and covered the area with dirt. “These were not easy tasks, but our group did not shy away from the challenge,” said senior nursing major Amanda Miller of Middle Village, NY. “We were so impressed and proud to be with that specific group of women. We empowered each other and were a great support system for one another. It was very fitting that International Women’s Day occurred while we were in Oaxaca.” 

Annie Wendel, assistant director of VPSL, was an adviser on the trip with Catholic studies professor Elizabeth Piliero. Wendel said the children, staff and volunteers quickly became a large extended family. “We shared meals, laughed, played, sang and danced together. These relationships not only helped introduce our students to new people and a new culture, but also connected a global community at a local level,” she said.

Colombia

A group of eight students and two advisers traveled to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, to work with Uniminuto University and the nonprofit Laudes Infantis Foundation. The organization, which prevents children and young people from living on the streets, aims its efforts at “strengthening the social fabric, empowering the capacities and abilities of its members, generating positive referents among youth and adults so children can find appropriate models to follow,” according to the Laudes Infantis website. Before leaving for the trip, the group prepared lesson plans for kindergarten-aged children, teenagers and the elderly.

“Despite the surrounding conditions of the community, the people still found happiness in the small things,” said senior Rachel Vogt, a social-work major from Derby. “The children we worked with were always smiling. The activities we had planned for them included singing songs and nursery rhymes in English and Spanish, making bracelets and playing rock-paper-scissors-shoot. The elderly individuals told us that they are often forgotten, and we could see the gratitude in their faces. They were thankful we were spending time with them. Overall, it was a great week spent with amazing people.”

Education professor Randall Glading and Arlete Carmona, office and program manager for VPSL, were advisers on the trip. Carmona said the students’ time in Colombia took them out of their comfort zones. “They experienced the Colombian culture and had the opportunity to be immersed in the communities,” she said.

Ecuador

As soon as the nine students and two advisers from SHU stepped off the bus and into the Santa Lucia community in Ecuador, the people they came to serve were thankful and welcoming, even wanting to show the group their homes. The SHU students and advisers worked with the nonprofit Blanca’s House, an organization that travels to South American countries to perform free health-care procedures, explained junior Ashlyn Burbano, a physical therapy major from Manorville, NY. Burbano said the group helped beautify an elementary school in the area.

“We painted classrooms and the outside of buildings; we painted a mural on one of the classroom walls, and we painted soccer and basketball lines on courts,” she said. “We also provided the children with soccer balls, hula hoops and jump ropes.” The children now have a welcoming environment, she added.

“Understanding the impact of one small action and its power to move an entire community was truly a powerful experience,” Burbano said. “Many families and children were very giving of their time. There was another organization that was assembling a playground for the school, and their care and willingness to help us showed the sense of community that this school brought together.” 

Karreem Mebane, director of VPSL, and Brent Little, a Catholic studies professor, were advisers on the trip.

Guatemala

Alumna Geissy Bitencourt, ’16 and ’18, marketing coordinator for SHU, and Fr. Joe Frias of SHU’s Campus Ministry led a group of 10 undergraduates on a trip to Guatemala to work with the nonprofit CERNE, a health clinic. There they interacted with nearly 60 children who live on a finca, or estate. The children’s families work for the land owner, receiving low wages and living with the bare minimum of life’s necessities. The SHU students played with the children each day and spent one day helping to remove algae from a nearby lake with a large anchor and ropes. The group also learned about Guatemala’s history and its civil war.

“It was a big reality check for the students,” Bitencourt said. 

Bitencourt, who has been on several service trips with SHU, said the trips aren’t about changing people’s lives; rather, they’re about watching and observing. “It’s about taking it all in,” she said. “It’s about global awareness that these students didn’t have before. It puts their lives into perspective.”

Costa Rica

Two groups from Sacred Heart took on volunteer projects in Costa Rica during spring break.

Ten students and three faculty advisers went to Playa Hermosa, where they stayed with families in the community. They worked with the nonprofit Viva Nicaragua Abroad, an organization that joins with community partners to create projects that meet their goals.

The Sacred Heart group learned about the cultural and political relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and also developed and implemented programs to address the needs of children, adolescents, women and the elderly, said Bronwyn Cross-Denny, an adviser on the trip and associate professor and director of SHU’s social work program. They accompanied health-care workers on home visits, distributed dresses for girls, took a wildlife boat to see monkeys, alligators, birds and iguanas, and even had Spanish lessons. They also participated in cultural presentations and discussions about migration, music and cooking.

Joining Cross-Denny as advisers were Maura Rhodes, director of field education in the social work program, and Molly Higbie, assistant director of global health programs.

Students said the trip taught them the importance of community, and even though there are cultural differences, there are still important things that connect people, like love, support of each other and kindness.

Meanwhile, eight student volunteers and two advisers went to the Limon Province in Costa Rica to assist the Veragua Rainforest, a nonprofit organization that fosters conservation.

Students volunteered at a local school, painting walls and tires for flower gardens. They spent one morning dancing and playing games with students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade

“We had a great group,” said senior Kayla Kanakry, a communications and media arts major. “We took away amazing bonds and friendships that I will keep throughout my last months of college and even life.”

Ami Neville, administrative assistant for SHU’s Office of Mission and Catholic Identity, said observation played a big role on the trip. The group studied animal and plant behavior, fruit-eating butterflies and bats. There were lessons about the decision-making processes for preserving and sustaining communities, and there also were hiking and zip-lining excursions through the rain forest, which were memorable experiences for the group.

Nicole Lewis, Catholic studies professor, was an adviser on the trip with Neville.

Habitat for Humanity Trips

Sacred Heart University has one of only four Habitat for Humanity chapters on campuses in Connecticut. During spring break, 60 students and their advisers headed to three southern states to volunteer on Habitat projects.

Hanover, Virginia

Seventeen SHU students and two advisers painted, caulked and installed cabinets for a home in Hanover, VA. Stephanie Trelli, SHU’s coordinator of safety and security programs, was an adviser on the trip with Katherine Alworth, a residence hall director. Trelli said the group also cleaned around the outside of the house, put siding on a storage shed and built an additional shed.

“I honestly could not have thought of a better way to spend spring break,” Trelli said. “This trip allowed me to help those who need it the most, to give back to the community and do my part in making a difference.”

She said the students were hardworking, driven, motivated and caring throughout the week. “We had fun, formed bonds and served together towards a common, fulfilling goal. This trip encouraged me to take on challenges and find a sense of purpose. I am truly blessed and honored to be a part of the SHU community, a community where giving back comes easily,” Trelli said.

Cape Fear, North Carolina

Keith Zdrojowy, studio manager for the School of Communication, Media & the Arts, and Greg Madrid, assistant director of residential life, worked with 13 students in Cape Fear, NC. They spent some days putting siding on a house and another day removing ceiling and insulation from a home that had water damage and mold.  

“We were prepping the house for mold removal,” Zdrojowy said. “The owner built the house in the 1970s, and his wife had a stroke two days before Hurricane Florence. He was about to sell the house before Habitat called him.”

The group also spent a day working on a house that needed roof work, pillars on a front porch and kitchen cabinet backings.

“Habitat’s collegiate challenge is a way for SHU students to show that they are leaders in the community and want to do more than just sit at home over spring break,” said senior Brendan Capuano, a communications major who was on the Cape Fear trip. “Students plan these trips starting in late September and work so hard to make sure they go flawlessly in March.” 

Capuano, from Bristol, RI, said SHU’s Habitat volunteers have a reputation across the country of putting their affiliates ahead of schedule and finishing their work early, “and this year we absolutely lived up to that.” He added that the collegiate challenge reminds students they are not that far away from people who struggle. “The least we can do is offer our time and help to build alongside them,” he said. “I am so proud of all of our participants this year for stepping up and choosing to spend their spring break trying to improve someone’s own little corner of the world.”

Zdrojowy, who put together a short video on the group’s experiences, said volunteering for Habitat was something he always wanted to do. “I saw this as an opportunity to help the community and work with our students outside of the classroom,” he said.

“For me it is about giving back to the United States community,” Madrid said. “Habitat is a ‘hand-up’ program, not a ‘hand-out’ program. It is great to also work with students in a different way than I do in my day-to-day job. The students get to work hard and make an impact in such a different way than they’re used to. Getting to watch our students grow and make a difference is so fulfilling.”

Fort Smith, Arkansas

Kristen Eschwie, a project coordinator in the Counseling Center, was an adviser on the trip to Fort Smith, AK, where she supervised a group of 15 students with Ron Hamel, a psychology professor and SHU’s Habitat for Humanity chapter adviser. There the group laid floors, insulated a house, put sheet rock on floors and ceilings and prepared a house so it was ready for a subfloor to be installed later.

“As an adviser, I was excited to get to work with and get to know a group of students in a different setting,” Eschwie said. “I was also just excited to help someone. Simply by donating some time and energy, I got to prepare a family’s home.”

Eschwie said that, beyond the teamwork and construction skills she learned, she thinks people benefit from seeing what life is like in other places and learning the importance of helping others. “I definitely noticed a change in the students from the beginning of the week to the end of the week,” she said. “I have a hard time imagining that this trip did not add to their overall college experience.”

New Bern, North Carolina

Two SHU residence hall directors, Matthew Somerville and Samantha Pignatelli, were advisers on the New Bern, NC, Habitat trip, working with 15 student-volunteers.

“When we arrived, there were only floor joists in the house,” Somerville said. “We laid the sub-floor and put up two walls.”

He said he spent spring break volunteering so he could give back to the community. “I love watching SHU students work hard and make a difference in the lives of others,” said Somerville.

The trip puts things into perspective, he said. “I find it so energizing, being part of the trip and interacting with students. The connections we all make on these trips will last a lifetime.”