written by: Peter Thomann | Xavier High School ’16
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Xavier High School via their website.
A longstanding part of school life at Xavier High School, the Companions of Xavier service program gives students the opportunity to live out the Ignatian call to be “men for others.” This summer, students have already journeyed to Mexico, Tennessee, and Ecuador, with another Tennessee trip taking place this week. In June, Peter Thomann ’16 traveled to Ecuador with 10 classmates and three faculty chaperones. The following is his reflection on what he called a “life-changing experience.”
While on CFX Ecuador this summer, I learned and was inspired by the people with whom I interacted. The week was truly a life-changing experience that altered both my views and priorities. I was accompanied by 10 other Xavier students and three wonderful teachers. We spent the week with Rostro de Cristo in El Arbolito, an invasion community in Ecuador. An invasion community develops as people move onto unclaimed land and organize themselves and essentially begins as a shanty town. The residents do not own the land and can face eviction at any moment, sometimes by means of bulldozers tearing down their homes. Our guide, who volunteered with Rostro de Cristo for a year, was a wonderful girl named Aly from Ohio whose endless love or the Ecuadorian people inspired us all. Luckily we remained safe and healthy the entire trip.
“There is always something to smile about.” – Esther, Damien House
Damien House is a sanctuary/home for people who suffer from Hansen’s Disease (a.k.a. leprosy). Esther, who is both a resident and a guard at the gate, ended up at Damien House after being abandoned by her family and community because of her disease. So many stigmas still surround Hansen’s Disease both in Ecuador and all over the world. Esther told us that no matter how bad your circumstances are, there is always something to smile about. This simple anecdote means a lot coming from a woman who has suffered immensely in her life. The saying has truly taken on a new meaning within my life and the lives of my group members. Esther then proceeded to pry into our personal lives and give us all love advice. I would kindly ask that when you talk about Hansen’s Disease, refrain from saying “leprosy.” So many social stigmas surround that word and those stigmas were proven wrong by the hearts of those I interacted with at Damien House. This simple request reflects the wishes of the residents, volunteers, and founder of Damien House.
“Be a voice for the voiceless.” – Sister Annie, Founder of Damien House
While at Damien House for the second time, we heard a talk from the nun who started the home about 30 years ago. When she first arrived in Ecuador from the United States, the condition of the house was horrifying. Patients literally were rotting away at an infectious disease hospital. Amputations were needed desperately, and money was extremely tight. Sister Annie turned it into a beautiful facility for the elderly who suffer from Hansen’s. It is now a safe place filled with murals, color, and proper facilities. Sister Annie encouraged us to be the voice for those whose voices are not heard. Many of the patients had been abandoned by their family members and the government. They literally had nowhere to turn. Sister Annie changed that and, as a result, lives have been saved and greatly improved. Her noble quest to provide care for the elderly with Hansen’s Disease has inspired me to work harder to become a voice for those whose voices may never be heard.
“Save money and study hard” – Carlos, El Arbolito
While on a neighbor visit in El Arbolito with the group, we met a man named Carlos in his beautiful home. Carlos has lived in El Arbolito for about 18 years and has three sons. His sons are extremely inspirational. They went from three kids growing up in the slums to an Ecuadorian Navy soldier, a university student studying marine biology, and an intelligent high schooler who is number one in his class. Carlos has a lot to be proud of, and he offered my group some advice by saying that his family is so successful because he saved money and his children studied hard. Carlos’ house went from essentially a shack to a beautiful two-story, colorful home.
His youngest son, Christopher, has accomplished amazing things this year. He is a scholarship student at Nuevo Mundo, in the morning school. Nuevo Mundo is a school that runs a very prestigious (and expensive) preparatory school in the morning and a foundation school for students from impoverished areas in the afternoon. As one of the top students in the afternoon school, Christopher was given a scholarship to study in the morning school. He is first in his class of extremely wealthy, privileged kids from the nearby city, Guayaquil. His accomplishment is extremely rare at the school, and his future shines bright. He hopes to study on scholarship in the United States. Keep him in your prayers because the Ecuadorian government limits the number of students who go abroad and his socioeconomic status works against him.
“Take risks and be courageous” – Rosita, clothing store owner
Rosita, a female entrepreneur who started her own clothing store in El Arbolito, took enormous risks and displayed enormous amounts of courage. A single woman in her twenties, Rosita started her store along the main road in the town about six years ago. She is the oldest of six and her other five siblings are married. So many women have trouble starting businesses in the United States, and the difficulties are even greater in Ecuador. Rosita took a huge risk and is now a successful business owner who is extremely involved in her parish. Please keep her in your prayers because she has been sick this year.
“Be more enthusiastic” – Kika, El Arbolito
While on a neighbor visit in Sector Four, our group met Kika. Sector Four is the least developed area of El Arbolito. It is comprised of mostly shacks with tin roofs. Some of the houses even have walls of a bamboo type of material because brick or cinder block is a major expense. Kika, who is a mother of four teenage girls, welcomed our group into her one-room home graciously, and we proceeded to have a conversation about girlfriends, American movies, and English skills. Kika was very enthusiastic and truly joyful. I saw God shine through this woman. Her attitude did not reflect her circumstances. Her home lacked running water and proper sanitary conditions yet she was happier than most people I encounter in New York. Kika also taught me that there is always something to smile about and that enthusiasm can brighten anyone’s situation. It was great to see her daughters practice their English. One of the daughters hopes to travel to the United States one day; she is currently studying tourism in Guayaquil. Please keep her in your prayers.
Realization of Duty – Pat, Founder of Nuevo Mundo
Nuevo Mundo is a school in Guayaquil that is essentially divided. In the morning, wealthy children from the neighborhood come and take classes, mostly in English. Then in the afternoon, the poor kids from El Arbolito come and take classes in Spanish and English. The morning school was created to fund the afternoon school! The Founder of Nuevo Mundo, Pat, is an inspirational woman who gave my group a talk about service. She turned the school from swampland into a beautiful compound that would rival the campus of most American colleges. She told us that when we die, we should be able to tell God that we did something in the service of others, something noble. This really struck a chord within me because I have been basing my life decisions off of which will make me most wealthy and “happy.” Pat argued that serving God and serving those in need of help should be our mission. Her talk was inspiring and has led me to believe in the importance of giving back and serving the poor.
Realization of Privilege – Manos Abiertas, Gregorio
We visited Manos Abiertas, an after-school program comprised of kids in the impoverished invasion community of Gregorio. Only 30 kids can be admitted each day because the program is in one classroom. The kids receive a piece of bread and a banana and share a cup of water with each other. The children were some of the happiest kids I have ever witnessed. After volunteering earlier this year at an after-school program in New York, I expected the kids to be poorly behaved and sad, but these kids exuded happiness and enthusiasm unrivaled by any children I have ever interacted with.
In daily reflection that night, we learned a little bit more about the children. One boy in particular, who was as enthusiastic as the other children, faces enormous difficulties at home. His mother was abandoned by her husband. She has seven children to take care of, two of whom have disabilities. She doesn’t work, so she has to ask neighbors for money to help buy food for the family. He attends a school where he is one of 70 students in a classroom with one teacher. They live in one of the worst invasion communities: Gregorio. Trash is literally dumped in their neighborhood by garbage trucks that don’t want to drive farther away. Learning of this 5-year-old boy’s struggles was extremely disheartening. No child should have to go through that pain at such an early age. What struck me as quite amazing was that he was just as happy as all the other children. He was happier than the kids at the after-school program in New York, and he was happier than I am when I have one bad day. I realized my extreme privilege in this world. I am a white American male who attends one of New York’s best schools. My parents have stable jobs, and my family is healthy. My parents love each other, and my sisters have bright futures. I really could not have it any better compared to these children. It made me reflect on why I struggle to be as happy as these kids at times. If the subway is late or if I don’t like what my dad made for dinner, I am annoyed, yet this little boy seemed unaffected and wholly present at Manos. He did his homework contently and proceeded to play soccer. His reality is common to so many of these children and that truly inspires me. From now on, whenever I get annoyed or frustrated, I will think of this little boy whose enthusiasm and zest for life I have yet to match. Please pray for this little boy and for all the children of Manos whose home situations could not be worse.
Final Reflections and Thank Yous
During the week I had some fun, too! I learned how to play dominoes with a group of elderly Ecuadorian men. I learned how to play Spanish monopoly with Esther, which is hard considering my Spanish language skills are still non-existent. I played soccer with the community of El Arbolito. The group of 10-year-olds beat us Americans but we made a comeback by beating the 16-year-olds (only because we outnumbered them three to one). I learned that sunscreen is always necessary while on the Equator, and I learned how to take a military shower. I learned the true meaning of community while spending eight days with my brothers from Xavier. My faith in God has increased, and I feel a new calling within my heart to serve the poor.
One of the most beautiful moments I encountered was when I was at Spanish Mass in the community’s parish. I can tell people my name, age, favorite color, and favorite meal in Spanish, and that is the extent of my skills. At the Mass I realized all over the world the same words of God are read in hundreds of different languages. That is absolutely breathtaking. Even though it was hard to sit in church, in long pants and in 90-degree heat, the beauty abounded.
I would like to thank all those who supported me in this noble cause. The trip wouldn’t have been possible without the three teachers from Xavier. They managed to spend a week with 11 high school boys. They kept us safe, healthy, and happy. I want to thank all those who donated! The trip was very expensive but certainly worth every penny! I would also like to thank the volunteers who give up a year of their young lives to volunteer in Ecuador. Their noble actions reveal the good still alive in this world. Their Spanish skills were also very useful. Finally, I would like to thank my wonderful parents and beautiful sisters for supporting me in every endeavor I undertake.