This past spring, I went on a service trip to Guatemala with 11 other parishioners from the St. Mary Student Parish in Ann Arbor. I had no idea the impact this trip would have on me. 

We started off traveling in our minibus to the Francisco Coll elementary school. We celebrated mass and interacted with staff and children. Their smiling faces, infectious energy, and desire to connect with us were so meaningful. We learned that these children’s parents work in the local garbage dump gathering refuse that can be recycled for some money. If they are lucky, they might make $2 to $4 a day–barely lifting them out of the extreme poverty conditions that impact 1 out of 10 people in the world. They are the poorest of the poor, and unfortunately, some people think of them like the trash they scavenge in. 

One o
One o

Our visit to the Francisco Coll elementary school.

Then we drove by the dump, and the conditions were worse than I imagined. Besides being dirty and unsafe, we learned there is corruption in the dump as to who gets to pick through the trash coming from the wealthier neighborhoods. 

Uganda scholars

Driving by the city dump where families pick through trash for items to keep or sell.

Near the garbage dump, we were taken to International Samaritan’s Ave Maria Center, which is an after-school center for students to study, receive supplies, food, and most of all love from the International Samaritan team who work in this old warehouse building.  

Uganda scholars

We went to help at International Samaritan’s Ave Maria Center, located in a warehouse.

Through a holistic scholarship program, International Samaritan sponsors kids and provides school fees, uniforms, books, transportation, and more. Many of these kids must get up at 4–5 a.m. to catch the bus to attend school. Most of these kids are of Mayan descent and can face discrimination. To stay in the program, the scholars must do well in their classes, and the International Samaritan team are there to make sure these kids succeed. 

We visited the home of one of the scholars, a young man with hopes of becoming an electrician to be able to help his family have a better life. 

Uganda scholars

I visited the home of one of the IntSam scholars (left). On the right is a home near the garbage dump.

The more I came to understand the lives of the families and kids each day, the deeper this experience drew me into reflection and began to impact my thoughts and heart. 

Before breakfast on Wednesday of our trip week, I felt my heart being pulled to a grotto dedicated to Mary at the Catholic retreat center where we were staying. I stood before Mary and wept. I walked back and forth in front of Mary and asked, why do things have to be this way? Why do these kids and families have to suffer? I was angry and this emotion of sadness is not one I express very well as I’m not one who cries easily. 

Uganda scholars

The Catholic retreat center where our team stayed (left). The center had a grotto dedicated to Mary (right).

That same day, it was time to start our volunteer project. We were asked to paint the walls of about 20% of the cinder block Ave Maria Center to brighten up the area where the scholars typically spent much of their time. 

We were energized and ended up painting 100% of the building, with the help of scholars (many of whom were painting for the first time). When the project was finished, there was a special inauguration of the new space. Scholars were given the opportunity to paint one of their palms and push it against the newly painted wall. The smiles, pride, and excitement to leave their mark on the building, and for the program, were contagious.

Uganda scholars
Uganda scholars

The volunteer team was excited to paint the building, and then we watched the joy of the scholars as they left their mark on the wall.

During that week, I had two more morning trips to the grotto to cry and complain to Mary that the injustice I was witnessing was not fair. The hardship and suffering the children and families experience is real and has a huge impact on the quality of their lives. 

The team and I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit as we spent time in Guatemala. We were able to show our love and receive the love of the beautiful people we met. And yet we all felt that there is still a lot of work we want to do for our brothers and sisters here.

Before we left, I went back to the grotto for one last cry with Mary. However, this time the tears did not come. There was a peace that I felt. I had the opportunity to have my heart broken and now I have the opportunity to take this experience and do something with it.  

We must live out the resurrection and make a difference to those with whom Christ asks us to be his eyes, his hands, his feet, and his heart. I pray I’m able to do this in a way that God desires. 

Please pray with me. 

You can watch some highlights from the St. Mary Student Parish immersion trip to Guatemala.

Tom McDonough, Volunteer

Tom became connected with IntSam when he traveled on an immersion trip with St. Mary Student Parish last spring. Tom is an avid runner and is excited to lead the St. Mary team to victory in the IntSam Global 5K this year.

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