High schoolers keep spirit of mission during pandemic

April 13, 2021

Eighteen juniors from five Archdiocesan high schools volunteered their time to serve communities in the Houston area from March 14 to 19. One of the projects was to build a 90-foot fence at the Maryknoll House in Rice Village. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Wasielewski)

HOUSTON — Since 2011, the Spring Break Mission Trip to Eagle Pass in south Texas has been a kind of spiritual rite of passage for many Houston Catholic high schoolers. It is a week-long trip of service and prayer, learning about others and community building.

For years it has inspired Archdiocesan high schoolers and invited them into a deeper relationship with their faith. In March of 2020, two days before the 10th annual mission, the trip had to be canceled due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19.

For 2021, the Spring Break Mission Trip went ahead as scheduled, only a little closer to home and with appropriate safety protocols in place.

Volunteers from Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory, St. Agnes Academy, St. Pius X High School, St. Thomas High School and Strake Jesuit College Preparatory gave up their holiday to serve communities in the Houston area from Sunday, March 14, through Friday, March 19. The group consisted of eight school chaperones, 18 students and 13 volunteer project managers. Many of the project managers are parishioners of St. John Vianney Church.

Franklyn Ruiz-Gomez, junior at Cristo Rey Jesuit, said, “I believe God has a purpose for everything, and I believe that it was His will for us to give back to the nearest communities in our city.”

During the mission, the group built a 90-foot fence at the Maryknoll House in Rice Village and completed the re-shingling of a recently purchased house adjacent to Cristo Rey Jesuit. At one of the Magnificat Houses, the group re-shingled the roof, replaced the bottom two feet of siding and painted the exterior.

John Gabbanelli, junior at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, said he had to challenge himself because this was his first time doing roofing.

“I overcame my challenges, and I learned quickly how to tear the old shingles out, nail the new ones, etc.,” he said. “I also felt very good after I completed the roofing job because I knew that I helped someone out in need.”

The mission’s beloved spiritual advisor, the late Father Gerald E. Kelly, MM, wished for each mission to include cultural immersion, where the volunteers would be given the opportunity to build roofs and repair walls and build a community with those they serve.

Due to the continuing pandemic, building a community was a little more challenging since such interactions had to be limited for safety reasons. And yet, community was built where and whenever possible.

Each worksite was assigned one to two students from each school for the week, allowing students to make new friends. And representatives from the agencies worked alongside the students, giving a face to those we served.

These mixed groups, including adult project managers, not only worked alongside each other but also prayed together mornings and evenings and stopped for a socially distanced lunch. To allow time for conversation and personal reflection, phones and electronic devices were not allowed during the workday. And instead of sleeping in cots or hard floors, students returned home at the end of each day and slept in their own beds.

Jake Foster, junior at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, said, it was hard to wake up and drive 40-plus minutes to and from the site every morning, “but it helped because it gave me time to reflect on what I was doing, and how it was helping people.”

“It means so much to me to be able to affect people in a truly meaningful way, as well as hopefully exposing them to Christ’s love,” he said.

Morning Mass and nightly prayer and reflections are typical daily parts of the mission. However, out of concern for health and safety this year, the mission restricted large group meetings to a pre- and post-mission gathering and Mass. Daily reflections, which are normally conducted en masse, were instead done in small groups at the individual project sites.

Rafael Portillo, junior at St. Pius X High School, said the mission trip was a once in a lifetime experience.

“It meant a lot to me because not only did I meet amazing people, I got to help those in need,” he said. “I felt closer with God the whole time I was helping. With or without COVID-19 it made no difference; we still were able to help others and accomplish our goals.”

James Huff, junior at St. Thomas High School, said, “The mission was of great importance to me because I got to reconnect with God through community and prayer. Getting to know each individual person that I was working with allowed me to work on being gracious, respectful, and reverent towards God and others.”

It is the hope of the planning committee to continue the missions to Eagle Pass in March of 2022. It is a week-long commitment, but one that can change lives. In Eagle Pass, the students and chaperones sleep on the floors at two different Catholic churches, Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Our Lady of Refuge parish. The project managers stay at the Benedictine Mission House run by the wonderful Sister Ursula Herrera. After morning Mass, the group closes each evening with dinner prepared by the local Knights of Columbus and a reflection led by one of the chaperones. During the day, students go out into the community and complete a project at the home of someone in need.

Rosalinda Flores at Mission Border Hope helps select the projects. The homeowners work alongside the students when possible and provide lunch. One day out of the five, the students will be pulled from the job site to host Vacation Bible School, visit Willow Creek Adult Day Care and learn about immigration by visiting the border.

For more information, especially for Houston-area Catholic high school rising juniors who might be interested in joining next year, check with the schools’ campus ministers.