Friday, August 16, 2013

Life After Mission

I’m sitting in my car at a red light when a car passes me in the opposite lane and I catch a split-second of the music coming from the car.  I can’t be sure of the song, but it sure did sound like bachata or even meringue.  I would get the two confused sometimes as they are both incredibly popular in the Dominican Republic.  It feels as though it were yesterday that Vicente and I were sitting on the Malecon gazing into the sea.  There was an unusual silence between us in that moment; we both were coming off enduring weeks of work and service.  The thoughts mulled and rolled around in my mind like the waves crashing into the rocky coast.  Our El Presidentes sat there sweltering in the heat of the Caribbean unable to pull us away from our pensive thoughts.  To the east, we could see a ferry departing Santo Domingo for Puerto Rico with all the passengers on the top deck waving to their loved ones back on the shore.  In that moment, a Romeo Santos song came on – Llavame Contigo.  We grinned at each other as we watched the scene unfold, pretending as if the song were an overture playing in some cheesy movie about lovers parting by ferry ship.  Before we knew it, we were belting out the words to the song as Romeo reached his crescendo with his falsetto voice.  We were laughing so hard that we were crying by the end of the song, but it was what we needed.  We needed that moment of silliness to bring us back down to Earth and remember that we need to let go at times.  Sure, we felt small sitting beside the ocean, just the same as when we work so hard and see no results in our mission.  But there’s a humbling peace to it all though it may be obscured by the feelings of disappointment when you don’t see the fruits of your labor. To know that others are out there working hard to make a small difference in the world helps and refocuses me to the objective of my mission: service.  The song and laughter get Vicente and I talking and sharing about the happenings in Santo Domingo and Barahona.  As he takes a drag from his cigarette, he reminds me that we knew it wouldn’t be easy before going on mission and that no matter how hard we thing we have it, it’s nothing compared to the people who suffer every single day.  I take in his words and gaze back at the sea.  This time I’m not having feelings of self-pity with a bruised ego, but a peace knowing that I’m supposed to be here, doing this work, building solidarity with Vicente and the people in Barahona, and discovering the living God omnipresent amongst us.  Vicente turns to me to say something, but all I hear is the sound of the car honking its horn from behind me.  I am taken back to reality, now sitting at a green light as the person from behind me speeds around me in the emergency lane giving me dirty looks.  I take a deep breath and roll on towards wherever I am going. 
Vicente y yo

If this was the first or even second time this had happened, then maybe I’d blow it off and call it day dreaming.  The fact is that I’ve caught myself reliving these memories time and again.  I can never predict what will trigger it: the smell of a food, the name of someone I met, an advertisement on a bus, or a familiar face.  I catch myself lost in a nostalgic state staring into apparent nothingness, but in my mind I’m alive and animated in the worlds and communities I served in and was a part of. 

It seems that my time with missions has come to an end; or at least a hiatus after two years of serving in various locations.  Guatemala, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, San Antonio, New York, and Switzerland have each left an effect on me and opened my heart to gain a better perspective on the world we co-inhabit.  I’ve discovered the meaning of family, community, solidarity, sacrifice and faith.  I’ve felt freedom and oppression, bliss and agony, success and failure and have gained something from each accompanying experience.  In some way, I expected (or hoped) this to happen to some degree.  I figured that this type of service would impact me and possible change the way I see the world.  Yes, but this was a selfish outlook and I missed one major detail before going on mission: the human experience.

Why was this not reinforced by others?  Or maybe it was and I completely missed the point when they were trying to explain it to me.  For some reason, I had an idea that I would finish with my mission and simply move on to the next part of my life.  Now I don’t know how that would even be possible.  It’s hard enough to leave your family and friends to go serve abroad, but in some ways it’s even harder to leave the community that you’ve served in for a number of months.  I always knew I’d be back home at some point to get to see my family and friends again, but I didn’t stop to consider how difficult it may be to visit those I served alongside in the future; or the possibility that I may never see them again.

Such is the case with a young boy nicknamed, “Mello”, who lived in Barahona.  Mello was a young and curious kid, but suffered from thyroid and insulin problems.  Constant medication was out of the question and his family struggled to provide proper food to the family.  The Salesian Sisters provided assistance by giving Mello a healthy meal everyday to control his carbohydrate intake and support his family.  The Sisters also used this opportunity to teach Mello the Catholic teachings and faith.  As he was a curious boy, he became very interested and always had questions for the Sisters.  They taught him and he was baptized in the Church this past year.

And maybe it was all part of God’s plan, to use the Sisters as a vessel to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Mello died this past week due to complications with pneumonia and his weakened immune system.  I received the news from the Sisters and it felt too surreal – the boy I had seen and served everyday was gone.  Something that may have been able to be cured in a developed country led to the death of a young boy in an under-developed country.  While he is with God in heaven, we are here with heavy hearts and minds, asking the all-too-familiar questions when things go wrong.  Why him?  How could this happen? Could I have done anything more?
Mello, tu alma descansará en paz,
ahora eres con Dios.
This is what I could not foresee about service work: that you never truly leave.  Part of me is alive in the Sisters, in the community, in the work I participated in, and them in me.  I cannot forget them, cannot shake them even if I wanted to.  There’s no “The End” with a period or full stop to finish the story.  No, it was just a chapter in an ever-evolving story that is being written as time flows on.  We were told to “make our story” as volunteers, but it seems so misleading now.  You don’t really make a story as much as you take part in one.   I think I am getting into semantics and possibly missing the point again.  Maybe the point is the story itself, to share and educate those willing to listen; to be a witness and bear the truth, not for oneself, but for others.  After all, the purpose of volunteering is to serve others, not oneself – though (to completely contradict myself) in serving others, one gains more than he could on his own.

To conclude, I wish to end with a poem by Henry van Dyke that holds a special significance to me:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, "There, she is gone."

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me -- not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, "There, she is gone,"
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, "Here she comes!"

Monday, July 29, 2013

The United Nations: A World of its Own

It was the first week of the Human Rights Council and an urgent session had been called to discuss the deteriorating situation and escalating civil war in Syria.  Both the rebels and soldiers fighting for Assad had been accused of torture and murder of innocent civilians.  Her Excellency Navi Pillay addressed the council and began discussing strategies for peace, seeking the beginning of the end to this bloody conflict.  It played out like a movie: the US and European countries said they would support the rebels to overthrow Assad.  Countries such as Egypt, Cuba, Russia, and China accused the US of inhumane intervention and called for a cease and desist to their actions.  Syria defending its action blamed the rebels and the US.  Switzerland remained neutral.

The meetings are actually not quite as exciting as they may seem.  The article you read in the newspaper may take 10 minutes to read, but it covers 3-6 hours of meeting time.  In fact, sometimes when I read the articles on the internet, I have to remind myself that I was there as it feels like two different worlds.  During the Syria meeting, I felt the need to stretch my legs and took a break to use the restroom.  I strolled leisurely through the Palais des Nations and entered the nearest restroom.  When I was in the bathroom (I don’t want to be vulgar, but must tell this), who would come up and use the urinal next to me but the Ambassador of Syria!  I did a double take, which can be a mistake in itself in a bathroom, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.  I took my time washing my hands and he fixed his hair, splashed his face and checked his teeth.  The whole time in my mind I kept thinking, “Shouldn’t you be in the meeting?  Isn’t this kind of important?  They’re only discussing the future of your country in a time of crisis.”

I returned to the meeting as he did and it appeared that they had kept going despite his absence.  I told the other volunteers the story and they were equally at a loss for words. 

Delegates Restaurant
In another instance, Valentina and I attended a side-event discussion presented by the Order of Malta to discuss Extreme Poverty and ways to combat poverty.  The session was interesting and informative, but the events that followed are still a bit baffling to me.  As the session concluded, we were invited to attend a small reception in the Delegates Restaurant on the 8th Floor of the United Nations.  As we made our way into the upscale room, our eyes were drawn to the tables full of fancy hors d'oeuvre, wine, cocktails, desserts, and more.  We were still taking it all in when we caught sight of the balcony overlooking the park behind the United Nations which ran all the way to Lake Geneva. 
I'll take one of everything, thanks.

We were stunned by all the wonderful food and the breathtaking view and the glamour of it all, but something didn’t feel quite right.  It was in that moment, along with others, that I understood what people meant by the UN being its own world or “drinking its own juice”.  Both Monica and Chris had used these expressions respectively, and although they both believed in what the UN stood for, they oftentimes were frustrated by the modus operandi.  Valentina and I talked about it on the way back to Veyrier – the contrast from talking about issues on extreme poverty to enjoying a reception of extreme luxuries. 

In one sense, I understand it – these NGOs and countries are spending lots of money, time, and effort to improve the lives of others throughout the world, so why not have a nice party every now and then?  But on the other hand, I questioned how many of them had actually seen poverty first hand and wondered if some ever would.  It’s a different kind of mission working from the high level – it’s all done through papers and debates and presentations whereas I was used to hard-work and a little divine providence when working on a task. 

Let me make a point while I’m here: I do believe the United Nations does great work.  I believe that the majority of people working with the UN and the NGOs have a desire to help others and it is their calling to do this type of service.  However, as for me, I must stick with the ground level in the future.  It’s the grassroots type work that I’m called to do, even if it is a lot less significant than the work done at the United Nations.  I believe that’s why I found VIDES and the Salesians so fascinating – the Sisters and volunteers are all ready to jump into the thick of it to help.  It takes a lot of energy and sacrifice to become immersed in a community; to live and work alongside the people as you discover more about yourself through the giving up of yourself.  But, maybe that’s why I was called to Geneva – to find this out.  Would I have known for certain that the grassroots level is where I want to work, had I not been able to go to Geneva?  Such questions are impossible to answer, but still dance around in my head.

My time in Geneva has come to an end and it has been a learning experience in so many different ways.  I met some of the most interesting people of my life and will never forget them.  They taught me lessons about life, their culture, faith, and love.  It was not a sad parting since we all began this mission with the end partly in mind.  Of course we felt a sense of longing as we each went back home, but we also left with a feeling of richness.  To have shared those three months in the company of such motivated and inspiring peers knowing that they are someone you can call on whenever you need gives an incredible feeling of appreciation and gratitude.  As I get ready for my newest mission (home!) I am left with so many experiences and memories to reflect upon.  On my way home, I was able to watch a movie on the plane – a rarity for me these days.  The film was “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and it ended with a quote that struck me emotionally.  Maybe it was just the right time and place for it – on the plane to see my family after so much has happened.  Maybe it’s just a quote that we all feel on the inside.  Of that I am not sure, but I’ll end with it and hope that you get something from it as well.

When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Swiss Life

Dori, myself, Valentina, and Veronica
After months of preparation and anticipation, I have finally begun my mission in Geneva, Switzerland.  From April until the beginning of July, I will be working with the VIDES and IIMA Human Rights Office, both of which are NGOs with special consultive status for the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.  There are three other volunteers serving with me: Veronica and Valentia, who are both from Italy, and Dori, from Hungary.  Technically, Valentina and I are VIDES International volunteers while Veronica and Dori are here to volunteer for IIMA, but there is no difference in the work we do (just in the range of languages we speak!)

Veyrier Center
Life in Veyrier is a change of pace from my previous missions in San Antonio, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.  Veyrier is a small community on the Swiss/France border that enjoys the benefits of a quiet countryside setting with luscious landscapes as well as its proximity to one of the biggest economic centers in the world.  Needless to say, this is not a poverty-stricken area – the opposite in fact.  The educational systems, public facilities, transportation, and security are all very developed and advanced.  I must admit that I have been enjoying the benefits of such luxuries, using the parks and running paths scattered about the city, enjoying the convenient bus routes, and breathing in the fresh mountain air. 

The small community that we live in is composed of three Sisters: Sor Lucia, Sor Guiseppina, and Sor MariaGrazia, all of whom are Italian-born.  With Valentina and Veronica volunteering here as well, the main language spoken in the house is generally Italian, which French as a close second.  Though I have been trying to pick up a little bit of Italian, Dori and I do not speak it, so oftentimes translations for conversations are provided by Valentina or Veronica, who can speak English as well.  When it comes to French, everybody in the house can use it effectively…with the exception of yours truly.  Together, we make up a fun, diverse, and sometimes quirky little community.

Not a bad view of Geneva
I mentioned that Veyrier is an affluent community, but I should take an opportunity to highlight this.  It’s an affluent suburb of Geneva, one of the most affluent cities in the world.  I have seen no less than 10 different Ferraris as well as a handful of Aston Martins, Bentleys, and other luxury European cars that I’ll never come close to owning.  As a volunteer, I have mixed feelings about this: it’s interesting and fun to see so many fine crafts in one area, but has anyone ever told you how expensive Geneva is?  Especially when your budget is the same as a college student living off Ramen noodles and Mac ‘n Cheese, (which was what I did for a while in college) planning and deciding what you can afford is a must.  For instance, we stopped by a Starbucks on a rainy day and I paid the equivalent of $7 for a medium coffee.  Luckily, the Sisters take care of our housing and food: a charity of immense proportions as the fusion of Italian and French cuisine at no expense is reason enough to travel here…but that was not my intention, I promise!  Really though, despite the high costs, I’m enjoying the laid back Swiss life, the chocolate, the landscapes, and the work that I am doing here. 
At first you're blown away by the exotic cars, but after
seeing Ferraris, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, Bentleys,
Rolls-Royces, etc. you grow accustomed to it.  Somehow.

I have been on the job for a month and a half but, like my other missions, cannot paint a perfect picture of the day-to-day life.  The diversity of work and range of tasks keeps things feeling fresh and new even though
I know I am halfway through my time here though it does not feel that way; it feels as though I’ve just begun.  When working in the office, generally we’re preparing documents and reports from the UN to disseminate to the Salesian Sisters, NGOs and other benefactors throughout the world.  The importance of our work is twofold: we act as a medium between the UN and grassroots work in various countries and also promote the work of the Sisters, giving a voice to the voiceless.  Oftentimes, we’ll attend a meeting at the UN discussing a particular country or topic that the Sisters have interest in (such as the right to education) and generate a report for the Sisters in that country / area of interest.  We do this work to inform the Sisters in those areas what is being acted on at the higher level as well as bringing serious issues the Sisters are facing to light at the UN. 

Effective communication is a must when all work is based around the passing along of information in an accurate manner.  This can get tricky when working with many languages, but has also proven to be a beautiful challenge.  Throughout the day, we work in Spanish, English, Italian, and French.  Each volunteer and Sister has his or her own proficiency in each language making teamwork and collaboration a must as well.  For example, it is my duty to proof-read all English documents before they are finalized as I am a native English speaker.  However, I do not speak French although it is the language of preference in Geneva.  We each have strengths and weaknesses with a wide range of skill sets.  Learning as a team has been fun, interesting, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding knowing that this is a new experience for each one of us, so it does not feel like a hierarchy but more a circle or series of circles that lets us share our success and failures together. 
Ahh...the Swiss Life.

There is more to come about the UN, my travels, and the differences between this and my other missions.  In the meantime, stay well and keep us in your prayers.  Thanks!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Recap Part 6: 57th UN Commission for the Status of Women

The United Nations (UN) has been a promoter for actions to end violence against women and girls for many years. However, despite the fact that almost all member states of the UN have developed legislation that supports this issue, there is a general lack of enforcement and political will in many countries which results in many women and girls still suffering abuse around the world. There are many reasons which contribute to this unfortunate fact, such as traditional and cultural practices that do not stand nor respect the rights of women and girls, lack of training for security forces in assisting victims of violence and enforcing legal framework,  weak justice systems, lack of prevention strategies involving men and boys, support services working isolated one from the other, and internal conflict or post-conflict reconstruction.

At the Italian Embassy overlooking the Hudson Bay
VIDES and the Institute of Maria Auxiliadora, both of which are International NGOs with UN consultative status, are working together to combat this issue. At the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, I had the opportunity to help the Sisters from India make a contribution to the conversations at the UN with a presentation about an orphanage and rehabilitation home in Bangalore for children survivors of violence that has been established by the Sisters. One Sister spoke about their current efforts to partner with police and community members to strengthen the judicial processes in processing children and juvenile cases.  This is important as many street children are detained for long hours while police figure out a proper place for them to go.  Through their work, they have been able to shelter orphans and educate the police on proper treatment of children and juveniles after they are taken in off the streets.  Not only that, but many children have been offered a second chance through their efforts. 

To display the fruits of their labor, a second presentation was given by a young girl named Shanthi, who is 20 years old and fled from domestic violence occurring in her home at age 11 with her brothers and sisters.  Shanthi was scared, but knew that she and her siblings were in danger by staying put and not acting.  However, she did not know where to go or who to turn to.  Through a series of events, she and her siblings were taken in by the Sisters in the rehabilitation home.  When she entered, she was full of fear and uncertainty and was unwilling to participate in the community.  The Sisters understand this and showed her nothing but compassion and explained to her that their home is an area where she could finish her studies, participate in youth activities, and realize that her dignity cannot be stripped away by those who wish to do her harm.  Little by little, Shanthi not only opened up and began to heal, but was able to forgive the people who hurt her the most – namely her father.  The audience was moved and delighted with Shanthi’s inspiring story from her childhood and how it was transformed by the Sisters’ care.  After her presentation, members from the audience formed lines just to congratulate Shanthi and the Sisters for their courage and dedication. 
Shanthi, Sor Jacintha, and I at the General Council

The audience was not the only group moved by Shanthi’s story.  I shared it with my family and friends after we had finished and they were amazed at what they had heard.  Many asked if they could donate money or continue to promote her story.  After asking Shanthi, who is wise beyond her years, she gave me the reply, “It is not just my story, but a story of all those who suffer injustice and intolerance.  The real ones to thank are people like the Sisters who work tirelessly for our sake.”

The opportunity to assist in such an important and delicate subject has given me awareness and strengthened my faith in our world.  It is beautiful to see different cultures (on a side note, it was the first time the Sisters and Shanthi had ever seen snow!) sharing ideas for the betterment of our world, especially giving a voice to the voiceless.  Though this story took place in India, other participants echoed the fact that it is a worldwide problem that needs to be addressed by the global community at large.  As we move towards a globalized world, local problems are no longer contained to specific regions, but are increasingly global problems.  As such, it is important to recognize that our brothers and sisters throughout the world need our help.  For me, I was able to learn good practices and methods for tackling these problems, which I hope to employ in my own community.  Even if it’s something as small as raising awareness, it’s a step in the right direction toward international solidarity.  I feel fortunate to be a VIDES volunteer because these experiences will help shape who I am for the rest of my life.  Now it is my turn to share what I have witnessed to continue to promote education and empowerment to those who suffer unnoticed in our society every day.

From left to right: Shanthi, Veronica, Sor Ramona (front), Sor Maria Luisa,
myself, Sor Glorina, Sor Jacintha
And now, I would like to share Shanthi's inspiring story with you all (you may find some grammatical errors - keep in mind that English is not just her second language, but her fourth)

“Make education possible for us.
Protect us from all forms of violence”
  I  cannot believe myself that I am here at the United  Nations  to share with you all the shadows and the lights of my life especially  after the introduction of  the International Girl Child Day . In fact I am boosted within by the fact that Girls issues are given importance at this International level.  Thank you to all those who worked for it.
 I am the eldest of six children – four boys and two girls. My parents were of inter-caste marriage, because of which they lived isolated   from all their relatives.  They both were running errands of washing the clothes.  As children we were around the house and never played or associated with other children.  I was sent to the nearby primary school with my sister.  We daily witnessed my father returning home fully drunk and he constantly fought with my mother. He used to beat my mother and all of us children.  I hated these family moments. I always thought other parents were good and loving to their children .I could not see my mother being beaten up badly in front of my eyes. I wanted to prevent it but it was not possible at all.  Late at night he used wake me and my mother, scold and beat us and used to send both of us out. He never allowed us to sleep inside the house. He used to borrow money from all and drink.  Adding to that my parents were suspicious of each other. Their cruel and violent behaviour toward each other was terrifying.
When I was in 3rd year of Primary School, my father left the family after a severe fight and did not return for two years.  In those two years there was no fighting…. But my mother struggled to make ends meet. I wanted to help my mother but I was too small to work anywhere.   We struggled but we lived peacefully till my father’s return.
Again the old story began. And my father compelled me to stop studying and go to work with my mother. But I wanted to study at all cost. I used to go to school hiding, when my father left the house for his work. I disliked my father for he did not have any concern for me.  When I entered my secondary school, I was forced to stop my schooling to take care of the younger children. One fine day my mother left us all and went with another man, after being beaten violently by my father. I was heartbroken…. I was in despair. I also felt responsible for my younger brothers and sister. In the absence of my mother my father began to misbehave with me. He began to disturb me in the night. I used to wake up my brothers and sister and they all used to keep awake with me.  One night I felt frightened and took my brothers and sister and went to the neighbours. The next day they took us and left us in our aunt’s house. My aunt took care of us for a week, and called and advised my father. But he did not listen. She could not feed us all so left us on the street. We roamed everywhere to trace out our mother … but couldn’t. Then one of our neighbours took us to the nearby police station.  They sent us all to the Government Child welfare committee.  It was a home for begging children, runaways, missing children and children with problems. We had food and shelter but we were left to ourselves.  They were trying to settle the children in their families. I was so sure that our parents would never come in search of us.  Being girls, my sister and I were transferred to Navajeevana, a foster home run by IIMA.  
When we entered there, our life began to take another turn. I could feel the joy of being taken care of by sisters who really loved us for what we are.   I was asked to continue my studies.  Then they sent me to do my tailoring course. I completed 2nd year of Secondary school.  They also took care that I was counselled to overcome my fear, hate, depression and moodiness. I began to take part heartily in recreation, cultural activities and began to interact with others. The lessons on moral and spiritual life really helped me to reorientate my life positively.  Then I was sent to complete Home Nursing and I did a Beautician course. Today I earn a good salary; I got ready with bank pass book and birth certificate. The voter ID, Pan Card, Andhra card is on the way.  My sister is also being helped to study. 
I am waiting to complete my secondary education side by side.  As I am in a foster home, I began to love the little ones who enter there for various reasons. Somehow I feel the need to help children like us in the future…. Especially I would like to contribute to the education of the girls in difficult situations.
I would like to make a request to the parents here and all over:  “Kindly respect your Children, for they are Human beings. Try to provide a happy and healthy family. Remember that children long for your love, care and support. Touch their heart and mind not their bodies.  Never use children for your pleasure or to give vent to your violent feelings. Children are vulnerable and take care to treat them well.  Be an example to your children”.
 I am thankful to IIMA who brought new light into my life and the life of my sister. It is because of them today I can stand before you all. I would like the international communities to take real and adequate measures so that every child is able to complete their secondary education and to have a skill training to earn their living especially in countries like India.  I plead with you all today on behalf of all the children in difficult situation throughout the world.  “Make education possible for us. Protect us from all forms of violence."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Recap Part 5: Old Friends and New Acquaintances

Calen, Kim, and little Keadan - born on
Valentine's Day
My fifth phase preparing for Geneva was a 3-month opportunity to work in the VIDES Office with Sister Gloria in the Provincial House in San Antonio.  Following the Christmas holidays, I visited my best friend Calen and his fiancĂ©e, Kim, on New Year’s Eve with a planned flight from Lexington the next morning.  For me, it was a great send off to my next mission as I was both nervous and excited to work in San Antonio.  I knew that I’d get to meet a whole new group of volunteers as they prepared for their missions but I was worried about making comparisons with my orientation group.  

Nevertheless I was picked up from the airport by Sister Teresa Jones and two other volunteers: Chelsea and Rachel.  We got to know each other on the way back and I had a good feeling that the group would be unique in its own way.  The following day, two more volunteers joined us (Christy and Laura) as well as Carmen – who I had the pleasure to work with in Austin.  Together we began our formation / service camp, led by Sister Gloria.
Working with the kids of Pan-Americana Apartments

It was refreshing to be reoriented in Salesian values – especially when led by Sister Gloria, who brings an aura and charismatic presence to the room when she speaks.  Learning about the other volunteers and their faith journey was a beautiful thing as well – I find that faith sharing is integral as a Christian, knowing that we are a human family with an interlocked future makes solidarity a foundation for which to build relationships and grow as one human body.  Though the group was much different from my previous orientation group, it is nearly impossible to compare as each group is unique.  
VIDES 2011 Group

When the two week orientation ended, all the volunteers left to prepare for their missions except for Chelsea, who was to serve at St. John Bosco School across the street.  Rachel was assigned to South Africa, Laura was to go to Geneva followed by South Sudan, and Christy accepted a place in the Canary Islands.  I was fortunate to have another volunteer to serve with; though we did not work together, we ventured the city and Riverwalk many times together in an attempt to get to know as much of San Antonio as possible in the three months we had.
Sharing a good meal at a Mexican Restaurant before

I came to like San Antonio very much, the city itself could be very touristy on weekends, but offered a lot of culture and a sense of community.  The Provincial House always had visiting Salesian Sisters from the US and other communities around the world, which gave me the opportunity to learn about the Salesian presence in the world.  At one point, an English translation team comprised of Sisters from India, Ireland, England, the Philippines, and Australia convened to convert text for several weeks and they became part of our community during that time.  It was enjoyable to share our culture and also hear their stories of home.  Being in a large community of teachers, spiritual leaders, and missionaries allowed me to expand my horizons more than I expected in San Antonio.

 As a previous volunteer, it has been very interesting to see an organization from the inside out, especially one as unique as VIDES USA.  Every year, many volunteers apply, are trained, and sent to a variety of different countries to serve and accompany youth. Such an undertaking must require the work of a team of people to run everything smoothly, right? The reality is that much of the weight of the program is carried on by one humble and dedicated sister: S. Gloria with S Theresa as part-time assistant (who also has a wide range of other tasks in the community). It is amazing for me that she manages all the recruiting, applications, orientation (including formation and service), finances, donations, mission placements, insurance, volunteer support, website, blog, mission projects, promotion, etc.  Life is different here, there is no doubt, but I know I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be - living simply and witnessing so many influential figures devote their life to service and God.