For 34 years, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School has been sending missionary groups to impoverished villages in the Dominican Republic to build small schools, chapels, aqueducts, roads and bridges. The annual Youth Mission Trip is something the boys look forward to from the beginning of their freshman year.
“I had friends that had gone before and heard it was a humbling experience,” said Joseph Garcia, 17.
“It’s something you should do before you graduate,” Joseph said, explaining that the trip is only available to students during their junior and senior years.
This year, Garcia and 110 other missionaries from Belen, Our Lady of Lourdes Academy and St. Brendan’s Catholic School, traveled to the village of El Puerto from June 26 through July 5, and worked alongside villagers to build a 115-foot cement bridge in merely 10 days.
Before the trip, each missionary was set up with a fundraiser website to elicit donations of at least $500 to help pay for supplies such as gloves, goggles, water shoes, shovels, hand picks and cement. Additionally, participants were responsible to pay for their own airfare. In all, $55,000 was raised for the mission.
During the rainy season, the water levels of El Puerto’s intertwining rivers rise, making it dangerous for the locals to travel. The bridge will now allow local students easier access to schools in neighboring villages, as well as a way for farmers to transport agricultural products to different cities.
“Our school motto is ‘Men for Others,’” Garcia said. “We won’t get anything back from this bridge. It’s all for them.”
Eugene Cruz, an algebra 2 teacher at Belen who chaperoned the trip for his first time, said the volunteers worked seven to eight hours per day, using as little of machinery as possible, to make the experience more authentic.
“The boys were hand-mixing cement for hours at a time, passing buckets of it down a line,” Cruz said. “People live in much more simple ways there. That’s a shock for them.”
All missionaries stayed in the homes of the locals, which had no air-conditioning, no running water and no indoor showers or toilets.
“It was really eye opening to see how they live and how they appreciate things,” Garcia said. “They are so happy and they have so much less than we have.”
At the end of every day, the volunteers and community would come together for a daily Mass and a meal. Together, they enjoyed time playing baseball games or huddling around a student playing guitar. Cruz said the Belen boys would improvise freestyle raps, singing lyrics like “Just another day at the bridge hanging with the Dominican kids.”
Cruz said opportunities like the mission trip are just as important as classroom time.
“We want them to go from an experience like this, to way bigger things,” Cruz said, who plans on attending the trip again next year. “This is something that, hopefully, catapults them forward.”
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