Students recognize need beyond diocesan borders
By KARA KOCZUR, Globe staff reporter
Students at diocesan Catholic schools often have the chance to participate in service projects throughout their tenure.
Most of their service is done locally, helping out people close to home. Yet, every now and then they are given the opportunity to witness the need people have outside the Diocese of Sioux City.
Exposing the students at Le Mars Gehlen to the life and poverty of billions around the world was a desire in Richard Seivert’s heart. But the high school guidance counselor didn’t have a way to do that.
Then, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, particularly Honduras, wiping out electricity, roads, bridges, clean water and 14,000 people were dead or missing in the country.
“Hurricane Mitch I think was the impetus that pushed us into finally giving birth to this program,” said Seivert of Gehlen Mission Honduras ‘Changing Lives.’ “One of the largest storms ever recorded on the face of the earth and it varied from a 3, 4 and 5 level hurricane for 10 straight days. So you can imagine the destruction that took place.”
The program began in the fall of 2000 and this spring brings the tenth student mission trip to the country.
Besides the student trip, a number of years ago the program began sending a separate full medical team to Honduras as well. In fact, last week the eighth medical team sent by Gehlen arrived for about a week and a half of work.
Students pay for themselves, Seivert said, and they usually collect a lot of supplies to bring with them. He has developed criteria over the years in order to select the most mature students for the trip. While some juniors are accepted, it's generally seniors, he said. This spring 22 students and 10 adults will make the journey. Eight high schools and five states will be represented by the group.
Every year a major work project is part of the mission, Seivert said. The last few years the program has been focusing on water projects. Clean water is the largest issue facing billions of people around the world, he said.
"I always tell people that as important as medicine is, that clean water and food are the number one and two most important issues for the billions of poor people in this world," Seivert said. "I can tell you firsthand that you can pump all the medicine you want into the bodies of these little children around the world, but if they don’t have food then the medicine isn’t going to work, and if they don’t have clean water. . .they’ll just recycle the diseases over and over and over again."
In recent years Gehlen Mission Honduras 'Changing Lives' has done 24 water projects in 24 rural villages in order to bring clean water to their homes. Seivert said the projects vary. Sometimes it means getting the Hondurans a new well, tank, pump or tubes, or a combination of them. Sometimes they need everything.
Being what Seivert describes as the "most blessed and advantaged people on the face of this earth," too many young people today grow up without realizing what their faith and beliefs teach them to do, he said, and it's something the program strives to do. Once while giving a presentation at a high school, a teacher raised her hand and asked Seivert why he does the mission program.
"I simply said, ‘To teach our children the very things we hear in in churches across Le Mars every Sunday, no matter what church you’re talking about,'" he recalled.
And one of those things, he said, is that Christians are all called to be missionaries in the world.
"I have a firm belief that that’s what our church is, that we are a mission church," Seivert said. "Maybe we get away from it sometimes, but this program is proof that when you give young people the opportunity to do good, they will do good.”
Julie Tebbe, director of faith formation at Mater Dei in Sioux City has also seen the good students can do when given the opportunity.
"Never underestimate what they can do," she said. "They know the importance of it, they really get it.”
Tebbe has been involved in a couple service projects that the school has done outside the diocese. At the end of last October, 10 students and five adults traveled to Cedar Rapids Iowa to assist with the flood clean-up through the organization Eight Days of Hope.
“We got hooked up with that through Sister Jo Ellen Price who used to be here at our parish and school," Tebbe said. "She’s currently working in a parish in Cedar Rapids that has had to take out some of the flood relief."
Sister Jo Ellen told the group about Eight Days of Hope, an organization in Mississippi that formed when Hurricane Katrina struck. There was such a positive response that the organization expanded to include other sites affected by natural disasters.
While the organization works for eight days at a site, groups must commit to at least two days, which is what the group from Mater Dei did. Even in those two days, the students and chaperones were able to get a lot of work done. They worked on a senior housing facility in Palo, Iowa, as well as a man's house.
"When we were there we had to strip linoleum, the kids learned how to sheet rock and do electrical work, yard clean-up, insulating [and] things like that," she said.
The experience allowed students to see there are needs out there that extend beyond the diocesan boundaries, while still being close to home, Tebbe added.
"Cedar Rapids is practically in our backyard," she said. "We hear of hurricane disasters and it seems so far away, but this was like a local disaster. It was outside our diocese, but close enough that we could be a part of it.”
One thing the kids kept saying over and over again, she said, was how grateful they were for the things they have and a realization never to take things for granted.
"Within minutes your life can change and you can lose everything that you have,” Tebbe said.
Another project Mater Dei participated in occurred this summer in Washington D.C. While some of the seventh and eighth graders were visiting for an educational trip, service was incorporated into the itinerary as well.
“Our students created blankets for the organization 'So Others Might Eat,'" Tebbe said. "We delivered the blankets right to the homeless shelter and the guy who received them said the blankets had been especially welcomed donations to the clients in their single room occupancy housing."
Tebbe was told that the blankets were very helpful as the weather would be turning colder, and was asked that if Mater Dei ever return to Washington, if they could help serve in the organization's soup kitchen.
While the Catholic Schools Week theme focuses on service, Tebbe said it doesn't take a theme to set service in motion.
“I think it’s important for us to open our eyes to the needs around us and to respond according to what our Gospel wants us to do and that’s to go out and serve,” she said. "Really I think what’s been so rewarding for me here at our Catholic school is that the kids see the needs and it’s a living faith."
At St. Mary's School in Storm Lake, leadership coordinator Ryan Berg hopes students recognize by helping service organizations outside the diocese that there are places around the world that have it worse than they do.
"It’s kind of a good thing for them to be aware of what things are like in other places and realize maybe we don’t have it as bad as we think we do sometimes," he said. "It kind of gives them a different perspective on things.”
One of the projects St. Mary's participates in is Operation Christmas Child. Students gather shoe boxes and fill them with toys and candy. The boxes are age and gender appropriate. Once they are completed, the boxes are shipped all over the world to children in need as their Christmas presents.
Some of the other service projects outside the diocese that St. Mary's helps out with is raising money for different causes.
“Last year we did a fasting thing on Good Friday and had people pledge money for kids who were attempting to fast for 24 hours on Good Friday," Berg said. "All the money we raised we donated to three different places."
In all they raised $1,200 and donated it to the Oxfam organization, Kids Against Hunger and another organization in Kenya that had ties to St. Mary's principal, Bev Mach.
A few years ago after Hurricane Katrina hit, the school also did a service project with Buena Vista University where they gathered school supplies, hygiene products and other goods for those displaced by the hurricane.
Recently they began raising money for Betty Nielsen and the Freedom Quilters by holding jeans days and coin drives. While Nielsen is a parishioner in the diocese, the quilts travel all across the country.
“She’s used the money that we’ve contributed to her in the last few months here to help the flood victims in Cedar Rapids and families of fallen soldiers in Iraq,” Berg said.
When it comes to service projects, Berg said the school tries to incorporate every grade, with the exception of fasting on Good Friday. He hopes they learn that giving back is something for them to continue throughout the rest of their lives, and that they get to a point where they'll recognize situations where they can step in and help on their own.
"It doesn’t have to be something that someone else organizes for them," he said. "They end up enjoying the giving and see the good it does and makes them want to look for ways to do it on their own as well.”
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