El Salvador teaches lesson on meaning of happiness

GREENVILLE — Students from St. Joseph’s Catholic School had an eye-opening experience about the haves and have-nots of the world when they went on a mission trip to El Salvador over the summer.

Father Dwight Longenecker, school chaplain, led the journey to the CIDECO community. CIDECO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families living in extreme poverty. It provides a model of low-cost housing for the poor, a Catholic school, medical clinic and community center.

Ten students and two chaperones spent over a week living, working and playing in the community.

They came home with a clear understanding that they are wealthier than they ever imagined and with a desire to help people who have next to nothing.

“There is a lot of extreme poverty that exists in El Salvador, the likes of which we don’t see back here in the States,” said Will Coffey.

Coffey is an alumnus of St. Joseph’s who went on the trip as a chaperone.

“So many of us are so blessed here in the U.S., with all that we have and with the wealth of opportunities that are available to us,” he said. “The experience affirmed in me the feeling that along with all of these blessings comes a responsibility as a Christian to help those less fortunate than us and to serve others.”

Coffey said he had wanted to travel to El Salvador ever since his younger brother went on the first mission in 2006.

Father Longenecker said the first trip was a fact-finding journey that he and a few students went on with the Papal Foundation, a Catholic organization that assists the pope’s outreach to the needy. They discovered that most of the people in El Salvador live in squalid conditions in the extreme heat, with no amenities at all, not even clean water.

Father Longenecker said his entire group fell ill. Yet they returned home with fabulous stories and photos of the people they met there. Ali Beischer, a senior, was so moved by her classmates’ testimonies that she made the trip in 2007 and again in 2008.  

“When you envision a third world country, you would think the people are miserable, malnourished and downtrodden,” she said. “But going to El Salvador opened my eyes and made me realize that although most of the people have very little, they are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met, particularly the children. They are so full of life and their hearts are filled with love for God and the people around them.”

Father Longenecker said his students are always affected by the joy and enthusiasm of the residents, especially during the celebration of Mass in the small community church.

Seniors Angela Quaranto and Matt Schott both spoke about the friendliness of the people and how they all welcomed the students into their midst.

“Every single church member of La Herradura surrounded us and hugged us all to death, and for me that was one of the most moving things I had ever experienced,” Quaranto said. “They really made us feel at home, like we were family.”

Father Longenecker said it is one of the best lessons his students will learn.

“They see that happiness doesn’t have much to do with the amount of money you have,” he said. “It has to do with family and faith.”

The students quickly became part of the community as they helped with English lessons in the school and worked on projects such as painting. They also spent time each night playing games with the children.

Clark Burgess, a sophomore, said that was the best part of the trip for him. Others recounted experiences outside CIDECO.

Quaranto said she was especially moved by the religious passion exhibited by the people for martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass because he defied the military and stood up for the poor.

“There were pictures of him graffitied on every street corner in his honor,” she said.  “I thought that was kind of neat how they took something like graffiti that’s usually frowned upon and turned it into religious artwork.”

Schott and Burgess focused on the poverty they saw and repeated the pledge to be more appreciative of what they have.

“When we went out into the villages and met the people, we noticed how thankful (they were) for what they had, even if it was not a lot,” Schott said.

Take, for example, the people who live in the Stick Village in the town of La Herradura. The residents of this town along the edge of the mangrove swamps don’t have cement walls or even sandbags to keep the tide at bay.

They use sticks to build a wall and use the swamp muck to hold them in place. Residents fill the space beyond the wall with mud and dirt until they have a small island that rises above the tides. It is here that they build their shacks.   

When Father Longenecker visited in 2007, he met an elderly woman who was raising her four grandchildren in such a shack. He noted that she had no electricity, running water, sewage, trash collection or steady income.

 He said he was overjoyed when he returned this summer and found her living in the CIDECO community with her grandchildren.

Father Longenecker said he hopes to visit her again next year with an even larger group.