One year ago I was asked to speak at the Project Unite event at Aquinas College. This event is a large scale community service project for the incoming freshman class. Every year they ask an alumni to come back as the guest speaker. I had an AMAZING experience last year as the guest speaker. Recently I came across the speech and decided that it would be a good one to share with everyone here. ENJOY! :)
"When I was first asked to be the guest speaker for Project Unite, I was humbled and honored. To come back to the institution, to come back home to AQ and relive moments of orientation that hold such a special place in my heart is a true honor and privilege.
The summer before my freshman year here at Aquinas I had an opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic for a mission trip. The experience was eye opening and inspiring – everything that you might imagine. However, I was soon off to college and life became so busy that my hopes of one day returning were merely a memory.
But, God had different plans. Just a couple weeks before Christmas break I received a phone call from the organization that I traveled to the DR with. They had a participant back out at the last minute and desperately wanted to fill the spot on their next mission trip. Free plane ticket? Half price trip? Absolutely! This time I came home with a deeper, burning desire to keep service at the core of who I am.
Fast forward to my sophomore year of school and began working in the Campus Ministry office. This campus job played an important role in my personal -- and later, professional, -- growth. Through Campus Ministry and Service-Learning, I found the confidence and support to aide in organizing AQ’s first Service-Learning program in the Dominican Republic. In many ways this seemed like a dream come true – I had finally discovered a way to incorporate my desire to serve, my love for the Dominican Republic and my academic education. Over the next several years I continued to student lead the Dominican Republic program. Interest in the program grew like wildfire and before I knew it we were going down to work 3 times a year. With each trip I developed stronger and stronger ties to the local communities along the Haiti-Dominican border. I was able to integrate my service experiences with my sociology and Spanish majors with ease, even presenting a research paper based on my experiences at the National Sociology Conference.
Then, in 2005, I found myself at a crossroads. I was set to graduate from AQ in May. I had more student loan debt than I could contemplate… and yet my heart kept turning toward service. I felt this still, small voice inside calling me back to the Dominican Republic.
And, as usually happens when pursuing a calling or passion, things began to fall into place. I pursued every contact available to me and learned as much as I could about how to make service a lifestyle. Eventually, I even met a man who was incredibly supportive of my crazy adventures.
Today, my husband, Adam, and I run a MI-based nonprofit called Building Bridges of Hope. We strive to lift up and promote the people of the Dominican Republic through volunteer programs, fundraising and outreach.
Now, this is not to say that the road has been easy. In fact, there are so many obstacles that some days I find myself contemplating quitting.
But here is the thing – Nothing worth it will ever be easy. Talents and skills require cultivation. To be good at any sport, you must practice. To ace the exam, you must study.
Likewise, profound service is a skill that demands that you give of yourself, that you sacrifice. It is a sacrifice because you have become vulnerable to the reality of what another person is experiencing. You open yourself up to be heartbroken for them.
Several years ago we took severely malnourished children into our home -- our Mission House -- in the Dominican Republic. We had been doing our normal mobile medical clinics, which involved evaluating malnourished children and sending them home with as many food rations as they can carry. But it wasn’t enough. Children were dying. At the time there was no Children’s hospital or center. There was no orphanage or home for children in need. There was literally nowhere for these incredibly sick children to go. It was just us, looking into the faces of these children and their parents desperate for help.
So, we began to take them in. We cared for them in our Mission House. We fed them, played with them, rocked them to sleep, brought their fevers down... we loved them.
At this point, I was not a mother. I only had occasional babysitting experience and an expired CPR certification to guide me. This was baby boot camp. At the highest point we had 17 toddlers living in our 3 bedroom Mission House alongside volunteers like yourselves. Chaos is an understatement.
Yet, through all of the mundane childcare tasks like endless diaper changes and stacks of dishes to be done (by hand!), I learned what service truly was. Service, at it’s core, is simply love. Loving another so profoundly that it changes you. A love that transforms you.
It would have been easier to put up our guard, our personal walls, and refuse to let these children into our hearts. We could have easily fulfilled the tasks at hand as if we were shift work or an assembly line, with little commitment or second thought.
But, by putting ourselves out there emotionally, we connected with other people on a profound level. Yes, we were serving these children. But we were also serving each other. The volunteers that worked with us during this time became incredibly close, often sharing detailed stories about one another’s lives…stories that made them vulnerable…stories about the good and the bad they had experienced in life. I had never known this type of deep, honest human connection until then.
We no longer take care of children in our Mission House. Two years ago a Nutrition Center, which operates like a small children’s clinic, was opened by a group of religious Sisters. With tears in our eyes, we agreed to transfer the children to their Center knowing that they would be well cared for by nurses and pediatricians. We still work closely with the Sisters and often bring them the severely malnourished children that we find during medical clinics. But it’s not the same.
Now, years after this phase of life has ended, I realize just how much those children really did change me. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have lived with them and cared for them during a time of such great need. The families we met, their stories and their hardships have changed who I am and how I relate to the world.
And here’s the punch line:
These children who were so frail and sick, who needed someone to love them and serve them…. They are no different than you or I.
We all are struggling with something.
We have experienced pain and we have all suffered, physically, emotionally or psychology.
We all need to be loved.
We all need someone to reach out and serve US at one point or another.
In life, and I believe particularly while studying in college, it is so easy to be distracted by our busy schedules and lives that we are merely going through the motions, barely noticing the people surrounding us. But if we take a look around we will see many everyday, ordinary opportunities to serve…. Perhaps your homesick roommate needs someone to talk to, or the person who eats alone in Wege but is quietly hoping someone will sit down and join them. Simply helping someone unload their car is an act of love and service.
So today I challenge you to be intentional about service.
Let’s strive to make Project Unite a part of our everyday life, serving one another with great love in these common, everyday moments. "
We are Catholic lay missionaries serving along the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
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