Two groups of Villanova students embarked on a mission to serve communities in Ecuador and the Philippines over this past winter break.
12 Villanova students traveled to an invasion community in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
This eight-day trip challenged students to embrace the community.
“Winter break is a great experience because when you go on a spring or fall break trip, I don’t feel like you can be completely present in the community because there are the ever-looming homework and exams to worry about,” senior Alex Jeszeck says.
The winter break trips allow students to spend a longer period of time in the community and fully immerse themselves in service.
Invasion communities, where the students worked, are plots of land that were sold in the 1970s to give people the opportunity to own land and a home.
The plots are sometimes referred to as “invasion” communities because some locals don’t believe the land truly belongs to the new landowners, though no one was previously occupying it, and they consider it an invasion of property.
This land, sold by a man named Marco Solis, was only meant for agricultural use.
Since it was sold illegally, the government refused to recognize these invasion communities.
“They have one paved road, no regular water or trash pick-up, very few schools or hospitals and no electricity,” Jeszeck says.
The Villanova students worked with an organization called Rostro De Cristo, which had six year-long volunteers in Mt. Sinai.
They also attended a hospital called Damian House, which cares for people affected by leprosy. In addition, the volunteers went to schools in the area where they helped in English and computer classrooms.
This kind of trip was very different from that of a Habitat for Humanity experience. It is a mission trip, and it revolves around a presence in the community.
“It wasn’t about what we did,” sophomore Francis Cunningham says. “It was all about who we sat down and talked with, what we learned from them, who they were to us and who we were to them.”
The Ecuadorian culture is very hospitable and open.
“I think that a major reason why it became so easy and quick to establish a relationship with the children, teachers, parents and community members we met was because they opened up everything they had to us—their homes, their hears and their stories,” Cunningham says.
The whole experience was devoid of superficial tendencies and the connection the students made with the community was bonded by faith and support. It was something that will be hard to forget, students say.
Moving forward from the trip, these students say they hope that they have left a mark on this community that will make a difference. “Taking the time to appreciate your life is just as important as recognizing the blessings that have shaped it,” Cunningham says.
“The inspiration that these students have received from this trip will challenge them throughout their whole life, especially in making decisions on how our majors and specialties can change the world,” Jeszeck says.
On the other side of the world, but still along the Equator, a group of seven engineering students spent two weeks in Kiangan in the province of Ifugao, Philippines on a break trip through the College of Engineering.
This trip differs from a campus ministry-sponsored trip in that it focuses on specifically applying engineering practices to best benefit the service sites.
For senior group leader Kyle Johnson, this was not his first trip to the Philippines.
During the summer of 2011, Johnson spent two months as a summer service intern through the College of Engineering. He was tasked with finding his own engineering project to undertake.
After a few weeks of orienting himself and interning with a local non-government organization called Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement, shortened to SITMo, Johnson was presented the opportunity to help generate a 10-year solid waste management plan for Kiangan, the municipality at which Johnson was stationed.
This type of plan is mandated by the Philippines government by a Republic Act adopted in 2000, but it has taken over ten years for a plan to actually be created in the remote mountain province.
He helped facilitate meetings for a 10-year plan, and by the time he returned to ’Nova he was already wondering when he’d be able to return to the Philippines.
“I genuinely thought it would be years before I would return,” Johnson says.
“It was only through continued discussions with engineering service director Jordan Ermilio that I learned that the university was sending a group of students back to the Philippines this winter. When he suggested I lead a group of students back to Kiangan, I was ecstatic and jumped at the opportunity.”
While there were seven engineering students altogether on the trip, they were split into even smaller groups to maximize their efforts.
Junior Maggie Smith was one of two engineers working with Johnson on the waste-management plan.
“We were thinking they probably haven’t done too much because it’s difficult for communities to take the initiative on a complicated plan like this,” Smith says. “But when we got there a ton of work was done.”
Thanks to local efforts and other international volunteers, the waste-management plans were in the beginning stages.
’Nova student engineers were sent to revitalize this effort and gather data so that a technical design for the municipality’s first sanitary landfill can be formed.
They met with both a municipal engineer and a planning engineer before visiting the potential sites for landfills.
On a hike to a proposed landfill site called Hucab, they collected GPS data and soil samples to be used for the feasibility study that Johnson will be conducting this semester as an independent study.
Luckily, the group found time to travel around the area a bit as well.
Smith’s favorite part of their travels was a hike to the Tilapia falls. She says it was an eye-opening opportunity and a chance to spend time with people from all over the world.
The group traveled there with an Australian volunteer from Kiangan and met people from the Netherlands and Israel in their jeepney.
“Everyone was from a different part of the world,” Smith says. “It was a little international festival.”
While the Villanova group was small in numbers, Smith and Johnson agree that it allowed for quick bonding and easy movement in their tasks and through their travels.
Spending so much time in a country very different from the U.S. taught the students on the trip many lessons.
Smith was inspired to open her future options up to long-term volunteering because of the independence she felt doing service in a small group.
“At first I was terrified of everything,” Smith says. “But the people in Kiangan are the best people I’ve ever met in my entire life. It was just everything about the people there and the people I went with that made the trip and made me think about long-term volunteer work in the future.”
Johnson reflected on his past experience there in addition to his most recent one, and was pleased to have a group that was interested in returning someday to the same site, too.
“The greatest lesson my experiences in the Philippines taught me is that true service is the effort you put in and not just the tangible result when you leave,” Johnson says. “When you take the time and make the effort to connect with stakeholders personally, they become inspired and realize their own abilities and everything that they can bring to the table.
“For me, it was a most welcome surprise and an incredibly rewarding feeling to see how much was accomplished since I left Kiangan in August 2011.”