By Nikki Nguyen     5/22/2017

When JSerra Catholic High School’s Vice Principal of Student Affairs Donna Vandenberg returned to Peru for her third year, leading a team of 41 student missionaries this past Easter, she expected a similar experience to those of the other trips: build homes, deliver food and clothing, visit orphanages, teach English to the young citizens of Piura.

Instead, massive rain flooded the town a week before the trip. The missionaries were advised to brace themselves and were warned about sanitation issues. Rubber boots and additional antibiotics were purchased. Extra supplies were picked up for Peruvian families.

Upon arrival, the missionaries attended the regularly scheduled Good Friday Mass at the parish of Santisimo Sacramento, as they have on previous trips. But unlike other times, at the end of Mass, Father Joseph Uhen — known as Padre Jose to the locals — invited each person to come forward and kiss the cross.

“As I approached the cross, I felt something new, something intensely powerful,” Vandenberg said. “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was so moved I had to choke back tears. In that moment, I knew this trip would be anything but typical.”

The residents of Piura hadn’t seen such flooding in decades. Thousands lost the few possessions they had. Even the nuns and orphans at the parish girls’ home were living knee-deep in water — without food or electricity.

Yet what was typical of this trip was the joyful smile of nearly everyone they met, despite the recent devastation. The girls at the home gleefully grabbed the closest hand to play games and sing songs. Happy hugs were freely given wherever they went. Gratitude was spoken and shown at every corner the missionaries turned.

Seeing such optimism in the face of troubles inspired the student missionaries and their chaperones to rise to the occasion — matching smile for smile and eagerly getting their hands dirty. Within the first three days, they had built ten homes as well as a small parish using bamboo, plywood, wire, tin, and bricks.

Graduating senior Taline Ratanjee said, “My Peruvian experience made me realize that the true riches cannot be bought with money; instead, wealth is the ability to truly experience a life of learning, service, and giving.”

For Vandenberg, the trip was made even more special by meeting a family she had “adopted” through Father Joe’s Family to Family Program the previous year: a 34-year-old single mother and survivor of domestic violence who was now raising four sons under the age of six.

“Father Joe’s outreach to the 40,000-plus members of his parish is truly an inspiration,” Vandenberg said. “The services continue to grow, as does the need and no one is left behind — not farmers who need aid or pastoral nursing, hospices, residential drug programs, women’s shelters, nor senior centers. Father Joe shows us that we can find the resources to provide hope and aspiration.”

The missionaries also had the opportunity to pay homage to buildings constructed by JSerra missionaries as far back as a decade ago — including a school that now serves students from kindergarten to trade school. The latter of which is rare in the region as education traditionally ends in 11th grade, and students who cannot afford college are left with few options.

“We’re all so proud to be a part of this mission to serve in Piura,” said Vandenberg. “We saw the face of Christ on those we served — joyous, trusting, grateful. It’s my hope that we at JSerra will always be able to bring students to Peru so they can experience this amazing sense of joy and fulfillment that comes from serving others.”