Koty Mann will never drink a Coke without thinking of the homeless. During a mission trip to Nicaragua, the 16-year-old saw a man living in a shelter built from Coca-Cola and Dasani vending machines. “It never leaves your heart; remembering all the people down there is like a slideshow that keeps going through your head,” he said.
Mann and 16 others from St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville traveled to the city of Hogar Belen-Diriamba, where they stayed with Mustard Seed Communities, a non-profit organization that provides homes for abandoned and handicapped children in poor countries. “They’re kind of abandoned in their country because they’re more expensive to take care of for their parents, and the poverty there doesn’t allow their parents to take care of them,” said Tom Warner, 15.
The largest country in Central America, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas. The economy is still recovering from a civil war that took place in the 1980s and a 1972 earthquake in the capital city of Managua.
During the mission trip, the crew helped build a new home for the growing number of children cared for by Mustard Seed. Without the use of modern tools they spent the better part of a week in April mixing concrete with shovels, moving cinder blocks, shoveling dirt, and tying wires around support poles. The new house will be home to 16 needy children.
Needy doesn’t begin to describe what the crew saw. During a day in Managua, they visited a dump where 3,000 lived in makeshift shelters built from sheet metal blankets, and in one case, discarded Coke machines.
“It helped me put things in perspective, to see how fortunate we really are,” said Warner. “It kind of made me want to live more simply. We really don’t need half the stuff that we have. They could use it so much more than we could.”
They also handed out food with a ministry called “Christ in the Garbage.”
“When we went to the dump, I couldn’t believe it was real, like it was their real life,” said Angela Miranda, 16. “It was hard for me to accept that this is what they had to go home to every day and they couldn’t fly off on a plane to what we have here.”
While in Managua they also hung out with kids aged 4-10 for an afternoon. Spanish is the language of the area, but some kids don’t speak at all. They managed to communicate through hand signs and gestures, and hugs. “They loves hugs,” said Miranda. “When we were working they would come over to us and try to play with us. So we would take breaks with them. There was one that would make us play fight in a ring that he drew in the dirt. He was a bundle of joy.”
Although they knew they were in for a week of hard work in the hot sun, they went anyway, partly as an answer to a calling and partly to see how others in the world live.
“I thought it would be a great experience to have, to put things in perspective. After you go down you know what it’s really like. I like to help people,” said Warner, who helps pack clothes and food and load trucks for Ann Marie Zon’s Nicaraguan mission. “It was cool to see the people I have been working all summer to help.”
Klara Chomicka, 17, signed up because she thought it would be cool to hang out with her friends for a week. “Before I went on this trip whenever I saw the statistics on poverty, I would read them and be sad, but it didn’t really affect me in any way. When I actually saw the people it really made me want to so something about it. I can see the kids’ faces and know whatever I do will make a difference.”
Despite the hard work coming home seemed to be harder than leaving.
“Everything at home seems almost insignificant,” said Pamela Meyerhofer, 18. “Things that were stressful and tough about daily life here, just seem pointless and dumb. There’s not the motivation to do those things that were stressful before. That was one of the hardest parts for me coming home, adjusting back into some sort of normalcy.”
Meyerhofer had the unique experience of celebrating her18th birthday on the way home from Nicaragua. “I loved doing that for my 18th birthday. I just think it’s the best way to show that I’ve grown up, as an adult, become more aware of the world and the way other people live,” she said.
In recent years, St. Greg’s has taken several mission trips through the United States, including New York City and New Orleans. This trip was designed to give the youth a view of the bigger world.
“I could speak for a whole year to these same kids about putting their faith into action and they’d look at me and say, ‘OK.’ As soon as you take them to a place like this, or New Orleans when Katrina came, all of a sudden they make a natural connection that somehow they have to learn how to live out their faith,” said Father Joseph Gatto, pastor of St. Greg’s, who chaperoned the trip along with Joe Chernowski, St. Greg’s youth minister and Msgr. Robert Zapfel, pastor of St. Leo Parish in Amherst.
Printed with permission from the Western New York Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Buffalo.