The Start of Something Beautiful

img_7607After a week in Embu, I have gotten to know the students here a bit better. This boarding school has a typical structure to many in Kenya. The students wake up at 4am every morning, even the weekends. Their time is spent in class, studying, daily mass, daily rosary, cleaning, clubs, and recreation. They wear their uniforms or school-issued work out clothes the whole day. Every student is registered with a number and everything they possess here is labeled, from their blouses to skirts to washing pails to their stool in the dining hall. The education system back home is so different, that I was shocked by the militaristic approach to school.

I am astonished by the work ethic of these girls. Their day starts while the sun is still fast asleep and is packed to the brim. During their study sessions at night, the school is quiet. It’s amazing!

Despite such a strenuous schedule, the students here are very welcoming and joyful! Most of them are so excited to meet me, touch my hair, and ask me questions. They have so many questions about America, myself and my perceptions of all things Kenyan.

img_7619Top 3 questions:
1) How is Trump? I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him recently.
2) How do you like Kenya? The people are very friendly and welcoming!
3) What is your education system like? Very different. Basically opposite.

Overall, I recognize that the sisters are trying to run a different school here. Since the education standards for Kenya are so strict, they find it difficult to run a school based on the preventative system of Don Bosco. However, they still try to treat everyone with reason, religion and loving-kindness. I hope I am able to befriend the students and teachers. My goal here (and everywhere) is to shine the light of Christ for all to see!

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“Let There be Peace”

Hello all! I’m starting my fourth week in Geneva and time is moving fast! We’ve gone to the UN a few times for events, written some reports, sent some official looking emails, and we’re working on making a flyer for our Side Event in March. We also just had a visit from Sr. Maria Teresa, the Provincial of the Lombardi region, which is the one Geneva falls under.

During the goodnight, she stated that for us to create peace externally, we must first find peace internally. So let’s talk about that.

The United Nations is about peace. Oh, there are politics and infighting and all that stuff that comes along with countries getting together to try and hash something out. But really, ultimately, most of the people that walk through the doors of the UN, no matter which doors they are, are in search of a way to end conflict and find peace.

Defining peace is difficult. One definition says that it is a state or period in which there is no war or war has ended. That’s a fairly specific definition that works pretty well when you are talking about the internal physical situation within a country; however, it doesn’t really show what peace looks like socially or emotionally. There is also the definition that says peace is being free from dissension, like if a union does not disagree with the heads of an industry or company. Again, this definition fails to describe a peace that exists on an emotional level, though it could be said that it works as a social definition. Yet another definition says that peace is being free from disturbance. That is broad enough that it could feasibly apply anywhere, yet still, I wonder what that kind of peace actually looks like in practice.

In the book A Brave New World, people have found ‘peace’ through basically destroying the ability of a person to feel emotion and through suppression of certain people through a caste system. It isn’t a perfect world as there are people who are living outside that ‘peaceful’ society that continue to live in a way that would be much more familiar to those of us living in this world, a society that has marriage, religion, and all the other parts of community that allow for individualistic tendencies. However, the main character views these people as barbaric and uncivilized. There are plenty of novels that touch on the same idea: a utopian society that reaches peace through the destruction of the population’s capacity to feel emotion, or other ways to suppress individual feelings that might cause a disconnect with the State.

There are some people today that might think the same thing. Not necessarily that destruction of emotion will cause peace, but that human feelings preclude true and lasting peace. The concept of psychological egoism is that people do the things they do for their own benefit or satisfaction, even if it seems altruistic. We’re not going to get into this too much because I’m not a philosopher. Plenty of philosophers and students of philosophy have expanded on this concept, but the idea can (for us non-philosophers) be simply boiled down to, ‘people are inherently selfish.’ And if people are inherently selfish, then they will try to put themselves above other people, whether through subjugation of the other or violence or what have you.

So is peace possible?

This is where I want to bring back in what Sr. Maria Teresa said. Peace externally can only happen when we have peace internally.

So first, let’s discuss what peace externally even looks like. For me, it will include the obvious. There won’t be any violence, whether that’s physical, verbal, or emotional violence. That means no discrimination as well. No war is a given. However, peace isn’t about conformity, but accepting and appreciating diversity. In my mind, peace does not necessitate constant agreement, but rather a way of interacting that always recognizing the dignity of the other. Peace means conversations and debates that are characterized by open discussion when there are disagreements rather than resorting to name-calling or mudslinging. I know that it doesn’t seem possible in today’s world, but if you look around, you’ll find plenty of people have learned how to do it.

There’s a lot more to external peace, but let’s just say that these are the basic things that we would want to achieve. Now, close your eyes and picture this world. Picture a place where this is all possible.

How do we get there? If the answer is internal peace, then what does that even look like?

Let’s imagine that at the center of each person is a diamond. The diamond is pretty much indestructible. As we go through life, we get scratched up. We fall down and skin our knees or get a paper cut. Then there are the bigger hurts, like when you’re playing volleyball and you get a concussion, or you’re doing gymnastics and you fall and break your arm. There are times when someone purposefully hurts you, when you’re beaten by someone you love or a stranger violates you, just because they can. And these are just the physical. Imagine every emotional injury leaves a scar that is just as big, just as noticeable. The person who faces discrimination, the kid whose parents scream at him when they fail a test, the person whose partner is always putting them down. All those scars, all those bruises on the skin for everyone to see.

But still, there is the diamond. And no matter what is happening on the outside, the diamond is still there at the center of each person, indestructible.

I think that is what internal peace is like.

It’s not breakable once you finally get it, but sometimes it’s hard to reach because we get so caught up in the anger and frustration and sadness of living. Inner peace is the acceptance of the realization that I will make it through this and nothing can change me unless I let it. Many of the religious that I have met over this last year have found inner peace, but not all of them have. For those who have, it was the result of trust in God, the acceptance that things will happen around them and to them, but that ultimately they are held in the power of someone greater. Inner peace doesn’t mean getting rid of emotion, but rather accepting those emotions as part of life’s journey. Negative emotions are just as valid as positive ones, and can even be used to motivate us to create positive change, but letting negative emotions control us to the extent that we no longer respect the dignity of the other is when inner peace has either been deserted or lost.

And if we don’t work on maintaining that inner peace, we cannot expect the world around us to reach a peace that people do not feel.

People have a right to feel angry. We have the right to feel happy and sad and frustrated and all the spectrum of emotions. This is not A Brave New World. But we should work on finding our own peace as we work towards external peace as well.

And in the end, hopefully, we will have a world that mirrors the peace inside each of our own hearts.

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I Love Roller Coasters, But…

meganI love roller coasters. The feeling of the drop in your stomach or the upside down swoop is thrilling to me. Whenever I’m on one, I make a conscious decision to trust the engineers and maintenance workers that built the ride. Maybe I shouldn’t. But when I’m suspended in a metal car, I have found that trust makes the experience actually fun. The fact that I don’t control the ride doesn’t matter. If I can trust, I enjoy the ride.
Living abroad hasn’t been anything like the international traveling I’ve done so far. I expected culture shock/ homesickness to hit after months, once the excitement of a new place had subsided. I have since grown in wisdom and understanding. My previous adventures abroad have always been with Americans. Although we were experiencing new cultures, it was always processed as a group. We were able to understand the new culture together.
Just two weeks here and I have hit the culture shock/ homesick wall. There are moments when I am convinced that this is exactly what I’m supposed to do. Then, there are times when I’m contemplating purchasing a return ticket to the States. These ups and downs are constantly fluctuating. Sometimes, in the same moment, I can experience the conflicting opposites.
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Who knew my bird call trick would be the hottest thing since eating sugar cane? These girls are helping eat other perfect my trick.

My first week and a half on the roller coaster made me very frustrated. I thought it was a sign of weakness or being too sheltered.  The community here in Hurlingham is quite diverse, but nonetheless, I am the sole American. Much of my vocabulary, life experiences, accent and sense of humor are bona fide American. In the beginning, I spent most of my time with others in complete silence; I was busy observing and trying to understand the new culture I was in.
Being on the coaster is natural in such a setting. The sisters are so welcoming, the children are so loving, but that doesn’t deny the fact that this change requires adjustment.
Through the advice of friends who are experiencing the same thing, I have decided to trust the engineer of this ride: God. I don’t have to love the lows, but I don’t have to be angry at myself for feeling low. If I trust in the adventure, I know the low always swings to a high.
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This picture fails to portray just how much I struggled to eat sugar cane…and apparently, you’re not supposed to swallow it.

And when I get off this ride, I want to look back and say, “I trusted in the Engineer and I had a great time!”

~ Megan Swanson, VIDES missioner in Kenya
Read more posts on Megan’s blog.

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Back Home and Eating Donuts

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I’m sitting on my couch at home as I type this sentence. Looking up, I see the familiar furniture, the familiar pictures, even the familiar Christmas decorations that we put up every year around this time. My younger brother is playing with one of the dogs, patting his lap and praising the little guy when he finally makes it up.

It’s nice and it’s also really weird because it means I’m no longer in Kenya.

Five months and a bit later and I’ve returned back to where I started. But I hope I’m not the same. So I’ll take some time for reflection now, because I have a month before I’m off to my next site in Geneva (very different from Kenya).

Let’s begin with the physical changes (mainly because those are the most obvious). Firstly, I lost weight – about 20 pounds actually. I had to assure one of the sisters in Kenya that, as an American who doesn’t always eat the healthiest things, losing weight is a perfectly normal consequence of changing to a healthier and fresher diet. My sister was somewhat shocked by my decreased waistline, but as Christmas is coming up, I’m sure it will return to normal soon enough. I also have a bit more color. Considering that I am ridiculously white, any color at all is more than I usually have. Since I got sunburned about three days before I came home, the very, very slight tan is more noticeable than it usually would be.

But the physical changes are easy to notice. Behavioral changes are little bit more difficult to tell. Even so, there are few things that I’ve already noticed in the two-ish days I’ve been home. For example, I take really short showers now. I didn’t take particularly long showers before, but after spending two months in Karare during a drought (without hot water for most of the time as well), I’m much more conscious about my water usage. Same thing with electricity, but less so than with water. There’s also a part of me now that always wonders what else I can use something for after it’s been used for its initial purpose. Maybe this scrap paper can be used for decorations down the line, or maybe this misprinted document can be used to test weird printing jobs. I’m sure this will eventually get on some people’s nerves as it can also lead to the unfortunate habit of hoarding. And I do not want to end up on that TV show.

Then there are the things that will appeared more slowly as I readjust to my home and family, the things that are emotional – or spiritual. There are an awful lot of things to be thankful for I’ve realized. For a house that not only gives you shelter, but is filled with memories of time with family and friends. For electricity that doesn’t turn off without warning, leaving you in darkness. For people waiting for you at the airport with signs that say, “Welcome home, we missed you.”

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My time is Kenya has taught me that sometimes it’s the smaller things that we should be the most thankful for, because they are the things that bring us the most happiness. Despite what it may seem like sometimes, I can live without conveniences. While the internet is great, I won’t fall apart if I don’t have it. While telephones are amazing, my world won’t end if I can’t call someone whenever I want. Having a glass of wine is nice, but sharing a glass of water with a friend is more meaningful.

While I’m pretty private about my spirituality (though my name is pretty much a dead giveaway), I was living with Catholic sisters. I was able to go to Mass almost every day and participate in evening prayers and rosaries. There’ll be another post later that will touch on some of the things I worked through in Kenya, but suffice to say that having those moments for spiritual renewal were very important to me. And I’ve changed because of them as well.

A lot can change in five and a half months, and I’m still only halfway through my year! I’m not closing the door on the Kenya chapter of my life because it’s not a chapter; it’s a theme. It will continue to reappear again and again, scattered throughout the pages of my existence, the characters appearing in flashback scenes to offer comfort and guidance (and maybe even reappearing in person).

So here’s to my time in Kenya! May I be forever changed by the things I did, the places I went, and the people I met!

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Time Flies, but Not for Me

christian-ruehlingTime flies. At least, that is what most people would say. But for me, it did not.

My year of service was slow, but I am OK with that. The year never seemed to end, but I appreciated that I had more time to enjoy the year and to do the work that I set out to accomplish.

The first half of the year certainly felt slower in Ethiopia, which had more to do with the fact that I was not living in a society connected to 24-hour news cycles, instant access to communications, deadline-driven environments, and so forth. I learned to enjoy time at a slower rate than usual, which allowed me to reflect on the community I was living in.

My favorite memory of Ethiopia was the smiles of the children, adolescents and young adults whom I taught and worked with in Dilla. Their smiles and infectious laughs reminded me that we can be happy regardless of how much or how little we have.

Distributing toothbrushes to community at the Don Bosco clinic in Dilla.

I also learned that being a teacher is no easy job, and I congratulate all the teachers who are able to go day in and day out to work with many children and help them develop into our future generation. You cannot imagine how many times I was in front of the classroom, thinking, “How am I going to get through this class?” But I managed to get their attention, get through the class and have fun, as well.

Often, I would think about my old teachers, and I finally understand how they must have felt since I was now standing in their shoes. So while it was a challenging role, I enjoyed using my mind in a different, creative way and channeling my energy to doing something more creative and hopefully rewarding for my students.

My visit to Rome over the summer to attend the VIDES conference was special because not only was it my first time in the city, but it also connected me with many other VIDES volunteers of different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities. We all had one thing in common, and that was our desire to help children and adolescents through the Salesian family spirit.

Going to Rome after my sojourn in Ethiopia was also a good segue for the second part of my journey in Geneva. In the “city of peace,” I admired how others dedicated their lives to promoting human rights, but I was also dismayed that in this day and age, humanity has not yet reached a point of maturity in which we can respect the rights of others to live peacefully without the feeling of being threatened or insecure.

I am also grateful that I was exposed to the theme of unaccompanied migrant children, which somehow wove itself through my year of service. It started in San Antonio, where we spent time with adolescents who crossed the border from Mexico and other Central American countries.

The IIMA human rights office at work.

In Rome, my VIDES colleague and I co-presented on this topic at VIDES’ XI international conference. The presentation focused on children migrating from Central America and what programs VIDES and the Salesian sisters were doing to ensure that they receive proper treatment: health, education, and security.

Finally, in Geneva, I delivered an oral statement on this topic at one of the U.N. Human Rights Council sessions. I also wrote a report on the global issue of unaccompanied migrant children for our human rights office because Salesian sisters work with these children and adolescents on a regular basis in their missions across Africa, India, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

These children are a vulnerable segment of our society that need help from our communities to feel safe and integrated. Our actions toward them make an indelible mark at their age and could set a positive or negative course for the rest of their lives.

When I sought out this journey, I am glad I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to see what life was like outside of my own Western world. It made me appreciate that life is so much different in other countries than what I was used to. It was also amazing to see the good that is being done by others, whether they are missionaries, teachers, volunteers, or NGO workers for the betterment of the communities that they work in.

There is much going on out there, and people need help. And not just the monetary kind, but also old-fashioned human interaction: a hand to lift, a mind to grow, a body to heal and a spirit to nourish.

More importantly, I am glad I made this experience through VIDES and that I was exposed to the world of the Salesian sisters. Every community that I passed through received me with warmth, care, spiritual healing and a good plate of food.

Team VIDES+USA at the XI VIDES conference in Rome.

But more importantly, I learned a lot from the sisters who have dedicated their lives to helping children who are poor, marginalized, lacking in a proper education and do a lot to break the vicious cycle of poverty they live in. Every sister I met had an interesting story to tell about the lives they touched and the challenges they faced, but they all carried the spiritual adversity to continue on their mission, no matter the odds. I only wish that my heart had been touched by the Salesian spirit at an earlier age, but at least I am satisfied with the experience and knowledge that this journey brought me and with which I can carry forth in the years ahead.
Read more articles from Christian E. Ruehling.
  1. Changing Fields
  2. Dropping in, Learning, Leaving Students Successful
  3. Understanding the Salesian Spirit
  4. Adjusting to and Appreciating Life in Dilla
  5. Easter Triduum in Dilla
  6. One Journey Ends, Another Begins
  7. Seeing the United Nations at Work

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Personal Encounter with the Familiar – Salesian Spirit

sofia-geneva-speakingMy name is Sofia Piecuch and I am a 23 year-old Peruvian-American. I graduated from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana where I studied Global Studies with concentrations in international development and anthropology, as well as German language and literature. I have just finished a very unique VIDES experience: a three-month internship in Geneva working at the International Institute Maria Ausiliatrice (IIMA) and VIDES Human Rights Office.

I have been familiar with the Salesian order since I was a child—I grew up in Peru, where there were at least two Salesian schools in the city where I was living. However, I never had a personal encounter with the order until college, when I was introduced to VIDES via the Catholic Volunteer Network. Seeking to participate in some form of service post-graduation, I decided to travel to San Antonio for the Formation Service Camp (FSC) for VIDES missioners, in order to personally experience the charism and the work of the Sisters and the volunteer organization. This camp introduced me to the lives of Don Bosco and Maria Mazzarello, the preventive system, and in general what it means to live life with a Salesian Spirit. I fell very much in love with the emphasis on accompanying others, in believing in them and in drawing out their best qualities. An integral part of the formation was organizing a bible camp at a youth detention center in San Antonio for unaccompanied South and Central American teens. In this way, I began to see how I could put to practice the lessons I had learned in my formation sessions.

Almost 9 months after my FSC (I had to finish my university studies) I was able to travel to Geneva for the internship at the IIMA Human Rights Office. The three months in Switzerland flew by. My group of interns was busy from the very beginning—after a few days of orientation to the office and a short time to wander through Geneva, the Human Rights Council started. Being part of the HRC was a huge privilege; it was the first opportunity I had to understand the true impact that NGOs can have at the UN. For example, in the 32nd session of the HRC, the IIMA Office had presented an oral statement asking for the UN to incorporate more voices of youth by organizing a high level panel discussion on the subject in its next session. Sure enough, a resolution was passed to move this plan forward and, in the 33rd session, a panel truly came into being. Maria D’Onofrio, a representative from the IIMA office, and Simon-Pierre Escudero, a former intern and the founder of the NGO Tierra de Jovenes, were both present on the panel, so the voice of our NGO was heard loud and clear. From having participated in this experience, I will not underestimate the importance of NGOs and the power they can have to influence and affect needed change.

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Indeed, it seems like NGOs (though limited in power at the UN) are the most free to act, as they do not have as many pressures or interests to meet as member states do. I received this insight after meeting with representatives of the Holy See and ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom), who visited our office to speak about their work at the UN. It was shared that there are many permanent representatives at the UN who do not align themselves with the positions and agendas they are asked to carry forward by their member states. With this in mind, I reflected on the fact that NGOs come into existence to fight for specific causes and, unlike states, are able to speak with more urgency, passion and less restrictions. This made me think of my personal desire to fight for truth and justice in the context of my Catholic faith and how doing this at the level of NGO advocacy would definitely be an effective way to carry positions forward. At the member state-level, it appears to be extremely difficult to hold and communicate Catholic beliefs and values.

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After the HRC, I had the privilege of writing a report on behalf of IIMA for the Universal Periodic Review of Brazil. I learned that this was another concrete way that our NGO could contribute to the work of the UN Human Rights Council. By sharing the information received by FMA sisters around the world, IIMA’s reports have the ability to shed light on little-discussed human rights violations and thus to bring states’ attention to them. My other notable writing assignment during the internship was a report submitted to the UN on the topic of climate change and its relationship to the enjoyment of the rights of the child. My report was based on 67 responses to a questionnaire we sent out to FMA sisters around the world to learn about how climate change was affecting the children at their schools, oratories and communities and how these children were being empowered to counteract climate change by the education and initiatives of the sisters or VIDES volunteers. The report featured best practices and highlighted children’s sufferings that were linked to climate change.

Aside from these experiences mentioned above, I enjoyed meeting the sisters who arrived for the IIMA Human Rights course and to attend sessions at the Human Rights Council. It was wonderful to gain a perspective of all the projects and the positive change that the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, Salesian sisters, are bringing about around the globe. Furthermore, the friendships I was able to develop with the sisters made me feel that I was inducted into a family so much larger than my biological one. I look forward to the day that I get the chance to travel to Cambodia, Thailand, Portugal, India, the Philippines or Ireland; because I know I will be welcomed there. I was also so very touched by the welcome of the Salesian community in Geneva. Apart from their warm hospitality, they introduced me to a new language, Italian, which I hope I will have the chance to encounter again in the future.

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Overall, this VIDES internship experience allowed me to become versed in the inner-workings of the UN system, to experience politics and diplomacy first-hand at meetings such as the HRC, to broaden my vision of the world by attending treaty body sessions and by writing reports and articles for the office, and to grow in empathy with others thanks to a multicultural workplace and home environment. My time in Geneva has allowed me to continue to explore my gifts and passions, as well as helped me envision how I will be able to best serve God and my neighbor in the future.

I am very thankful for having had this opportunity. Whether it is in my personal or professional life, I plan to stay engaged as an advocate for human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals in the years to come.

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Celebrating the Life of a Faithful FMA

s-rosalbaToday we lay to rest our beloved sister Rosalba who at the age of 87 passed away February 3, 2017 here at the FMA Provincial House in San Antonio, TX. A huge thank you for those who were able to join us for the rosary yesterday night and today for the funeral mass.


Sr. Rosalba Garcia, FMA, worked primarily as an elementary school teacher and catechist in Texas. She was a phenomenal teacher loved by all and her energy was inexhaustible. She loved football and basketball and through those means she attracted the young to God’s love. Sr. Rosalba was a staunch Dallas Cowboys and San Antonio Spurs fan who wouldn’t miss a televised game until her illness forced her to stop all physical activities.  She was a strong, gentle and thoughtful soul who knew how to bring life to her religious community while sustaining herself through ardent prayer before the Eucharist and a profound devotion to Mary.

She will be greatly missed by all she ministered to, her family, her students, her friends, her caregivers, and especially her religious Sisters who loved her dearly.

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Happy Feast of St. John Bosco!

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January 31, 2017 · 10:16 am

How Thirsty the Undocumented Teens Were

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Front to Back:  Christiana Gellert, Diana Vargas, and Natalia Liviero

I, Christiana Gellert, discerned a year of service after becoming inspired by the grounding I received in Catholic Social Teaching during my studies in International Economics and Finance at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

I’ve done ministry with teenagers through many, many different backgrounds- from the children of poor urban immigrants in Maryland to affluent New Jersey suburban teenagers, from teenagers who couldn’t name all 3 persons of the Holy Trinity all the way to discerning religious life.

During my VIDES formation camp, I came to realize that ministry with undocumented teenagers is different.

First of all, there’s the language barrier. Although I was paired with a native Spanish speaker, not being able to hold real conversations with the teenagers fundamentally changed how I was able to connect with them. Unable to preach the Gospel directly, I found myself making rather spasmodic gestures and cartoonish facial expressions in the hope of conveying God’s love manifested as humor.

Much more importantly though, was how thirsty the undocumented teens were. Thirsty for the Lord. They lapped up the Bible stories we presented to them, engaging in skits, discussions, and crafts without nagging from us. To my shock, their favorite camp activity was prayer. The mere announcement of prayer time was enough to draw teenagers out of every other room in the house and into our prayer circle. They stood shoulder to shoulder, eyes shut tight, mouths moving silently, hands raised, sometimes crying in the intensity of their prayers.  A prayer thanking God for the everyday blessings of a warm bed, regular meals, and a safe house was enough to reduce half of our group to tears.

The experience opened my eyes to how intense the desire of teenagers to know God can be. The undocumented teenagers seemed to be grasping at God, clinging on to belief in the deity that would remain a constant in their shifting lives.

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Learned a lot from Undocumented Youth

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Left to right:  Claire Thanh Tran and Stephanie Truc Nguyen

My name is Claire. The formation camp is an educative experience that teaches me about faith, humanity, love, and contribution.  The stories of the volunteers on their faith journey are inspiring and humbling.  I receive a lot of care and blessings from the Salesian sisters, who are lovely and funny at all moments.  Besides working as a team, I learn a lot from the undocumented youth.  I understand how faith guides the life of those kids.  They make me feel grateful for everything in life.

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