Building Relationships of Love in Mexico
Building Relationships of Love in Mexico
Luke A. Veronis
“Going to Mexico to build a house was an experience I will absolutely never forget! It allowed me to experience everything the Bible teaches us – to love one another, to be humble, to discover the joy in helping others especially those less fortunate, to be grateful for everything that we have, to realize that happiness doesn’t come from how much we have but rather from how much we give. Most importantly,” explained Amanda Raymond, “this experience brought me closer to God because it gave me a little taste of experiencing the kind of life that His Son lived – a live of loving others and serving others. This is the kind of life He wants us to live.”
Jared Barrows, one of six non-Orthodox teens who joined our group, agreed with this assessment. “I think Project Mexico was the most impactful and inspiring thing I have ever been a part of. It helped me see life in a different way and appreciate everything I have much more. I developed special relationships with my team members, the people in Mexico and especially with the family for whom we built a home.”
“This week of building made clear to me that less is truly more,” shared Cliff Tewis. “We met a family for whom we built a home who barely have the necessary essentials for living, yet they were such kind, loving, and generous people. It was clear that with such little, there was so much love circulating through their household. Building this home with them and developing comradery with our team was deeply moving. I learned that I receive such deep joy by giving to others. This kind of work is something I can see myself doing in the future.”
For the eighth time since 2007, our Saints Constantine and Helen Church Family sent a group of 25 volunteers to Rosarito, Mexico from July 9-15 to build a home for a family in need through the organization Project Mexico. The group joined another 100 volunteers from around the country, sleeping in tents on the ranch of St. Innocent Orphanage, an Orthodox Christian home for orphan boys from ages 5 to 18 years old. Each day the volunteers worked on building a 20 x 15 foot home with a concrete foundation, sturdy walls, windows and doors and solid roof that will keep a family safe and warm throughout the year.
Panayiota Veronis returned for her fourth trip. “This trip taught me, once again, to appreciate all the little things that we typically take for granted. Every time I come here I experience God in a new way and it strengthens my faith. My favorite part is connecting with the family for whom we built a home, especially with their children.”
“Even though this is the 8th year I’m leading a team to Mexico,” Fr. Luke Veronis highlighted, “I continue to find great joy in seeing the impact it has on each of our team members. We have taken more than 100 people from ages 10 to 76 years old on these trips, and young and old alike are profoundly touched by their experience. Everyone discovers a renewing aspect of their Christian faith. To love others unconditionally, to draw closer to Jesus Christ, to give of oneself sacrificially, to realize the joy of serving others – these are priceless lessons of life!”
Many of the team members expressed how this experience took on new significance by leaving the comforts of the United States and experiencing what life is like for the majority of the world. The team traveled only 30 minutes across the border, and yet for many, they felt they entered another world as soon as they crossed the border. Getting everyone to break away from their typical American life, including disconnecting from all social media, and experiencing not only extreme poverty, but especially the extreme beauty and love of the Mexican people was life changing. Transformational change occurs not only in the lives of those for whom the team builds a home, but also in all the volunteers as well!
Two of the summer interns overseeing the 600 volunteers who come throughout the summer included Theodora Veronis and Olivia Neslusan. This is the second year in a row for these two young women to intern and oversee the building of 25 homes throughout the summer. They are both the fruit of the ministry of Saints Constantine and Helen Church, and after participating on three of these summer trips as young teens, they both decided to become summer interns last summer, and then do it again this summer. In fact, their experience at Project Mexico inspired both these women to do a GAP Year of Service before starting at Temple University this Fall. Along with Mexico, they did service projects this past year in Uganda, Kenya, Peru, Albania and Greece.
Olivia Neslusan reflected on her time as an intern, “Being an intern and serving for a few months helping the local people of Tijuana to receive a new home has been one of the most beautiful and humbling experiences of my life. The simplicity of our lifestyle here teaches us that we don’t need all the materialistic distractions we have at home. The relationships made with the Mexicans as well as with the other interns and volunteers is priceless.”
“Wow! What an experience!” exclaimed Rebecca Veronis, whose daughter Sophia is serving as an intern. “Everything about Project Mexico was out of my ‘comfort zone’ – the accommodations, a shared bath, exposure to a developing country, dining communal style – and yet, within a day my eyes were opened and my heart touched. I realized this place is something special. The experience of worshipping with Orthodox Christians from diverse places like Alaska, New Mexico and Oklahoma and almost every other state suddenly made this foreign experience become familiar. The joy of hearing our familiar services sung in Spanish was angelic. I thought meeting Maria’s family would be the most rewarding part of the experience. As it turned out, the teamwork of building under the guidance of the interns, who were half my age, was inspiring and motivating. On the final day when we handed the keys of the house to the family of five, a house that was no bigger than one room in most of our homes in the US, I was moved to tears by the gratitude of this beautiful family. And then there were the “ninos” and the
charismatic life of these children at St. Innocent Orphanage who stole all of our hearts. I am filled with gratitude for this brilliant Project Mexico experience, and know it will remain a memorable highlight in my adult life!”
“I learned that there are people out there with real tough conditions and they are still happy somehow. While we are too often spoiled and sometimes get angry at the silliest inconvenience, I learned how we have to be grateful and satisfied for all that we have,” stated Ethan Kalmin, a freshman from Shepherd Hill who returned for a second time to Mexico. “We shouldn’t complain about so many things that many other people around the world don’t even have. This trip has opened up my eyes and my mind to see the world in a different way.”
Michael Chito, our Parish Council Vice President, came with his son Charlie, who participated two times a decade ago. He noted, “The first thing that amazed me was when we crossed the border, it was like going back in time 50 years ago. We could see one or two nice houses intermixed between dozens and dozens of shacks. Yet during our week there we learned that the Mexicans’ blood is as red as ours. We are the same! When we handed the keys over to Maria, the mother of three for whom we built the home, her tears of gratitude said it all! And her husband Abel offered words of thanksgiving that were profound. As for building a home, that was God’s will. The blood, sweat and hard work of building a home was actually just plain old fun.”
Chris Russell shared, “As I was walking around the home, I noticed Maria and her children exploring the space we were building for them. It was inspiring to see how happy and grateful they were, moving about the rooms and sticking their heads out the windows. Although there was I language barrier, Maria’s deep smile and grateful spirit expressed her happiness. I can only hope to be as grateful and appreciative as she was when the people around me bless me with their kindness, hard work, and love.”
“I felt compelled to come back to Project Mexico a second time,” stated Andy Higgins, “because I get such a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction helping out a family in need. Their appreciation and gratitude make it worthwhile. The people of our own country could learn much from the families that Project Mexico helps.”
“For me, it was amazing to see how appreciative the family was for the simple house we offered them,” Charles Chito reflected. “Abel, the father of the family, told me that our team was the most loving and wonderful people he has met. It doesn’t take much effort or time to do helpful and meaningful things that can benefit others.”
Kat Walls, who went for the first time, expressed her appreciation this way: “Project Mexico was an eye opening and heartwarming experience. Being Catholic and not knowing anyone else on the trip except for my best friend was intimidating, but as soon as I got to know the rest of the group I felt so comfortable and ready to take on the week in a different country. When we met the family for whom we would build the house and experienced their living conditions, my eyes opened to the fact that all that I complain about in my life is minuscule and unimportant in the big picture. It made me appreciate my family and what I have at home.”
“The entire week, from the building site to the 15 minutes of quiet time after our morning prayers was extremely beneficial to my spiritual journey,” confessed Maddie Russell. “This trip has refocused me back to loving God and serving my neighbor. I will always cherish the irreplaceable lessons I learned from this experience.”
In conclusion, Presbytera Faith Veronis, whose four children have all participated in Project Mexico numerous times and who has attended five times herself, emphasized, “Project Mexico is a transformational experience for all who attend, whether it is their first time or repeated experience, whether they are teens or adults, and whether they are committed Christians or occasional church goers. It offers a concrete, hands-on-experience, that breaks down the walls of social media that distract us and the political climate that creates divisions and distrust. Instead, it empowers all who participate to build the international bridges that bond a group of individuals to become a team whose mission and ministry is to love, serve, and help make our world kinder and better-one family at a time.”
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Holy Land Pilgrimage 2019