When Heidi Diaz joined a group of Elmhurst students traveling to Bolivia last summer to work with children on the streets of Sucre, that nation’s ancient, mountaintop capital, she thought it would be a chance for her to help young people in need. It was only when she got to Sucre that she realized how much she herself would get out of the trip.
For Diaz, a third-year elementary education major from Lombard, the rewards became apparent every morning when she showed up to volunteer at a Sucre day care center.
“The children would run up to me and take me by the hand because they were so happy to see us,” she said. “I felt my heart growing every day.”
Diaz was one of nine Elmhurst students who joined 24 others from several Chicago-area colleges to travel to Bolivia for the two-week mission trip organized by the Diocese of Joliet’s Peace and Social Justice Ministry. This was the third year Elmhurst students made the annual trip. They fed and played with small children at an orphanage in Sucre, worked in a food kitchen serving children living on the streets, and assisted doctors and nurses working at San Juan de Dios Hospital. The students also distributed shoes, clothing, medical supplies and toiletries to more than 80 children in need.
Still, Kevin O’Donnell, the trip’s coordinator, said that students who went on the mission received as much as they gave.
“There is real need out there and this trip helps meet that need, but there is so much value for the students, too,” said O’Donnell, Elmhurst’s Catholic co-chaplain and the head of campus ministries for the Diocese of Joliet. “You often don’t figure out what you want to do with your life until you’ve gone out and seen a little of the world. Only then can you say, ‘Yes, this is what I want,’ or ‘No, this is not right for me.’ Trips like this are a chance for students to serve the poor and to reflect on their experiences.”
For Courtney Ryan, a junior exercise science major from Algonquin who is planning a career in pediatric physical therapy, the trip offered an opportunity to help children in need. “It was heartbreaking at times to see children in the day care center not getting the attention they needed,” she said. “We were only there for a short time, but we did what we could to help.”
Diaz, who is working on a minor in Spanish, said that one of the highlights of her trip was a hike through the mountains outside Sucre. Along the trail she and her companions followed were markers designating each of the Stations of the Cross. Diaz said she had prepared herself for the high altitude of the Bolivian capital, so the hike was not as taxing as it might have been. What she was less prepared for was the emotional impact of the journey.
“When we reached the summit, I broke into tears,” she said. “To see Sucre below us, well, how beautiful. I can’t forget it. I felt so connected to my faith.”
And Diaz may not be finished traveling. After a 2011 January Term trip to Spain as part of a Spanish language immersion class, she set a goal for herself of visiting each of the world’s Spanish-speaking countries. Diaz is not sure when and where she will able to travel next, but she knows she would like to help people wherever she goes.
“For me, service is a way to say thank you to everyone who helps me in my life. And it doesn’t have to be traveling to Bolivia. It can be working in your local church or serving someone Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. That’s a philosophy Diaz said she has absorbed from her involvement with the Niebuhr Center.
“That’s why it’s called the Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action,” she said. “You have to believe in something, but you have to put that belief into action, too.”