Florida Campus Minister Travels to Nicaragua with Mission of Hope Group

Paul Santoro, OFM Friar News

Last month, Santa Fe Catholic High School students participated in a service trip with their campus minister, Paul Santoro, OFM. The school, sponsored by the Diocese of Orlando, Fla., boasts an international community. Paul said 99 percent of the students go on to college.

Future issues of HNP Today will feature service trips in which other Holy Name friars participated. Several from Siena College participated in trips during spring break in March.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Earlier this year, Gwen Coté, president of Santa Fe Catholic High School, two students — Marcus Pagan, a senior, and Lauren Wurthmann, a junior — and I participated in a weeklong mission trip to Chiquilistagua, Nicaragua. From Feb. 17 to 24, we joined 43 other missioners from the North Country Mission of Hope from Plattsburgh, N.Y. This was the organization’s 41st mission.

The mission trips began shortly after Hurricane Mitch devastated parts of Honduras and Nicaragua. Some 20,000 people were killed and left the economies of both countries in ruins. A young girl named Magaly was an international exchange student at Seton High School in Plattsburg. Sr. Debbie Blow, OP, asked how she and the community there could help her family in Nicaragua, and the mission began.

Today, volunteers from around the country — college and high school students and adults of various occupations and skills — make up the mission trips. Santa Fe Catholic High School has been participating since 2005 sending four missioners. The mission projects include community development, ecological and environmental concerns, educational endeavors and health care and nutrition programs.

We participated in several aspects of the mission: delivering rice and beans to residents in the local neighborhoods; working in the clinics in La Chureca (village located in the Managua city dump) in Chiquilistiagua; visiting and working with orphaned children in El Crucero; maintenance and painting of the local Children’s Hospital; visiting with and taking height and weights from local school children at Nejapa , a local village and Colegio Nino Jesus De Praga, school in Chiquilistagua run by Carmelite nuns; building of two shelters (one room made of two by fours and metal sheeting) for two families (Santa Fe Catholic students and families donated the $650 needed to buy the supplies for the shelter and helped erect it when the help of local residents); a health fair held on the mission’s campus and several projects on the campus itself. Marcus, who speaks Spanish fluently, served as a translator for many including the leadership team.

During Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, the school community collected more than $2,000 worth of medicines, toiletries, clothing and toys that were brought to the mission. These were distributed during the visits to the local communities.

The level of poverty of the people in these villages is astounding. “The average family lives on less than $1 a day. They depend on the generosity of the mission and donations from around the world to survive. Most do not have access to running water or electricity. People who live in the city dump scavenge for food there and collect recyclables to earn some money to support their family.

Marcus described this as a life-changing event. He said, “I never thought I’d see this level of poverty.” 

He continued, “I got to see so much because I acted as translator.” Marcus added that he was so moved by the experience that he hopes to return on a future mission.

“I love the children,” Lauren said. She recalled a story of one little girl playing by herself in a tiny heap of trash. “My heart went out to her. ” Lauren recalled how she went over to talk with the young girl of maybe 5 yrs old. The girl “reached out and embraced me.” Like Marcus, Lauren hopes to return on a future trip. Lauren and Marcus together decided to “adopt” a local child meaning that they pay for her to go to school. It pays tuition, uniform, school supplies and lunch each day. The Santa Fe High School community also has “adopted” a child and has supported her for six years now.

c-santoroCoté, on her first mission trip, has been associated with the NCMS since its inception. She was the principal at Seton High School when the mission was born. “I needed to go, to be a part of this trip,” she said, adding: “There is so much need. We were able to offer some hope to a people who are struggling on a daily basis.”

The conditions we witnessed were like “nothing I’ve ever seen”. He worked one day repairing and painting a room in the Children’s Hospital in downtown Managua. “The place would be unfit for animals in the U.S.”, he noted. The walls were crumbling, windows shattered, doors broken, and no modern medical equipment. “It was difficult to see two young children around 1 yrs old being treated in this environment.” “We did the best that we could to spruce up the room”. The staff was so grateful and begged us to come back to do some more. Unfortunately, we were leaving the next day.

Truly this was a meaningful trip for all those involved. We had the opportunity to bring a moment or two of hope and joy to many people. “When hearts are changed, more people will reach out to help those less fortunate here in Nicaragua and all places where people continue to live in abject poverty.”

— Br. Paul, a native of Massachusetts, lives at St. Anthony Friar in St. Petersburg, Fla. He has been at Santa Fe High School since 2009.