Auburn, Owasco parishioners sponsor students in Dominican Republic
Each summer several parishioners of Sacred Heart Church in Auburn and its mission parish, St. Ann in Owasco, fly to the Dominican Republic and spend a week in Don Juan working and forming friendships with the locals through the parishes' Mission From the Heart project.
Parishioners don't have to leave the country or even apply for a passport to be involved in the project, however. Through Mission from the Heart's Support A Student component, parishioners and members of the wider Auburn community financially sponsor students at a school in Don Juan, said Sister Chris Treichel, OSF, pastoral administrator at Sacred Heart and St. Ann.
"We realized that we wanted to help the kids in the school," she said, explaining the impetus for Support A Student.
The beginnings of the parishes' Mission From the Heart project date back to 2000, when Ed Galka, a Sacred Heart parishioner, first visited the Dominican Republic on a business trip. During that and many subsequent business trips to the region, Galka began to notice the Dominicans' impressive faith and spirituality, as well as the equally impressive poverty in which they lived.
"Ever since I've been going there, I've just had this feeling that I've got to bring other people to see these people," Galka told the Catholic Courier in 2005.
Galka wanted to help the Dominicans in Don Juan, but he wanted even more to form some sort of mutually beneficial relationship with them. He hoped he and his fellow parishioners could somehow work to ease the Dominicans' poverty, while at the same time learn from their intense faith and simple lifestyles. Mission From the Heart was born in 2005, and in July 2006 Galka brought more than a half-dozen parishioners to the Dominican Republic with the help of Father Ronald Gaesser, a retired diocesan priest who ministers in Don Juan for six months of each year.
More Auburn pilgrims have made the trip to the Dominican Republic since then, each time spending a week living with local families, distributing much-needed supplies, and helping paint and repair churches and schools, said Sister Treichel, who visited Don Juan for the first time in August 2007.
Sacred Heart and St. Ann parishioners involved with the project still yearned to do something more for the Dominicans, however, so in December 2006 they began the Support A Student program. Through this program, parishioners and community members can choose to spend $10 a month or $120 a year to help pay for individual students' breakfasts, lunches and other school-related expenses, such as the use of a school psychologist, Sister Treichel said.
"One hundred percent of the funds raised go to help the villagers with their educational needs. The administrators of this project are parishioners who have traveled to Don Juan, and record-keeping is done by parish staff," said Sacred Heart parishioner Roberta Bellnier.
Father Gaesser helped the parishioners identify 130 of the school's students for the first phase of the program, she said.
"All of the original 130 children have been supported, and now 80 more have been identified to be supported," she added.
Project organizers hope eventually to be able to support all of the school's 288 students, but Sister Treichel acknowledged this could take some time. Each person who sponsors a student receives a picture of that child. While the language barrier makes it hard for sponsors to actually communicate with the students, being involved in the students' lives seems to make the sponsors feel good, she said.
"They enjoy knowing there's a child in the school that they are supporting," Sister Treichel said.
Parishioners also drop their spare change into jars set out at Sacred Heart and St. Ann churches, and once a month this money is gathered and sent to the school in Don Juan, she added. This helps ensure that the needs of all students are taken care of, regardless of whether they're individually sponsored through the program.
When parishioners travel to Don Juan, they try to observe what the school and its students need, and when they return to Auburn they earmark the monthly donations for those specific needs, Sister Treichel said. One month's donation recently helped pay for the insurance coverage on the school's bus, she noted.
"We're just trying to help the school," Sister Treichel stated. "They really don't have very much when you (compare them to) our schools. They don't know what they don't have, and they're happy kids. We're just trying to provide money so they can get an education and better themselves."