Ithaca teens aid Dominicans - Catholic Courier

Ithaca teens aid Dominicans

A popular bumper sticker, “Ithaca: 10 square miles surrounded by reality,” describes a collegiate city well-known for its cultural and idealistic diversity.

Applying that quote to her own life, Tess Ruswick knew she had to stretch her boundaries to experience reality — “to explore what other people are talking about,” as she put it.

“I was born in Ithaca and have lived here my whole life,” said Tess, 16. “I’ve pretty much lived a privileged life, so I wanted to see how other people got by.”

She certainly accomplished that goal, going all the way to the Dominican Republic in the process.

Tess, 16 other youths and three adults from St. Catherine of Siena Parish spent Feb. 18-25 at the church’s sister parish, San Antonio de Padua (St. Anthony of Padua) in Monte Plata. It was the latest of numerous mission trips St. Catherine’s has made to this poor Caribbean community in recent years. The travelers took along several hundred pounds of donated items such as computers, printers, stuffed animals, school supplies and diapers.

Of particular note were the 250-plus books, for students in grades pre-kindergarten through high school, amassed by Peter Mattingly for his Eagle Scout project. He oversaw a process that involved collecting $1,500 from St. Catherine’s parishioners, purchasing books through the Internet and catalogs, and then packaging them. Peter, a member of Boy Scout Troop 24 in Dryden, enlisted the help of fellow Scouts and members of St. Catherine’s youth group.

By going to Monte Plata, Peter had the satisfaction of personally delivering the books to a nun who oversees a local school library.

“It felt good, especially seeing how much they needed (the books),” said Peter, who will turn 15 on April 10.

Volunteers also helped paint residents’ homes and visited the nursery school/child-care center, El Portal de Belen, that St. Catherine supports. The Ithaca parish collects more than $1,000 per month toward education and meals for the facility.

“We visited the kids there; they were all so sweet. The nuns who run it do such a good job,” Tess said. “It was a huge place, tremendously nice.”

Not nearly as decorous were the homes of Monte Plata’s young people.

“You see how they really live. They take off their (school) uniforms and they run around naked because they don’t have any other clothes,” said Juan Arroyo, one of the St. Catherine adults who traveled with the group.

Arroyo added that houses consisted mainly of one-room shacks, and power blackouts and cold showers are common in town. This was an eye-opener for Tess, who said, “I always took for granted warm showers, food on the table and electricity.”

“They have enough to survive, but not much more,” Peter added.

“It was really sad,” Tess said. “But at the same time, I felt a sense of belief that we were doing something to make it better for them.” Peter observed that despite their obvious poverty, the Dominicans went out of their way to make things better for their guests.

“Basically, they just wanted you to be happy. They were always feeding us and making sure we were all right,” Peter said. “They were extremely nice — even the people you meet in the streets. They just loved it when you tried to communicate in Spanish.”

“They were so inviting and nice,” Tess agreed.

Volunteers stayed with host families and spent extensive time with native youths, attending several events together at a local sports festival that was taking place.

“It was only a week, but they actually created very sentimental bonds by the end of the week. The last night, they were furiously exchanging e-mail addresses and telephone numbers,” Arroyo said.

The Ithaca-Dominican connection began in the late 1990s through the efforts of Father Ron Gaesser, St. Catherine’s former pastor, who retired from the Rochester diocesan priesthood in 2003. Father Gaesser now lives part of the year at the San Antonio de Padua rectory, serving as a parish priest in a land that has few clergy even though it is more than 90 percent Catholic.

Whereas Tess and Peter were first-time visitors to Monte Plata, this was Arroyo’s third trip. Tess would like to return there as well, saying she hopes to go back this coming summer for a month of volunteer duty.

“I can definitely say that my life has changed — in a good way,” Tess said.

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