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Perhaps it was when Erika, a 28-year-old woman, described with horrific detail how she witnessed her mother being killed in 1987 in the town of Marazon, right in front of her then 11-year-old eyes.
Or perhaps it was when a barefoot 10-year-old boy led them through a field near the town of Mozote — a town in which there are still very few adult males — so they could see the stone that marks the mass grave where over 1,600 Salvadorans slaughtered during the Civil War are thought to be buried.
Or maybe it was experiencing the hospitality they received from a mother with 13 children who was living in a two-room dirt house held up by wire, which boasted two beds and one hammock.
No matter which experience made the greatest impact, all 10 participants in the Brother Edmund Rice Summer Institute (BERSI) International delegation agree that this was a spring break they will not soon forget.
Joseph McGonegal, director of the BERSI program, together with two other teachers from Catholic Memorial High School, an all-male high school in West Roxbury, chaperoned a group of seven students to El Salvador during school vacation week, April 17-24.
Working with the International Program for Missions, a Cleveland-based organization, the students were given the chance to experience life in a developing country.
“We spent three nights in an orphanage, where many teenagers live and raise two or three orphans in exchange for free education,” McGonegal recalled. “Then we toured the countryside, staying in hotels that were run by former guerillas.”
McGonegal described the experience as “humbling.”
“On the first day, our tour guide, Julieta, challenged us to see how five out of six people on this earth live and then to think about who we are as Americans — what our place as Americans really is in this world,” he said.
McGonegal believes Julieta’s challenge illuminated the entire experience.
“This was definitely not a trip just to say ‘Here we are in a foreign land, different language, isn’t that cute?’ but it helped all of us to see how America, as the great empire of the times, has such an impact on the lives of the entire world,” he continued.
“This was definitely a wake-up call. It made me really see all that I have, because those people really didn’t have much of anything. It made me realize I really can’t complain about small things,” said Marco Perry, a 16-year-old sophomore who attended the BERSI International program.
“The people down there were a lot nicer than people here at home. It gave me a whole new way of looking at life,” he continued.
“This trip was a real reality check,” agreed A.J. MacQuarrie, a 15-year-old sophomore who also participated in the trip. “Living like they do, you’d think that they’d want to come to the United States, but when we asked the students at the orphanage if they would come to the U.S., most of them said no.”
What most impressed MacQuarrie was that, despite the overwhelming poverty faced by the Salvadorans, “these were very happy people. They really had a sense of community, despite the hardships of their lives.”
And despite the difficulties he experienced during his week-long stay in El Salvador, such as incredibly cold showers and “constantly keeping our eyes out for scorpions,” MacQuarrie “would definitely go back, maybe to volunteer at the orphanage or wherever they need me.”
According to McGonegal, “the wheels are in motion to do this again” next year.
“We definitely want to go back to El Salvador [next year]. Now that we have formed these connections, it would be a terrible shame not to return,” he said.
In addition, McGonegal hopes to begin a scholarship fund to help more Salvadoran youth attend school — a rare occurance in that country.
BERSI was created in 2002 when Catholic Memorial High School’s Dean of Academics James Keane approached McGonegal and asked him to create a mobile classroom that could operate during the summer.
Last summer, BERSI launched its first Summer Institute, a summer program whereby students delved into the humanities by participating in a variety of lectures, workshops and field trips. In August, the second BERSI Summer Institute is set to begin.
For more information, visit www.riceinstitute.com.