- Global Education
"Have you ever felt the weight of a single moment? A moment of time, stuck in time, calling out to you from amidst the crashing noise of the other 86,000 seconds that fill any given day? These are the moments where it feels time almost stands still. Time standing out of time, where you and I momentarily peel back the cloud of unknowing and see things with a clarity rarely felt otherwise."
- Brian Gilmore '02 from his remarks at the 2019 Senior Project assembly
Each January the senior class embarks on a service journey that provides many extraordinary moments. On the surface, Senior Project fulfills a need, yet on a deeper level it offers transformative and even life-changing moments – gifts that call Jr. Bills to a higher purpose and a more meaningful relationship with God and those in need. This year, 239 seniors provided more than 30,000 hours of service at 66 sites in five countries.
Following are some of their stories.
Jack Nikolai '19
Esperanza Juvenil (Boys Hope Girls Hope) – Guatemala
Each of the kids at Esperanza Juvenil were always happy to see me, and all had their individual quirks which made them distinct. One of these children, Kenny, had a lasting impact on me. He was similar to most of the other boys in the 7th grade: energetic, boisterous, and always ready to beat me in soccer.
One day, the five of us SLUH seniors got to go see the famous Guatemala City garbage dump, and we took Kenny on the bus with us. At first, I wasn't really sure why he was with us, but I figured it out when we made a turn down a mountainside into a residential area. We walked down some stairs, partially washed away in a landslide, until we came upon three little shacks, made with tin panels and tarps in a small dirt opening. There was one bedroom, one bathroom, and another multi-purpose area which was just rebuilt after a mudslide. Bags of garbage were tossed around in the dirt, and stray dogs walked through looking for food. This was Kenny's home, a home he shares with his parents and four siblings. We were told that Kenny wakes up and climbs the mountainside to get to a bus stop, takes the public bus every day for 45 minutes to get into the city, and walks with his brother for another 20 minutes to reach the school. He does this every day. I would have never guessed how Kenny had lived, since he was always so happy and energetic at school.
Our guide on this exploration, Francisco, was the principal of the school, and he said he brought us to Kenny's house to show us why EJ is such an important program around the city. It gives kids a better chance in life so that they do not have to live in conditions such as these in the future. Kenny's dad, who was with us at the time, also explained how much it meant to the entire family for Kenny to have the potential for success, and it really shook me to the core how far the family is willing to go for Kenny to have this opportunity. This whole trip was one of the most impactful experiences I have ever had in my life.
Matt LaFaver '19
Hsinchu Catholic Social Service Center – Hsinchu City, Taiwan
One of the people I worked with was an elderly woman named Katherine. She had heavy dementia and was bound to a wheelchair. She was not capable of having a conversation or of telling you what she wants to do. She would often just stare off into space while she’s wheeled around the complex. The only time she would talk is when you would say something to her and she would repeat it back to you. Every day, we would give her a lunch specially made for her because she has a rough time chewing and swallowing. She could maybe eat a third of the bowl by herself by the time everyone else finished their lunch. Nearly every day I would help her finish lunch by spoon feeding her the rest. At the end of each day she would hold my hand with a strong grip until I managed to free my hand and set out on my way home. Katherine really impacted me at my site because her situation helped me realize the struggles some people face when they grow older. She could really dislike the food she is given to eat because it tastes gross or she’s not hungry, but she cannot tell anybody. I felt pain for her because she could not have a conversation. I cannot comprehend the pain she must feel from not having the ability to do the simplest daily tasks. This hit hard for me.
On project I felt God’s presence in the staff who worked there. I found it astonishing that they were happy to devote their lives to helping people every day. Many of them were nurses or had a background in public service. I realized that God created compassionate people like this with the purpose of making the world a better place
From doing my senior project in Taiwan, I am taking away the experience of learning about a different culture, while also better understanding the struggles that the poor and elderly go through daily.
Justin Lombard '19
L’Arche – France
This was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. For a month I lived with 7 adults with disabilities and 4 assistants in a house in the middle of a small town named Vertou. Living day-to-day life with these adults was a unique way to create relationships and develop friendships consisting of trust, accountability, and love.
What I learned from working at L’Arche was how to find joy in the little things. Joe was one of the adults who really showed me how much this was true. Joe was a man around 50 who was mentally disabled. One day when I was helping to cook a meal he came up to me and asked if he could help me cut the onions. I was confused at why he wanted to cut one of the only vegetables that made you cry, I looked at him and all I could see was this huge smile across his face. I could not deny this man the joy of cutting an onion. However, as he was about to start cutting it he stopped, turned to look at me and said: “I need classical music”. As soon as the first note played from my phone of Bach’s Cello Suites No. 1, he spun around like a ballerina and carefully and gracefully started to cut the onion into the thinnest slices I have ever seen. Throughout my time at L’Arche, I had many opportunities to see this little choreography repeat itself. Joe never failed to show his joy coming from feeling useful and being given a purpose.
I saw God everywhere and all around me during my project. From seeing adults with disabilities interact with each other and helping each other out as they all strived to achieve a common goal, seeing adults who had limited intelligence go to the chapel because they knew that something special was going on, seeing adults who are mute dance and physically express themselves during praise and worship. But most importantly I saw God in every single person at the site. I saw God in the assistants who dedicate their lives to helping these adults have a life and feel accepted by society. I saw God in all my friends with disabilities as I saw how every single one of them was able to not only bring their gifts to the table but able to teach me about who I truly am. I am still trying to process all that I have learned during this incredible experience.
Justin Koesterer '19
While my classmates worked in one place for the month, I shifted around through four different sites in Russia, using different skills and meeting many new people along the way. The main challenge I faced was about digging deeper into the relationships I formed. Could I form bonds with the people that I met over a short time?
Most of my time thinking about Senior Project here in Russia was about the link between all the different types of people I met. The first Mass I ever attended at SLUH was the Mass of the Holy Spirit. At it, I remember that one of the readings said, “we are many parts, but we are all one body." But how can I be part of the same body as a group of people who do not share the same physical characteristics as me, do not speak the same language as me, or even in some cases practice the same religion as me?
The answer, I found, was that no matter what language they spoke, or religion they practiced, or differences they had with me, they still treated me as Christ would treat someone. This is most fitting because since we are one body, although different parts, we are called to treat each of the different parts in the same Christ-like way that the others will treat us. As I flew back to the States, I felt that I wasn’t just part of a school-wide brotherhood, but something bigger, and better. One body spanning the entire globe, and every person encapsulated in it.
Peter Campbell '19
Evelyn’s House BJC Hospice (St. Louis)
Originally when I told my classmates I was serving at Evelyn’s House, a house providing hospice care for patients who are dying across all stages of life, they seemed a bit confused why I’d want to do that. However, hospice changed my perspective on death and end of life in general. This ranged from the care and compassion by the nurses to the uplifting and positive atmosphere the house has to offer.
While I was there, the house welcomed its first pediatric patient in its relatively short history – pediatric, meaning a child patient. Ellen was a young child who had been battling a terminal illness for quite a while, and had recently taken a turn for the worse. In an attempt to stabilize her and lessen her pain, her family had decided to move her to Evelyn’s House. This news seemed to put everyone in a frenzy, because of Ellen being the first child patient. Mikes and I were thrown right into the mix. We decorated her room with Frozen, Mauna, and Taylor Swift posters, along with a lot of pink and purple. We decorated her mirror with quotes from a Taylor Swift song, describing how she is beautiful just the way she is. Finally, the moment arrived, and she moved into her room. Because Ellen’s health was quickly declining, our volunteer director invited Disney Princesses to visit her in her room. It was a surreal experience that brought the whole house together.
This story with Ellen, and many others, made me realize how everyone is living their own unique and complex lives. It made me reflect over the idea of sonder. Sonder is the realization each person is living a life as unique and vivid as your own. This experience also helped me appreciate life and my time with others. I became conscious of how my actions for any given day can be some of the final experiences people have in this world, and how important it is to always have the right mindset and attitude.
Luke Stachowski '19
Great Circle (St. Louis)
When I walked into my classroom on the first day, Jake ran up to me and hugged me. He actually did this every day for the rest of the time I was at Great Circle. Jake was very open to me about his life outside of Great Circle. Every day he wanted to sit by me and lunch and breakfast, and he tried to keep me all to himself. One thing I will remember about Jake is how welcoming he was and how he tried to make me feel like a part of the class from the first day. Jake taught me that even though someone’s life could be challenging in many ways, there is still no reason not to always try to find happiness.
I will take away from Senior Project an awareness of how people with perceived disabilities are not all that different from the rest of us. They have the same desires. Their behavioral problems led them to Great Circle, but now, they want to ultimately return to their middle schools with the “normal” kids. I find myself wondering, “What will these students do once they graduate from the high school at Great Circle?” My wish is that every student at Great Circle finds their place in the world once they graduate – or even better, as soon as possible.
Nick Prainito '19
Hixson Middle School (St. Louis)
Adam is a seventh grader with a learning disability, and I worked with him in a couple of classes, specifically English and Family and Consumer Science. My first impression of him, I’m sorry to say, was that he was kind of dislikable, due to his sarcastic attitude and stubbornness. However, as the days and weeks went by, I got to know Adam better. I worked with him individually and he even came up to me and started a conversation on his own. He also introduced me to his grandma when she came to bring him lunch. On the last day of project, he was sad to see me leave.
My experience with Adam reinforced the Catholic tenant of the dignity of the human person. It would’ve been very unfortunate if I let my first, early impressions with Adam dictate my interactions with him for the rest of the month, but I kept giving him a chance. I realized that everyone deserves such respect and dignity.
I now have a newfound sense of respect and compassion for people. This grew from working closely with the students and getting to know them over the month. Before Senior Project, it was easy for me to say, “yeah, I support and respect kids with mental disabilities,” but I am so glad to have had this experience actually working with the kids so that I know what their lives are like on a daily basis and how I can work better with them in the future. My Senior Project reinforced to me the demands of compassion and respect, for which I am thankful.
Andrew Gibson '19
Moog Center for Deaf Education (St. Louis)
I went into Senior Project with a “let’s just get this over with” mentality. Now, having been through it, I can tell you that leaving my site was harder than any quiz or test I’ve ever taken. Despite the name, none of the kids at the Moog Center are fully deaf – all have some extent of hearing loss and use hearing aids and implants. The real challenge, however, comes in developing their speech.
For the month, I was assigned to follow around a four-and-a-half-year-old boy named Zach. They told me he responded well to and desired more male companionship. He had some behavioral issues, but despite regularly trying to help correct Zach’s behavior, I quickly discovered what I was truly there for was to connect with him and provide companionship and emotional support.
After the first few days, he would give me a hug and say “I love you” at the end of every day. One time, his mom came into the classroom, and Zach introduced me to her as “his best friend.” His mom told me he’d been talking about me for a while. Zach relied on me for support throughout the day, even if that meant just being there alongside and with him.
The best part about Senior Project was just how loved kids like Zach made me feel. Some of them didn’t know my name by the time I left, but they always wanted to sit in my lap or play with me at recess anyway. They just completely accepted me. That ease of friendship is something I also don’t see a lot of the time, and it made me feel incredibly valued – the precise place where I found God’s love the most.