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Hope in the Valley of Death

When six seniors arrived in Guatemala City for Senior Project in January, nothing could have prepared them for what they would encounter. Two thousand miles from home, amid extreme poverty and desperate living conditions, they felt in another world, yet it was an all-too-familiar scene for their trip leader, Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ.

Pictured (from left): Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ, Adam Mittendorf '20, Sutherlan Litke '20, Lucas Rackers '20, Joe Callahan '20, Ben Garcia '20, Noah Scott '20 and Michael Mohr, SJ in front of the cathedral — Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago — in Guatemala City.

Fr. Sheridan, theology teacher and former SLUH President (1997-2005), has committed his vocation as a Jesuit to providing hope for the hopeless. In 1977, he founded Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH), a program to nurture and guide motivated young people from challenging backgrounds to become well educated, career-ready men and women for others. The program started with residential homes and has since expanded to also include non-residential academy programming. In 1992, he started Esperanza Juvenil, the BHGH affiliate in Guatemala City for at-risk boys and girls to achieve their potential and break the cycle of poverty. This January marked the second consecutive year SLUH partnered with Esperanza Juvenil for Senior Project.

On their first day in Guatemala City, the seniors, led by Sheridan, visited the home of two Esperanza Juvenil students. It was in an extremely poor area on the outskirts of town and inaccessible to vehicles. The group walked cautiously along a narrow, crumbling road at the top of a hill, which sloped precipitously to a trash-strewn stream and was lined with makeshift huts like old shoeboxes haphazardly stacked on top of each other. The further down the cliff wall, the rougher and more ragged the structures, comprised of dirt floors, cinder block walls and rusty corrugated roofs. Exposed wiring and stray dogs casually meandered inside and outside of the makeshift abodes.

It was a precarious descent for anybody, but Sheridan was determined to make the trek. In his heyday, he played minor league baseball and could throw a football more than 80 yards. Though he was older now and recovering from recent back surgery, he still possessed unshakable tenacity and mental fortitude. Step by steep step — with grit and determination — he descended into the ghetto depths.

When they reached the destination near the hill bottom, they met the Guatemalan family. Ten family members from three generations lived in the hut, which was smaller than an average American’s bedroom. Running water and bathrooms were absent yet the dangers of flooding and destructive mudslides were omnipresent. The SLUH students were wide-eyed, in disbelief.

Sheridan spoke to the mother, who praised BHGH for giving her boys an education and a chance to succeed in life. He offered words of encouragement and said a prayer before blessing their home and leaving a cash donation from BHGH to buy food and other necessities. Then he clawed his way back up the incline. His lesson plan was not over. They had another important stop.

Later that day, the group visited a run-down cemetery perched on a steep hillside, a vantage that allowed them to peer down into the infamous trash dump of Guatemala City. The biggest landfill in Central America, it is a humanitarian disaster marked by a steady stream of trash trucks, bulldozers, swarms of buzzard vultures and a deathly stench. Thousands of human scavengers, known as guajeros, work from dawn until dusk every day in the dump, collecting plastic, metals and other materials to sell to recyclers, all while breathing toxic fumes, sifting through biohazardous materials and dodging dangerous machinery. Many of these trash-pickers are children.

The students said it seemed surreal, as if it were not really happening. Michael Mohr, SJ, theology teacher who was on the trip, likened the dump to the “valley of death” in Scripture:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4

“This should not be happening,” Sheridan told the students, asking them to reflect on what they were witnessing and how the Holy Spirit was moving them. He encouraged them to see Christ in all those they saw, including the guajeros, and to offer up their plight and struggles to our Lord. It was part of his plan to create a deep, authentic sense of awareness within the students before they embarked on more than three weeks of service at Esperanza Juvenil.

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Things could have turned out much differently. In addition to the prospects of marriage and a professional baseball career, Sheridan could have excelled in the business world. He possessed a commanding presence and a gift to think strategically, to set forth a vision and make things happen. But the Holy Spirit moved him in another direction.

Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ, pictured in 1998 during his SLUH Presidency.

Because of his father’s traveling job as a senior executive with Pfizer Drug Company, Sheridan grew up in California, Connecticut, New York, South Africa, Japan and Australia. From ages three to nine, the terms “poor” and “desperate” were firmly embedded in his vocabulary while living near the impoverished conditions of South Africa.

It was here that he grew “a soft spot,” a sensitivity to the needs of others. After high school, Sheridan returned to New York and joined the Jesuits. He worked with youth programs in the poor areas of Boston, New York and St. Louis. It was while teaching basketball to the inner-city kids of St. Louis, just two days before leaving for Georgetown University to pursue his master’s degree in the School of Foreign Service (his “dream” ambition at the time), that he had a vision.

“There was an absolute certainty that I could not leave those kids,” he recalls. “Somebody needed to take them from their hopeless situation and give them proper care.”

Sheridan chose to stay in St. Louis, forgoing his aspirations at Georgetown, and moved into the poor neighborhood where he served. He devised a plan to provide a foundation for these boys who had the potential — but not the suitable environment — to succeed. For four years he pursued his resources tirelessly, working with business executives, educators and child welfare experts, until 1977 when the first Boys Hope home opened in St. Louis.

“Children should not be forced to sleep under the pipes of a kitchen sink; to be fearful of being beaten; to be used to sell drugs; or to witness a family member shooting another,” Sheridan says.  “We believe children should have lives that are secure, supportive, loved and directed. That is why Boys Hope Girls Hope was founded.”

Since its founding, thousands of boys and girls have benefited from Sheridan’s vision for a hope-filled future. Today, BHGH serves 16 cities in the U.S. and Latin America, offering residential environments, academy programs, continuing support of collegians and community-based, after-school programming. Young people come to Boys Hope Girls Hope facing significant barriers, like poverty, parent illness, neighborhood violence and underperforming schools. They also bring with them grit, resilience, determination and big dreams. Since its founding by Sheridan, the organization has been dedicated to removing barriers and helping boys and girls reach their full potential.

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From top: Cross in Antigua; SLUH group at Ecofiltro (Lucas Pinzon is standing on far left, Philip Wilson is third from left, and Kristin Ostby is fifth from left).

On the last day of Sheridan’s four-day trip to introduce the seniors to Guatemala City and Esperanza Juvenil, they toured nearby Antigua, a popular attraction with cultural charm and natural beauty, including two volcano peaks at the edge of town. After showing the students poverty at the beginning of the trip, he wanted to leave them with models of hope.

The group visited Ecofiltro, a social enterprise dedicated to providing clean water to the rural poor of Mexico and Central America. Philip Wilson, the organization’s founder and CEO, gave them a tour of the facility. He talked about his journey from being a successful businessman, which he said lacked meaning and purpose, to using his gifts and talents to lead a mission-oriented organization that has already distributed one million water filters throughout Guatemala.

After Ecofiltro, they explored Antigua and visited the home of Kristin Ostby, current BHGH President and CEO, for dinner. Her husband, Benito, told the students about his experience growing up in an orphanage and the importance of getting proper support and education. He is now a business owner and loving husband and father of two boys.

Lucas Pinzon, Executive Director of Esperanza Juvenil, shared his equally inspiring story at dinner. As a young boy, Pinzon’s father died in the Guatemalan Civil War. His mother, desperate to provide support for her eight kids, placed Lucas in a caring orphanage, where he met Benito. He went on to earn his college degree at the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas and became proficient in English. While in college, he earned and saved enough money to build his mom a home.

Upon returning to Guatemala City, he was recruited to work for BHGH. Today, Pinzon is responsible for overseeing the Esperanza Juvenil grade school and high school in Guatemala City, in addition to eight homes, each providing secure residence for up to a dozen kids.

“I am very thankful for everything Esperanza Juvenil does for our boys and girls,” says Pinzon. “I benefited from an organization like this and will always be grateful for the foundation and education it helped to provide me.”

Sheridan, though he would not admit it, has saved many lives. A man of great humility, he sees it as his mission to proclaim the Gospel message by branding generosity and hope in the tender hide of humanity. In restoring love and dignity where they have been forsaken, he has given thousands of children from broken homes a reason to endure, and most of all, a will to prevail. Though we live in the “shadow of the valley of death,” he shows through his life’s work that our Lord is with us. Despite our suffering, there is hope. There is salvation.

“Fr. Sheridan has taught me to live boldly in service of Christ,” says Noah Scott ‘20, who served at Esperanza Juvenil for Senior Project. “He has such a vibrant, real relationship with our Lord, and he loves to let students in on it. His love of the poor and his get-after-it personality inspire me to use my talents for others in need."
 


Strong Legacy of Education

In addition to his exceptional leadership in Jesuit secondary education and with Boys Hope Girls Hope, Fr. Paul Sheridan, SJ founded Loyola Academy of St. Louis, a Jesuit middle school for boys, in 1999. Loyola serves young men from families struggling with socio-economic obstacles.

The school offers an extended day/extended year program, a small student body, wrap-around services to serve the whole student and a Graduate Support program that supports alumni through all four years of high school and college. Many Loyola alumni have successfully continued their education at SLUH and beyond in college.

The Fr. Sheridan Scholars program at SLUH, a result of the school's Go Forth campaign and focus on strengthening financial accessibility, allows graduates of Loyola Academy to attend SLUH on full scholarship.


>>> If you are considering a religious vocation, visit www.beajesuit.org




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