Students with Elon Catholic Campus Ministry participated in service trips to New Mexico and Puerto Rico over the university's spring break.
From March 13 to March 19, Elon Catholic Campus Ministry (CMM) sent a total of 24 students and staff leaders on their annual spring break service trips.
Projects for CCM were set up in San Fidel, New Mexico, which is an hour west of Albuquerque, and Arecibo, Puerto Rico. These were the first trips successfully held since 2019, as all university spring break travel had been canceled the past two years due to COVID-19.
In New Mexico, the student group stayed and worked at St. Joseph Mission School. The pre-K through 8th grade catholic school serves primarily the Native American communities surrounding the school, and at which most students attend on scholarships and school-sponsored assistance.
Led by Leah Breindel, assistant director of Catholic Life at Elon, and Rev. Julie Tonnesen, Elon LEAF campus minister, Elon students worked all week to lay the foundation and build a greenhouse for the school. Not only is the school located in a food desert, it sits in an actual desert, so the school had been very excited to get this project off the ground.
“Building the greenhouse was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of work. Despite numerous obstacles such as the painting gun not working and dust storms, we were able to persevere and work together,” said Nina Devaney ’24. “Our group was able to form intimate friendships not only through the tasks but also through simple activities, such as exploring the area and going for walks. These are some of the experiences and friendships I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
In Arecibo, a city west of the capital of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the CCM student group partnered with the Missionary Community of Villaregia. It is a Catholic community made up of lay and consecrated laity, priests and individuals of different nationalities, all united to witness to and serve the people around them.
Here, the students worked alongside Catholic Life staff members Father Peter C. Tremblay, OFM Conv, and Student Engagement Coordinator Kaitlyn Sendzik to put up plaster and repair walls for a home that was destroyed by 2017’s Hurricane Maria.
On some days, students also spent time with the family whose home they were rebuilding as well as with the missionaries back at their home base, sharing stories of life and faith.
“I was caught off guard by the seeming lack of scheduling. However, not knowing how each day was going to play out kept us on our toes and allowed us to fully immerse ourselves in the moment, something that can seem so challenging at Elon, where most students, myself included, tend to overcommit themselves,” Corey McCall ’25 said.
“My favorite part of the experience were the unexpected connections and friendships made with not only the missionaries, the people we were serving and everyone else involved with organizing the trip, but also the other students, as I likely would not have become so close with or met these people had it not been for the trip,” McCall added.
This year’s theme for the service trips was to “Build the Kingdom,” a recurring motif in the Christian New Testament gospels. While the students did plenty of labor-intensive building of structures, they found it was the forming and strengthening of relationships with each other and the people they were serving that was true kingdom they were building.
On both trips, each workday ended in prayer and reflection, allowing the students to recognize the impact of their service and what it means for their lives.
Adrian Castillo Navarro ’24, who went on the New Mexico trip, said, “Thinking about this trip, I was expecting to have some sort of moment that would bring me closer to God. Fortunately, I learned that faith isn’t just one path that we go through to find God, but that path can take many different forms. I am so blessed to have gone on this amazing trip; it made me realize that the path to light at the end of the tunnel will always be there and that it doesn’t matter the way you reach it; it just matters that you reach Him in the end.”
“This trip allowed me to strengthen my relationship with God,” said Catherine Capodanno ’23 after returning from Puerto Rico. “Growing up in an Italian Catholic family, I had heard lots of the ‘rules’ involved in the church. This experience truly changed that for me. I learned that God loves me no matter what. There is no sin large enough that could possibly make God turn me away. This is the most beautiful feeling; it makes me want to share this kind of love with others. I will take this feeling with me throughout the rest of my days at Elon and continue to spread as much love and joy to others as I can.”