Local students skip the beads and beaches to help those in need
Taylor Stansberry loves Carnival parades, especially the spectacle of Fat Tuesday when countless thousands of people line the streets of New Orleans to see Rex and Zulu in all their majesty.
But this Mardi Gras, Stansberry isn’t on St. Charles Avenue with her friends and family.
Instead, the St. Mary’s Dominican High School senior is working with students at the Espíritu Santo School in the Dominican Republic.
Rather than catching beads and doubloons, Stansberry has been assisting impoverished children in the Bani region of the island nation.
She’s working on a variety of projects during the trip, such as teaching middle school students math skills and distributing gently-used sports equipment and art supplies to the younger set.
She also hopes to spend time with the teens who attend the school to learn about their lives.
Stansberry is one of 11 Dominican students to go on the school’s annual spring mission trip this year.
It was the first time she took part in the program, though it’s the fourth year the school has visited Espíritu Santo.
The mission is an unselfish gesture from the teenage girls, who say giving back during their free time is just as important as time they may have spent at a parade, on the beach or just sleeping late.
“Mardi Gras is going to be here next year,” Stansberry says. “This is more fulfilling.”
On a mission
The program began at Dominican when parents and students asked school leaders a few years ago about starting a mission trip, and said they were willing to personally cover the expenses.
Sister Pat Harvet, O.P., who previously directed the congregation’s lay ministry program in the Dominican Republic, had the connections there to make it possible.
“She’s the one who saw the potential of this being a mission trip for our school,” says Katie Almon, the campus minister at Dominican.
Almon says the trip also is about the experience for the young missionaries.
“They’re learning a new way of life in a new country,” she says.
“They’re being exposed to things they’ve never seen before. And they’re talking about that when they’re there and when they get home.”
Anna Mermilliod, also a Dominican student, participated in the spring mission trip in 2016 and returned this year.
The senior had no idea what to expect when she signed up to make the initial journey to the Dominican Republic, and what she saw was a “culture shock,” she says.
The sanitation department was on strike, and the students visited people too ill to leave their homes.
Mermilliod notes that the country is gorgeous, and that the people are kind and warm-hearted.
“I love the connections we made with the students,” she says about last year’s trip. “They got a lot out of what we were doing and so did we.”
Still, the trip is a lot of work, she says.
“It definitely was physically and emotionally draining,” Mermilliod says. “But it’s worth it.”
Working with locals to get the job done
Dominican isn’t the only school in town that offers its students a chance to take a spring mission trip.
Girls at the Louise S. McGehee School are making a 10-day excursion to Cuba during their spring break this April.
McGehee took its first mission trip in 2009, to Nicaragua, and the program fit in well with the school’s mission to instill a sense of service in its students.
Previous McGehee trips involved quite a bit of labor, says Jolayne Gotzkowsky, head of the Upper School at McGehee.
From 2009 to 2012, the girls worked in Nicaragua to help shore up a retaining wall for a small village, she says.
They went in 2013 to the African country of Ghana, where they delivered supplies to a girls’ school in the rain forest.
In 2014 and 2016, the students were back in Nicaragua, where they helped villagers build a road.
“My first trip to Nicaragua was eye-opening,” says McGehee senior Genny Haylock.
“They were committed to getting this road done. We worked with pick axes to remove grass and then laid down rocks for the road.”
Yet, she says the students’ work was minimal compared to the residents, who demonstrated their commitment to getting the job done.
“We were there half a day for one week,” Haylock says. “They were there all day, every day.”
This year’s journey to Cuba is through People to People, an organization that brings together everyday citizens from all over the world.
So, while the McGehee girls won’t be doing as much heavy lifting as with past trips, they instead will be meeting with local students and Cuban leaders to discuss culture, politics and much more.
The girls will visit an organic farm while there – a “farm-to-table” effort that could become a mission project for the school in coming years.
They’ll also help at an arts school for children and will bring supplies with them to help the facility remain open.
Service with a smile
The experience — whether building roads or building bridges to better communication between First and Third world countries — is worthwhile, Gotzkowsky says.
“You can pay lip service to something, or (you) can cut a check,” she says. “But this is actually being there and doing something. At the same time, the girls are with friends. They’re safe. So, it’s a building experience and a broadening experience, especially for a young girl. You’re planting the seeds for things they can do later in life.”
Students such as Mermilliod are aware of the opportunities to help and are glad they’ve taken the step to do so.
“My friends might give me (funny) looks if they didn’t understand why I was doing this,” she says. “But I explain to them that I’m going there to serve, and people respect that.”
Andrew Canulette is a journalist and father of four whose work has appeared in the Times-Picayune, ESPN Outdoors and Bassmaster.com.
Looking for ways you can help around New Orleans? Check out these local organizations that accept volunteers year-round.