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Students have a BLAST on PCR’s first Spring Break Service Trip

Twenty-two of our students spent their spring break a little differently this year. Instead of watching Netflix, getting in some extra hours of sleep, or picking up a few more shifts at work, these students chose to spend the majority of their break serving others and building a new type of community far beyond the walls of PCRHS.

“When I was in college, I participated in a number of alternative break trips,” Campus Minister, Facundo Gonzalez said. “I always loved the community aspect of it – not only with the people you go on the trip with. I wanted our students to be able to experience this sense of community and belonging and have the opportunity to pour love into different communities by using their gifts to address the needs of others.”

With that goal in mind, back in the fall Mr. Gonzalez had begun exploring the possibility of creating a similar spring break service trip for our PCR students. After looking and asking around, he learned about an ideal place to do it, a Franciscan center called the Tau House in Cincinnati, Ohio. The house welcomes groups and connects them with local non-profits and community organizations at which to volunteer during the week. Tau House’s emphasis on community, simplicity, service, and spirituality made it the perfect fit for what Mr. Gonzalez had in mind.

Mr. Gonzalez and his team of fellow chaperones brainstormed what they would call this new service trip and settled on “Be Light And Salt Together”, or BLAST, based on the Scripture in which Jesus invites us to be “the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World.”

With it being the first year, Mr. Gonzalez and his team were unsure of how much student interest there would be. To the team’s surprise, nearly 50 applications for the 24 open spots flooded in within the first two weeks after the application was posted.

“I’m not going to lie, I originally only applied because I saw you could get 25 service hours,” freshman Javion Newell joked. “But I ended up getting a lot more out of it than that.”

The rest of the fall and beginning of spring flew by, and before they knew it, the day of the trip had arrived.

And so, on the Sunday before spring break, 22 students and four adult leaders boarded PCR’s two minibuses and headed out for Cincinnati, Ohio to see what the week would have in store.

Upon arriving at the Tau House, the group was welcomed by Marci Peebles, the organization’s Director of Operations. She explained the schedule for the week of intentional community living and service. Students listened and considered what it would be like to cook, eat, sleep, work, travel, and reflect with a group of people they barely knew for an entire week. Some students were more daunted than others at the prospect.

“I was a little nervous because I didn’t know many people on the trip,” said sophomore Dakota Toomer. “I also was nervous about not being able to talk to my grandma every day.”

Students had been asked not to bring their phones on the trip as an invitation to disconnect and be more present to those around them over the course of the trip.

But as the week got underway, little by little, nerves, doubts, and walls began to fall away.

The first evening, the group enjoyed a tour and mass at Xavier University, alma mater of Darby McFann, one of the trip’s chaperones and Theology teacher at PCR. The next morning, when Mr. Gonzalez woke the entire group at 7:00 a.m. sharp by blasting Katy Perry on his speaker, the tone for the rest of the trip was set.

Students began to bond as they made their sack lunches in the morning, played Taboo, pool, and card games in the evenings, stood for over an hour in line at the corner Dairy Queen at 8:00 p.m. on “national free ice cream cone day”, and woke up at 5:45 a.m. to go for jogs with Ms. Allison around the dark and hilly neighborhoods. Some went to Mass together in the mornings and to a moving Reconciliation service one evening and had the chance to dive into discussions about faith with the trip’s chaperones and one another. Groups danced and jammed out in the kitchen while cooking 'dinner for breakfast' or spaghetti and meatballs. Three-hundred-and-fifty-piece puzzles turned into 750-piece ones, and despite how tiring the days could be, 10:30 p.m. lights out always seemed to come too soon.

“I’m usually with the same people each day, so getting to hang out each day with students from different grades was really nice,” Dakota said. “I really enjoyed small group reflections. I loved going to downtown Cincinnati together, getting ice cream together. We would just make jokes and laugh together. I didn’t expect to get so close to people I didn’t know before.”

Some of the most meaningful moments of the trip came each day as the students headed out to serve the local community. The first day of service was spent at Matthew 25 Ministries, an international humanitarian aid and disaster relief organization that provides supplies and basic necessities across the US and worldwide. Our PCR crew spent the day organizing T-shirts and adult diapers to be sent of to areas of need around the globe.

The next three days, the group split in two and rotated working at three different volunteer sites: Tikkun Farm, People Working Cooperatively, and Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank.

While the work each day ranged from feeding alpacas and shoveling mulch and compost, to pouring a concrete walkway, to packaging thousands of diapers, our hardworking students found great value in working for a bigger cause. Collaborating as a team to further the mission of each organization brought the students closer to one another and built a collective sense of gratitude and humility.

“It was fun once you actually got into it,” Javion said. “I like to see a task, see the progress and how you actually make a change. Like at Tikkun farms, where we were helping to mulch a whole area of their orchard - seeing the progress over the course of the day, how we were able to actually complete the project we set out to do and how that’s going to help them later on. That was really rewarding.”

Junior Ja’Diah Smith also loved her time volunteering at Tikkun Farm.

“I loved the environment and how community-based they truly were,” Ja’Diah said. “I met a lady who worked there named Rejoice and she was the kindest person ever. You could tell how much she cared about the work she was doing and how it impacted the community. I also really enjoyed being outside with the animals. She made me feel very comfortable with working around them and getting my hands dirty.”

Working at places like Tikkun Farm made a significant impact on the way that Ja’Diah understood service.

“My biggest takeaway was that anyone can cause change,” she said. “As long as you are passionate about what you are doing, change is possible. I also learned that the little things you do matter. After working in numerous places throughout the week, I felt that my actions would result in helping someone positively. They might not know the effort or work that I specifically put in, but they will be able to experience the good that it has brought.”

As the days passed, students felt more and more comfortable with their peers, the group felt more and more like a family, and the Tau House felt less like a house and more like a home.

“When I first came in I might talk to somebody, but probably not,” said sophomore Na’Querra Potts. “But by the time we left, I was like – ‘Dang! I’ve created a bond with these other people.’ I’m generally so antisocial, so for me to bond and get to that level, me to be telling personal things, and just laughing – my favorite thing to do is laugh, and here we were laughing all day long. It’s just not what I was expecting.”

For many students, their favorite part of the trip came at the end of each day when they would separate into small groups for nightly reflection. In those intimate spaces, students were able to talk about their highs and lows, the places they found God, and joy, and community, and the ways that the day had changed their perspectives or challenged them in new ways.

“I liked how we could talk about the best parts of our days, our lows. Hearing other people’s perspectives of the day, how they saw things and how you could relate to it. That was really cool,” Javion recalled.

When Friday morning finally came around and it was time for the trip’s final reflection, many students were not ready for the week to end. As they received Franciscan Tau crosses, shared their take-aways for the week, and watched a slideshow of picture highlights, there was an overwhelming collective sense that something truly unique had been created during the group’s week in Cincinnati. The joy and belonging cultivated during the trip were a testament to the power of community, accompaniment, and the transformation that is possible when open hearts and minds come together with an authentic desire to connect outside of our comfort zones.

“I think the most important outcome, which many of them mentioned several times, was the relationships that they formed with one another,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “Seeing students come in not really talking to each other that much, or not even knowing each other, and watching them grow as a community was incredibly rewarding. I think that element of community is something that cannot be found easily, but it has such a great impact once you find it, and it was definitely present with our group.

As the exhausted teens headed back to Indianapolis, one thing was certain – the week really had been a BLAST.


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