Cresson, Pa. – Again this year, while many college students spent spring break enjoying a needed rest, a group of Mount Aloysius students traveled to South America, visiting Guyana for a service trip. The impact of the experience was significant all around—for the residents of Guyana touched by the Mount Aloysius students and for the students and staff too.
Guyana is a sovereign state on the northeastern coast of South America. The country’s history is characterized by struggle to free itself from colonial rule, and from the lingering effects—most notably poverty—of that colonization. The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle there. Economics, politics and war brought the colony under Dutch, then French and finally English control. Guyana remained a British colony for 200 years until it achieved independence in 1966. On February 23rd, 1970 Guyana officially became a republic. In 2008, Guyana joined the Union of South American Nations as a founding member. English is spoken as the official language. The country is a frequent mission destination for the students and staff of Mount Aloysius College. The Sisters of Mercy sponsor several works and institutions in the country.
Sr. Helen Marie Burns, RSM, vice president of mission integration at Mount Aloysius College explained the college’s history with Guyana. “We have tended to visit countries in which the Sisters of Mercy have established works,” she explained. “So far our students have offered service in Jamaica, West Indies and Guyana—all English-speaking countries in the Caribbean area. The Sisters of Mercy have been in Jamaica and Guyana for several decades. Sr. Julie Matthews, RSM, is our contact person there. Sr. Julie serves on the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy-Central and South America Community.”
Sr. Helen Marie also noted that anther Mercy sister, Sr. Celine Marie Kirsch, RSM who currently resides in Georgetown, Guyana, attended Mount Aloysius Academy in the 1950s. Sr. Celine still has family in the area including Ms. Ann Booterbaugh, a professional serving in the Mount Aloysius College Controller’s Office.
Dr. Penny O’Connor, associate professor of science and mathematics who served as trip leader and liaison shared her thoughts on the Mount Aloysius College spring break service trip. “Independence has not been an easy path for Guyana, the country has moved from the oppression of the colonizer to the oppression of poverty. Guyana is indeed economically a very poor country,” she observed, “but when you meet the people and spend time to hear their stories you understand that while life is often difficult, they find much joy in celebrating any and every occasion. The country is ethnically and religiously diverse but they show such tolerance and respect for one another and for foreigners. Our students experienced this daily.”
Mount Aloysius College student and Mercy Presidential Scholar Danielle McKnight shared her experiences as a student -missionary on this trip. “Happiness is a misused term,” said Ms. McKnight. “We think we need money, possessions, and hundreds of friends to be happy. When in Guyana, I saw so many happy people who didn’t have much in the way of money, personal property, or even security in their futures. I met some wonderful young boys and girls with no money and no stereotypical family, yet they were smiling and playing and laughing. They knew no other way. They were content with the food they received, the roofs over their heads, and the friends and care providers that accompanied them.”
Another Mount Aloysius student, Jenna Levin, said, “In just one week I felt my outlook on life completely changed. I believe I found what true happiness looks like. Despite extreme suffering, the people of Guyana were very welcoming and friendly. I encountered some difficult situations at the beginning of the week, but by the end I was well aware of how strong the people of Guyana truly are.”
Mount Aloysius student, varsity basketball player and also a Mercy Presidential Scholar Morgan Brosnihan brought certain expectations with her when she left Cresson, Pa. for Guyana. “This trip completely exceeded my expectations. There are no words or pictures that can fully describe the experience and the relationships I’ve been blessed to build with the people of Guyana and the 11 inspiring individuals who accompanied me. I hope this is the first step to a long line of experiences that continue to exceed my greatest expectations. “
Guyanese service sites included the John Bosco Boy’s Home, The David Rose School for Children with Disabilities, the Missionary Sisters of Charity Home for the Elderly and Child Daycare Center, the Mahaica Hospital for People with Hansen’s Disease, a convalescent home for disabled children, and the Palms Home for the Elderly.
The mission contingency from Mount Aloysius College included chaperones: Tommy Shireman, associate director of campus ministry; faculty members Dr. Penny O’Connor, associate professor of science and mathematics; Ms. Amber Lenhard, an instructor in medical imaging and radiology science; and Dr. Merrilee Anderson, professor of science and mathematics and chairperson of the science and mathematics department. Mount Aloysius students were Megan Chicoine, majoring in general science/ chiropractic (3+1) from Surry, NH; Danielle McKnight, majoring in accounting with a minor in business administration from Reedsville, Pa.; Chelsey Pongrac, a physical therapist assistant major from Stoystown, Pa.; Taylor Clark, who is majoring in Psychology with a minor in art, from Hollidaysburg, Pa.; Catherine Walsh, a nursing major from Johnstown, Pa.; Tiffani Finnegan from Imler, Pa., who is majoring in elementary education with a concentration in history; Jenna Levin, majoring in biology with a specialization in pre-health professional, from Grampian, Pa.; and Morgan Brosnihan, a business administration major from, McHenry, MD.
The Mount Aloysius College community service during the summer and fall of 2013 totaled nearly 8,000 hours. During that time various college groups completed 222 service projects throughout the southern Allegheny Mountain region as well as projects like the recent New Orleans service trip that touched people in other parts of the country and around the world in areas like Jamaica, the West Indies and Guyana. Mount Aloysius College service opportunities seek solutions to problems in such diverse areas as economic opportunity, education, environment, health and wellness, veterans and deployed personnel. One hundred percent of Mount Aloysius College students perform community service as part of their educational experience.