At first, I was hesitant to go on this trip, not knowing exactly what to expect or who I would be traveling with. But as it turned out, this service trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
During Spring break of 2023, our small group of six students and three accompaniers journeyed to Tucson, Arizona for a weeklong immersion set out to help communities near the Arizona border and learn about the hurdles of immigration officers as they protect the community and save lives. This trip was eye-opening; it allowed me to connect with my community while gaining a deeper appreciation for the world around us.
Making a Difference, One Step at a Time
The first highlight of the trip was visiting the Pio Decimo Center, which provides childcare and early childhood education. While there, we spent time with the children and learned about the formation of the center. I wondered if these kids would even care about the time we spent with them or if it was going to be another day of their regular week, but the story of little Ryan showed me that our visits made a difference.
As we were playing basketball with little Ryan, he mistook John (Gannon alum and trip guide) for a volunteer named Doug who had traveled to the Arizona border a year before. Ryan excitedly said to John: "Hey, I remember you. You're the guy who played soccer with me last year!" He went on to share how much fun he had with him. As these two bonded over a basketball game, John introduced himself and Ryan made another friend. That little moment showed me that even the smallest act, like playing a game, can have a lasting impact on someone's life.
“These shared memories can stay with the kids for a long time,” shared Jessica Alderete, activities director at Pio Decimo.
A Tale of Collaborative Painting
One thing we learned on this trip was that painting together can be a bonding experience. Our typical mornings involved scraping old paint off the outside walls and painting the playrooms that had not been used in more than a year. Despite the physical demand that was needed, often on sunny days, the determination of every person on the team shined through, inspiring one another to keep going. We also found ways to make the painting process more enjoyable. Whether it was playing our favorite music or sharing jokes, we created a fun, upbeat atmosphere. Painting together not only created a tangible impact, but also brought us together as a team.
It was a beautiful sight to see the end result of our collaborative efforts, with the walls now freshly painted by many hands that came together in service of their community.
“We do not often get enough free time to paint these walls or do other heavy cleaning tasks like weeding,” said Alderete. “So, when we have groups of volunteers like you [Gannon students] it really helps our kids stay in a beautiful place.”
Border patrol officers have a difficult job – they are protecting lives while also enforcing laws. It's easy to think of these two concepts as opposed, but on this trip, we saw firsthand how they work together and are two sides of the same coin.
During our visit to the Nogales border patrol station, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the officers. It was inspiring to see their dedication as they fulfilled their law enforcement duties and responded to calls to save lives. "We have a duty to protect our communities, and that's what we do every day," one officer told me. They recounted instances where they had to act quickly and send out rescue teams to help individuals who had lost their way in the scorching heat of the desert while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. "When someone presses the emergency button and indicates they are dehydrated, we know we have to act fast," another officer added.
On the other hand, the officers shared how they must be vigilant for criminals who cross the border. "We are not just dealing with immigrants who are looking for a better life,” they explained. “Many of the people who cross the border are criminals who are involved in drug trafficking or other illegal activities." These officers deal with various incidents every day, from drug trafficking to human smuggling. Despite the challenges and dangers they face, they continue to work tirelessly to keep the borders safe.
Throughout this service trip, I realized that the work of border patrol officers is more than just protecting the borders, it's about protecting the people and the communities that they serve. I have a newfound respect and appreciation for the work that they do, and I hope that more people will come to understand the important role that they play in keeping our communities safe.
Finding New Opportunities for Gannon Students Everywhere
Our last visit to the Pio Decimo Center invited a discussion of new opportunities for Gannon students. Over lunch conversations, our accompaniers Walter and Mary Iwanenko and directors at Catholic Community Services discussed ways that Gannon can partner with this organization to provide students internship opportunities. It was fascinating to see how connections and meaningful conversations can be made anywhere at any time.
With our accompaniers by our sides, we were inspired every day to leverage all the networking and learning opportunities around us.
On Thursday night, we joined the Catholic community of the University of Arizona at Neuman’s Center during their regular event of fun and fellowship. While visiting the center, I explored different community-building programs hosted by their student leaders. They host a variety of events including a free dinner every Thursday followed by a reflection on weekly gospel readings and bonding over fun activities. This weekly program is one of the many ideas that caught my attention.
I am excited to share with my fellow student leaders and practice these community-building activities on our campus to enhance a sense of belonging for all students.
Highs and Lows of the Day
To make sure that everyone was having a good experience, our highs and lows check-ins allowed us to reflect on our day and share insights from what we learned. Every night after a long day of service and exploring, we sat in the living room and shared how the day went while preparing for the next day. We watched documentaries, did some journaling and tested our knowledge of immigration laws through fun contests. I have learned a lot in just one week, and this weeklong service trip is even transferable into academic credit.
This service trip was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It opened my eyes to the struggles of others and allowed me to connect with my community in a way I never thought possible. The beauty of shared experience is that it brings people together and creates memories that will last a lifetime. I'm grateful for the new friendships I made and for the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of those around me. Despite returning to Erie with a sunburn, I wouldn't have wished for this experience to be any different.