June 19, 2009

Hard hats and soft places in the heart: Gulf Coast mission trip brings Holy Cross students closer to each other and Christ

Students and adults from Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis pose in front of a sign that reflects the source of their week-long effort to help people whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. (Submitted photos)

Students and adults from Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis pose in front of a sign that reflects the source of their week-long effort to help people whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. (Submitted photos)

By John Shaughnessy

The eighth-grade students waited in a gate area at Indianapolis International Airport, anxious to begin a journey that would test them as individuals and as a group.

The seven boys and one girl knew they would soon become part of a special tradition that has been established in recent years at Holy Cross Central School in Indianapolis.

During the past several springs, the eighth-grade classes at Holy Cross have made mission trips to Mexico to help people and communities in need—an interesting approach, especially considering the backgrounds of many of the children at the school.

“The majority of our children come from lower-income families,” says Ruth Tinsley, the principal of Holy Cross School. “And many of them have had some pretty rough childhoods. We take them to areas where there are people in more need than they are, to show them that they can help someone.”

This year’s mission outreach became even more of a challenge than usual. First, because of the drug-related violence in Mexico this year, the trip needed a new destination. So the focus turned to Mississippi and an area still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina nearly four years later.

Then there was the other daunting reality that even the students recognized. As they waited to board the plane on this day in early May, they knew they hadn’t always been a class that had embraced the idea of a strong work ethic, and they knew they hadn’t always been a group that had looked out for each other.

It was a combination that worried Tinsley and some of the students—and that was before the giant bugs, the tough living conditions and the heartbreaking stories that would be part of their week of volunteering.

‘Absolutely gut-wrenching’

When the Holy Cross group of students and adults arrived in Mississippi on May 4, they were immediately tested by hot, humid weather and a “smelly, dirty warehouse”—Tinsley’s description—that would become their home for most of the week.

They were also tested the next morning by a man named Tony, their host.

“His stories of the hurricane were absolutely gut-wrenching,” Tinsley wrote in a journal that she kept during the trip. “He spoke of coming back to find the bodies of some friends and neighbors, who hadn’t left, hanging in trees. The water had come in at over 40 feet in some areas, sweeping everything away. He spoke of construction companies who came in and took families for all of their insurance money for repairs, and left without completing the work they had promised.”

It was a personal lesson in the physical and emotional devastation that Hurricane Katrina had caused in Louisiana and Mississippi in late August of 2005, claiming more than 1,800 lives. And Tony’s stories struck a chord with the eighth-grade students from Holy Cross School on the trip—J.D. Casper, Kyla Davidson, Curtis Henley, Anthony Salcedo, Dustin Embry, Will Vant Woud, Austin McClure and Cody Webb.

The lesson especially sank in as they started work on a house owned by a woman named Audrey. As the heat soared and black bugs swarmed around them, they removed the flooring from Audrey’s house and added a bleach solution to every exposed part of it to kill any mold.

“Audrey lost everything,” Kyla said. “She still owns the house, and it’s completely destroyed. She was very thankful for what we were doing.”

Curtis noted, “I saw what people lost. I thought I didn’t have anything good here [in Indianapolis]. But when I saw that they didn’t have nothing left, it reminded me I have more than some people.”

That day was the beginning of a transformation—not just for Audrey’s house but for the eighth-grade students.

“You would have been so impressed with the work these students completed,” Tinsley wrote in her journal on May 5. “They worked without complaint and worked hard. Many hands can make short work of a project, and that’s just what happened.

“There are so many homes and stories here that it’s hard to know where to begin. I’m not sure which academic standards we addressed today, but I know our kids learned a lot. I learned a lot.”

Hard hats and soft places in the heart

The transformation continued with each passing day. As the students kept cleaning, bleaching and painting homes, they focused less on the heat, the humidity, the bugs and their tired bodies. They focused more on each other.

“We were working as a team,” Cody said. “When people were done with painting their section, they would come and help in another section.”

Austin added, “We definitely bonded. We were all nice to each other. We all shared our things, we helped each other out and we never really had any problems at all.”

As they drew closer to each other, they also realized they were part of an amazing American effort to reach out to fellow Americans in need.

“They had a guestbook where we stayed,” Will said. “You could write your name and where you were from. I was looking through it. There were at least 50 pages of names. And a lot of people had come back multiple times.”

Anthony found a collection of hard hats that had been left behind by previous volunteers.

“They had put their nicknames on the hard hats,” Anthony said. “It just reminded me of all the people who went down there to help the people.”

The faith and fried pickles combination

While the work days made the eighth-grade students realize they were part of something much bigger than themselves, the nights reminded them of their need to rely on a God who is always there for them.

Each night on the trip, two of the eighth-grade students led a prayer service for the Holy Cross group, including a list of petitions they made.

“It helped us stay close to God,” J.D. said.

Cody nodded and added, “I thought it was pretty cool. It kept our faith up.”

The petitions often focused on Audrey and another woman they were helping, asking God to take care of them and everyone else still struggling to put their lives together nearly four years later.

Their petitions often asked God to help them, too.

“We were just praying for Jesus to help us, to care for us,” Will said.

“I kept thinking that the hurricane happened four years ago and the problems are still going on,” Kyla said. “I prayed that we could help make things better.”

Their prayers and petitions became strong threads in the incredible tapestry of a trip filled with memories and moments that the Holy Cross students had never previously experienced.

They played on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico. They traveled to New Orleans, stopping by the Superdome and the Ninth Ward, where the rebirth from Katrina continues and the devastation of that hurricane still haunts. In New Orleans, they also visited Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral and the French Quarter, where they danced with street performers and listened to stories about a voodoo queen.

The group also stopped at the Snowball Restaurant, which features crawfish hoagies, fried okra, fried pickles and boiled crabs. With Tinsley’s encouragement, the students sampled everything.

After that lunch, the group made one last stop—a stop that would define the trip.

An unusual souvenir

The group visited the site of St. Clare Church, a church that had been destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.

“We arrived at the church site to find a tent structure that had been erected on the site of the original church,” Tinsley noted. “The church faced the beach and the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the church, we found temporary church chairs, kneelers and the altar. In the sanctuary part of the church was a partial crucifix that had been recovered after the hurricane. All that remained was the torso of Jesus. His arms, legs and the bottom of the cross were missing.”

For Tinsley, it was a fitting symbol of the loss that most people have experienced at some point in their lives, and the hope that Christ still offers during those times of loss.

“We knocked on the trailer that acted as the office and spoke with the parish secretary,” the principal recalled. “She told us there was hope the church would be rebuilt this summer. The parish custodian gave us a broken brick from the original church to take home as a way of remembering our trip. We dropped off rosaries for the parish. The rosary club at school had made them for us to give to people we met.”

Hours later, the Holy Cross group boarded a plane bound for home.

“As we walked off of the plane, we had changed,” Tinsley noted. “We were no longer the same people we had been prior to the trip. That was especially true for the kids. They went into the trip as boys and a girl. They came back as young men and a young lady. They really grew in that experience.”

The eighth-grade students at Holy Cross School graduated on June 3. They left the school with memories of a trip of a lifetime. They left the school believing in one of the most important parts of a Catholic education.

“We made a difference,” Kyla said. †

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