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Service trips inspire students, expand their view of the world

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Working to build and repair homes in a small Mexican village, Jake Recker found inspiration in the faith, hope and joy of villagers living in poverty.

Recker was among 29 students and 12 parents and faculty from Mount Michael Benedictine High School near Elkhorn who participated in a service trip March 2-9 in La Cima, Mexico, and two neighboring villages northeast of Mexico City.

"Talking to them gave me a whole new outlook on how happy a person can be with almost nothing," said Recker, a senior who went on the trip with his father for a second straight year.

The service trip is sponsored by Mission Youth, an apostolate of the Regnum Christi Movement, which evangelizes through youth mission programs.

It was Mount Michael's third year on the mission, said Dave Cormier, dean of students, and Recker is among several students who have been inspired to participate more than once.

"It brings social justice to the forefront of these boys' minds," Cormier said. "Every student who goes on this trip comes back a different person."

Recker and his classmates are among many high school students in the archdiocese who find faith-filled inspiration, fellowship and a wider worldview by going on service trips to other countries, around the United States and closer to home.

This school year, for example, also saw students and faculty from Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue travel to San Antonio to work with Habitat for Humanity and Cedar Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Hartington make trips to Norfolk to volunteer with groups that help the needy.

Msgr. James Gilg, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha, said the trips are important because they show students they are part of the universal church's evangelization effort and bring classroom lessons to life.

"There's nothing more powerful than living out the Gospel in real life," said Msgr. Gilg, who also thanked organizers who spend time arranging and supervising the trips.

Matt Bertelsen, a senior at Gross Catholic, was among 13 students and two teachers who built homes through Habitat for Humanity March 16-23 in San Antonio.

Although he has volunteered locally with Habitat for Humanity, Bertelsen said it was his first service trip. Working with classmates and the people who will live in the homes and seeing the finished product is particularly rewarding, he said. Just one week after returning, Bertelsen volunteered again, this time to work on a local Habitat home.

"Seeing how special and important those houses were to those people, especially when I live in a house that's a lot bigger, makes you thankful for what you have," he said.

Erin Hochstein, a senior at Cedar Catholic, said volunteering at the Norfolk Rescue Mission with her classmates increased her awareness of real-life struggles.

An average of 30 of the 43 students in the school's peer ministry program, started by Cedar Catholic guidance counselor Rob Bengston in 2006, traveled an hour south to Norfolk four times this school year to paint buildings, clean apartments, clean up yards and serve meals at the rescue mission, sort clothes at Orphan Grain Train and package food at Mercy Meals - local missions that help clothe and feed the needy.

"We just want to help in any way we can," said Hochstein, who has been a peer minister for three years.

Liz Schow, a Gross Catholic counselor who has helped organize and participated in her school's trip the past six years, said the trips also help students strike up friendships with classmates they may only have known as a face in the hallway.

This year, Gross Catholic students stayed at a retreat center outside San Antonio and at St. Mary's University, both of which share Gross Catholic's Marianist traditions of education, service work and evangelism.

In addition to building homes, Schow said the students completed landscaping work, attended evening meetings of the Marianists' Living in Faith Experience program and for recreation enjoyed navigating a rock wall and zip line. They also had dinner with retired Marianist brothers, including Brother Leo Willett - Gross Catholic's first principal - and Brother Joe Barrett, a long-time counselor at the school who will return to Gross Catholic April 28 for his 70th jubilee as a Marianist brother.

The chance to bond among classmates, help others and see another part of the country often inspire Gross Catholic graduates who partiicpate in the service trip to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity on college campuses, Schow said.

"A lot of kids say it was the best week of high school," she said.

And students invest in the trips beyond their volunteer work.

Gross Catholic and Mount Michael students pay the cost of their trips. And at Mount Michael, students also donated and purchased clothes, toys and kitchen items for villagers, Cormier said. While Cedar Catholic trips were closer to home, students held clothing and furniture drives for donations and used their own money to buy paint for a project at the rescue mission, Bengston said.

Katelyn Dickes, a senior at Cedar Catholic who has been a peer minister for three years, said she appreciated the opportunity to serve others.

"Volunteering gives us a chance to put others' needs above our own," Dickes said.

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