Acts of service help graduates forge their futures

This year’s graduating seniors will take with them memories of friends, teachers, classes, sports, social events and other fun times.
And some will carry with them transforming experiences from service projects and mission trips that set them on a course to making even greater commitments to those in need.
Suzanne Sharp and Michaela Wright of Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, Lauren Ramaekers of Mercy High School and Peter Lenz of Creighton Preparatory School, all in Omaha, said their experiences serving others had a profound impact on their lives.
As part of Duchesne’s Caring for Africa Club, Sharp and Wright went to Uganda last summer to visit a Sacred Heart high school and elementary schools, plus other area schools, where students often lack money for tuition or whose parents have died from AIDS.
Duchesne students spent time with their high school counterparts learning about their lives and their needs, attending their classes, and “lived their lives for a few hours every day,” Sharp said.
They also visited a refugee center and school for people fleeing the civil war in South Sudan.
“I learned a lot about caring for the poor and vulnerable, and using our excess to help other people,” she said. “I learned how fortunate I am and it taught me to appreciate my education. It’s always going to stick with me.”
Before their trip, the club raised nearly $5,000 and gathered clothing and other items for the Ugandan schools and refugee camp.
Inspired by their experience, Sharp and Wright returned home determined to do even more.
The girls, both members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, made and sold key chains and friendship bracelets during the school year to continue raising money for tuition assistance for the students they met in Uganda.
“It was Michaela’s idea to keep things going,” said Laura Hickman, Duchesne principal.
Wright made the bracelets, and Sharp, who plans to study architecture at Kansas State University and is involved in Duchesne’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) classes, used the school’s laser cutter and CAD technology to create key rings with a multi-layered image of Duchesne. 
“We’re very proud of the girls for translating their opportunity to attend a Catholic high school into making sure others also have that opportunity,” Hickman said.
Wright, who plans to attend the Colorado School of Mines, will major in civil engineering with an environmental emphasis, said she hopes to eventually help communities that are without clean water. She also plans to enter the Peace Corps after college, which she had not considered before the trip. 
“The service trip was the most life-changing thing I’ve ever done,” Wright said. “I’ve learned that I want to spend most of the rest of my life serving people, and that’s the best way to find satisfaction in work.”
A different foreign mission trip opened Ramaekers’ eyes. She visited the Dominican Republic with fellow Mercy High students during spring break her junior year.
They stayed with families in a small village with no running water, poor sanitation and in some homes, only curtains for doors.
They worked in hot, rainy weather to help clear a plot of land and plant a vegetable garden.
“There’s power in discomfort,” she said. “We just placed our trust in God, knowing that what we were doing was necessary and the result would be good.” 
“Lauren is a caring and vocal leader who helped keep the group motivated,” said Paul Tschudin, a teacher at Mercy High.
The group also learned the importance of simplicity, said Ramaekers, also a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.
“We don’t really need all the materialistic things we have,” she said. “Living with less, we can be more free from distractions and better able to see God in the little things in our lives.”
Ramaekers, who plans to attend Creighton University in Omaha as a pre-med major, said her trip reinforced her career plans.
“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and helping and service has always been a huge part of me, so this trip helped me connect the dots,” she said. “I could definitely work in a third-world country to help people.” 
A local need led Lenz to a four-year commitment of service.
SHe helps at Omaha’s Bethlehem House, which provides temporary housing, support and guidance to at-risk pregnant women. 
A member of Holy Cross Parish in Omaha, Lenz’s weekly volunteering began his freshman year when his mother, who worked as a spiritual adviser at the facility, noted its need for babysitters to care for infants and toddlers while their mothers attend self-improvement and parenting classes.
“Once I started, I immediately fell in love with it,” he said. 
That experience, plus volunteering at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute working with intellectually- and physically-challenged children, have helped him discern his future, said Lenz, who plans to attend St. Louis University and pursue a career in neo-natal or pediatric nursing.
Dave Lawler, Creighton Prep’s service coordinator said, “I think it’s impressive for a student to seek out these sorts of opportunities and do them on his own.” 
Lenz also volunteered for school projects at Seina/Francis House, as a retreat leader and on service trips, Lawler said.
“While at Prep, I realized that service was my favorite way of fulfilling my faith,” Lenz said. “Working with those in need is my best connection with God.
“I feel inclined to spread what I’ve learned, and to never lose my ideals of empathy and caring,” he said. “I want to foster them to hopefully touch people around me, and eventually when I have a family, make sure they know the value of service.”
“I never want to let that flame die.”
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