Sunday, November 23, 2014

Looking back on my Mission

My last sporting event with the boys of the boarding school.

I'll have to start by saying it's good to be home.  While I absolutely loved what I was doing, and the place where I was doing it, the feeling that comes with getting off the plane and knowing that you're home again is hard to beat. This clip sums it up pretty well (even in spanish..):

The first couple weeks home I spent a lot of time in catching up with friends and family (to include the dog!), and getting readjusted to being back in the US.  Things around town hadn't changed too much so that felt good and familiar, but there were also a few little things that I'd been missing and wanting to indulge myself on; so I ate some good 'ol fast food (mostly just Taco Bueno!), watched a little reality TV, and of course visited Wal-Mart to get back some lost culture.

And now that it's been a couple months since I've returned, and have mostly finished the process of getting re-situated, I've had some time to reflect on everything that's happened and have put together a few final thoughts.

A view of the Valdocco,
and our Church, located to the left,
 Our Lady Help of Christians.
Living in a religious community:

From the very beginning, and coming into the experience I really wasn't sure what to expect, which is just how I felt before going into the Marine Corps, so in a weird way I was kind of excited for the uncertainty. It was about two months into my mission and after going through the VIDES USA & France training camps, that I learned that I'd be working at a Middle and High school and living in a contiguous religious community in Nice (probably could have been worse...).  When I arrive in August there was still about a month before school started and so I had plenty of time to get situated and meet everyone within the community.  All together there were 10 priests and 2 brothers who had an average age of about 65ish, none of which really spoke any English, but were all very friendly and did a good job of making me feel welcomed.

Our daily routine typically started out with a 7:00 Mass at the school's chapel, and was followed up with breakfast (typically just bread, jam and coffee); after which everyone would split up to go about their daily duties.  At 12:00 we would all meet up again for lunch, and then after the work day and around 5:35 we would have an evening prayer that would last for about 20 minutes before we all sat down for dinner.  One of the nice things about French culture is that they typically take their time in eating and socializing during lunch and dinner, it wasn't uncommon for one of those meals to last for more than an hour, and so it felt like a family in that everyone talked about what was going on throughout their week. We ate in an adjoining room to the school's cafeteria and our food was typically the same as what the kids would eat, however, eating with priests also had its benefits (especially French priests) and so there'd typically be a good supply of wine and cheese available to help compliment the lunch and dinner, vive la France! (At times it was really easy to get used to French religious life, ask me about how we'd celebrate the Sabbath each week.)  My accommodations were pretty nice.  For the majority of my stay I lived in a suite style room with my own shower and toilet and I had a small desk with an internet hookup so that I could work and stay in contact with everyone.

Living with and learning from all these good, godly men was an absolute blessing. It was unique privilege that I never would've been able to fully imagine had I not actually lived it. The atmosphere and daily priorities of it all were something that I found to be truly and simplistically refreshing.  The opportunity to have been considered to be a member of their community, if only for a year, will be something that I'll always be very proud of and grateful for in having experienced.

One of my final meals with all the parish priests and brothers.

The kids:

My time with the community was spent in a variety of different ways; the majority of which was in working with local kids at The Valdocco (here's a little video of what we did all year: Working with the kids was an overall great experience, and something I'm missing a lot more than I thought I would.

After my time in the Military and working in an atmosphere based on discipline and respect, I really wasn't sure how I'd react to the kids or to how they might respond to me. At first there were growing pains, especially since I wasn't too effective in communicating in French.  

Homework help with Naomi,
Syriane, Ismael and Ivan.

But fortunately, and to my relief, we were able to fairly quickly work through all the uncertainties and ended up getting along pretty well.  What made the biggest differences were that after the first few months I was able to pick up enough basic French to communicate fairly effectively, and then once the kids got to know me and my personality, we developed a sort of mutual respect that contributed to building some pretty good relationships.

One of the biggest lessons I learned in dealing with the kids was that they have an incredible ability to understand the general mood of a situation, usually based on how the people involved are acting. They sort of just seem to have an aptitude for being able to sense or read someone's personality, intentions, and genuineness; it's almost like a survival instinct!  And so I realized that in my situation it worked well to be honest with the kids, to tell them the truth, if it was an unfortunate truth then to soften it up a little beforehand, but to ultimately show them that I had enough respect for them to be honest with them, and to almost treat them like adults or as an equal.  In turn they generally seemed to want to return the respect, and even tended to listen and to be a little better behaved, which made everything a whole lot easier!

In hindsight, I'd say I'm pretty sure that we were all able to learn a few thing from each other, I actually learned a lot from them.  I'm also confident that some of the traits I developed in the Marine Corps were positively absorbed (gently imposed) on the kids, making them a little better behaved and more respectful, if only for Fr. Manu's sake!

At the Valdocco with Jean Clavin
(wearing a Carnival mask),
Maxim, Leia and Amandine

The impact on my faith:

The impact my trip had on my faith came in a way that I wasn't initially expecting.  When I began my mission I was anticipating that by living within a religious community I would be subject to an overall experience that would allow for me to learn a lot about Catholic theology, cannon law, and other more in depth teachings of the Church, and I did learn about those things to some extent.  But what ultimately made the biggest impact on me came through the daily physical contributions to the community and their mission.  I found that in taking an interest in how things were run and maintained, and in the participation with the parish and school, that I felt fulfilled in a sense of contribution by living through my faith in ways that I hadn't experienced before.  And so it was my attempts in making physical improvements to the community, or the "works", and not so much the deeper understandings my faith or religion, that I found to be the most rewarding.

My favorite contribution:

The single contribution that I'm most proud of, is in having the opportunity to reestablish the parish's altar servers program.  When I arrived to the community the parish didn't have any active altar servers and it really felt like we needed a more youthful presence at Mass, especially being that the Salesians (the Catholic Order that our community belongs to) are all about empowering kids.  So I talked with Father Pascal and he took time out of his schedule to help prepare and teach me to serve, a little challenging being that I'd never been an altar server before (to this day I really only know the French names to all the holy items used during the Mass).  Once I felt familiar with the routine and material, and after about a month of recruiting and practicing as a team, we made our debut!  Over a span of a couple months the kids continued to learn and became more comfortable and confident, and it wasn't long before I was able let them do it all on their own!

What made this endeavor so particularly rewarding were the ideas that it felt like I was contributing to the parish by involving it's youth and future (and since the elderly crowd, who made up the majority of our parish seemed to love seeing the kids help out, I think it made Mass a little more enjoyable for everyone), and the idea that I was hopefully leaving a small legacy that was well enough prepared to survive and grow for years to come!

The pictures below show (left) the 2 original servants and I after our first Mass, and then (right) 3 newer servants who helped out with the Saturday evening Masses.  All together we finished with 6 servants! 

Wrapping it up:

I feel happy, proud, and fulfilled in the opportunity that God provided me with.  I can honestly say that while I'm professional proud of my time in the Marine Corps, I'm more personally proud of, and have a greater sense of gratification in my time spent as a missionary.  Living in the community with the priests and brothers and working with kids was an incredibly unique privilege, and I'm truly grateful for the VIDES organisation who did a great job in preparing and providing me with everything I needed.

And so this is it, my final blog post.  I hope there's someone out there who's found what I've written to be at least a little interesting, and maybe even somewhat motivating.  If you ever have any questions or comments I'd love to hear from you.  Thank you for reading, and God bless!

Top: The last Friday night youth group 

Left: Ameil, an altar server and his little
brother came to say goodbye and brought
mini-muffins that he'd cooked, they were
great! You can see he's wearing a Rosary 
that I got for each of the altar servers when 
visiting Rome.  They were great for  
motivating the kids, especially since 
they were blessed by Pope Francis.

Our end of the school year/going away party.
The kids wrote a song for the 3 volunteers 
(including me) who'd be moving on.

My last full day in France, spent with friends in Lourdes.

I owe a big thanks to everyone who's helped me along the way:   
Sr. Mary Gloria, Sr. Marie Be, Fr. Manu, Fr. Pascal, Sr. Anne, Fr. John Williams, Br. John, Br. Ignace, Fr. John Louise, Sr. Vuong, Sr. Elvira, Ismael, Maxime, Mr. Feltrino, Orlanda, Fr. Piotr, Br. Benjamin, Celine, The Parish of Notre Dame Auxiliatrice, Eugenie, Raf, The VIDES USA/France Volunteers, and all my friends and supporting Family.
Thank you all so much for everything!

A few related websites:

The VIDES+USA Wordpress website is the best place to see what VIDES is all about.  You can also read about all the other missionary's experiences by clicking on the links to their blogs:

The Catholic Volunteer Network's website is were I originally found VIDES.  They have a great program that'll pair you up with missionary organizations based on what type of work and experience you're looking for:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My Mission Movie's posted on YouTube:

The last year summed up in about 18 minutes:

Et aussi en français:

Be sure to click on settings to turn it up to HD!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Down to the last month.. and finishing strong!

Jessi, after we finished Mt. biking
and a little map reading class.
I suggested he pose like that.
The last couple months have continued to go well.  There seems to have been at least one school/federal/religious vacation for each of the last 3 months, and so we've been busy with field trips and planning activities to keep the kids occupied.  The Valdocco keeps getting bigger!  We've grown to about 35 kids, 4 full-time and 2 part-time tudorers, and we've almost run out of room in our building. Carnival, Lent, and Easter have all come and gone.  The CCD classes are still going well, and we're expecting 6 kids to celebrate their first communion this Sunday.  And the Alter Server team's gotten bigger and more confident!  Right now we have 3 who are pretty experienced and capable and we've just added 3 new, young recruits who're still in training. Ultimately I'm confident that they'll have no problems carrying on once I leave.

This last month I've been pretty lucky in that I've gotten to take two trips to Italy.  One was with a group of 12 kids from the Don Bosco and Nazareth (the other Salesian school in Nice, run by the Sisters) high schools to visit the Colle Don Bosco, the birth place of Don Bosco, right outside of Turin.  And the second trip was when my Parents came to visit.  I was able to take a week off to meet them in Rome and to spend a couple days with them when they came here to Nice, it's been a great month!

For the last week in February and the first in March the school had a two week vacation, and so the Valdocco put some activities together for the first week.  Since it was during Carnival we prepared an arts and craft workshop to make our own masks for wearing to

Enjoying the snow before it
melts, in the Mt's outside Nice.

one of the many city parades that were going on. Unfortunately, it rained that day so none of the kids showed up, but since we were already there we decided to make our own 4 to 5 masks, and they turned out pretty good.  The second day we had a better turn out and took the kids up to the Mountains, about an hour drive away, to do some sledding.  The snow was still nice and it wasn't too cold so it turned out to be the perfect time to go.  On the last day of camp we took a handful out to a park that had a little fitness trail. Ismael showed them the importance of having proper form and I taught them a couple military chants for running, and they surprising really liked them...

For Holy Week the Dioceses of Nice chose to
celebrate the Chrism Mass at our church, Notre
Dame Auxiliatrice.  It really turned out to be an incredible event.  Almost all the priests from the Dioceses, the brothers, the sisters, and a lot of the parishioners came to watch the bishop bless this year's sacramental oils.  And the turnout was pretty impressive, the church was packed.  We ended up having to leave the doors open so that people could see and hear from outside.

After Easter the school had its Easter/Spring break for two weeks, and the Valdocco had another week of field trips and games.  Since we're also working with the kids to renovate our garden area in front of our building, we thought it'd be a good idea to take them out to park that had a huge exotic/indoor garden to get some ideas and inspiration.  It also had a mini zoo and an inflatable obstacle course so it was easy to make a day out of it.

It's an urchin and not a crack in the glass.

On the last day of camp we took a day trip to an island off the coast of Cannes to visit an old fort and to play some games.  The island turned out to be really pretty, and had a lot of good spots to play Capture the Flag and then to have a nice picnic on the shore.  In the afternoon we visited the old fort and the kids got to see where the "Man in the Iron Mask" was imprisoned and to learn about his interesting story.

Two weeks ago Manu, myself, and another animator from the Nazareth High School took a group of 12 kids to Turin, Italy for a 3 days visit of The Colle Don Bosco.  For the kids, the purpose of the trip was to have a great time in meeting other kids from all over France (more than 300 kids showed up) and to learn a little about their faith.  As for the 75+ volunteers that participated, the camp served as a dry run for the larger and upcoming Campo Bosco (in August) and the celebration of the Bi-Centennial of Don Bosco's Birthday (in February), which will both be held at The Colle Don Bosco.  In the end, the trip went really well, we stayed busy the entire time playing games, learning about Salesian History, and participating in prayer and Mass.  It was especially interesting to have been able to see the original homes of St. Don Bosco and St. Dominic Savio, The Basilica of Don Bosco, and then to have taken a trip into town to see the original Valdocco and all the things that Don Bosco was able to establish.

On top of Colle/Hill Don Bosco
Homes of St. Don Bosco (above)
and St. Dominic Savio (below)

Signs of a good trip!
An incredible church design by
Don Bosco at the original
Valdocco in Turin, Italy.

This last month was uniquely special in that my parents were able to come visit.  We met in Rome and spent a couple days seeing the sites there, and then they came to Nice with me to see and meet everyone at the community.  It was a great time, they really seemed to enjoyed Nice, we ate some really good pasta and French food, and by the time they left we were all exhausted.

The Vatican Gardens
In the courtyard of the Don Bosco high school

And so it's finally come down to my last month here in Nice.  It's been an incredible adventure, and I'm grateful for every minute of it.  Once I've returned home in June I'll be sure to write my last blog post to sum up all my experiences, thoughts, and to give the details of my going away.  Until then!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Just 5 months left, but...

Everything's going well and we're staying busy!  The Valdocco's been continuing to grow, we're up to about 15 kids now, the CCD classes are coming together and starting to prepare for the end of the year, and the Feast days of St. John Bosco and St. Francis of Sales all happened this last month.

For the Christmas break the Valdocco put on a little holiday camp.  On the first day we thought it'd be good to introduce the kids to a taste of the United States with an authentically American home-cooked breakfast.  After hunting down the right ingredients and figuring out the measurement conversions, we started cooking!  All-in-all it took us about hour to fix, we included some basic cooking lessons in between, and by the time we were finished we'd made about 20 chocolate chip pancakes, some eggs, sausage, and plenty of bacon.  It turned out great, and we ate just about all of it, ugh..  We also had some "beurre de cacahuète" (peanut butter, not easy to find) and jelly toast.

The feast's over, time for a nap..

The second day of camp Manu organized an activity that let the kids melt and make their own chocolate candies.  We worked with an assortment of toppings ranging from sprinkles and fruits to leftover peanut butter and jelly; then on top of that a couple of the kids decided to add leftover syrup to theirs, for that unique 5 kinds of sugar taste..  The candies were left in the fridge to harden and give to the kids to take home at the end of the week.

For the last two days of camp we had some homework-tutoring sessions and built a paper-mache/cardboard version of United States, as a geography lessons.  And on the final day we all went out to a local Christmas market for some ice skating and to see some mountain animals in a wild life show.

On Christmas Eve the children of the youngest CCD classes, not the ones I help with, put a little skit together for the Christmas Mass.  They acted out the Nativity and did a great job!

After New Year's we were quick to get back to work.  On the first week Manu and I took a two day field trip with a special group of kids from the school that are in need of some mentorship.  The group's called SLAM, or "Systeme Local d'Accompagnement aux Metiers", and it's designed to work with kids who've been struggling with school or other social issues in preparing them socially and professionally for potential careers, or for life after high school.  For a change of scenery we took them out to a local exhibit on the 5 Senses.

Jeff  experimenting
with new hair styles..

..a solid choice!
The exhibit had about 75ish different smelling stations.

Everything was left just as we found it.
Playground equipment can really take a beating.

On the second day we went up to the park for some mountain biking and a picnic.

Our CCD classes are going great.  Manu's been able to keep the kids interested and coming to class, and about a month ago we added another 3 students to the older group.  Of the 3 CCD classes I help with, the youngest, ages 9-11 meet on Tuesdays during lunch, the middle aged, 11-13 meet on Thursday for lunch, and the oldest, 13-14 come on Friday evenings, with each class having about 7-9 students.  For the two younger groups we've been working on and reviewing the basics of Catholicism (prayer, the gospel, the sacraments and saints) in preparation for confirmation.  And with the older group, and being that they've mostly all already completed confirmation, we try to make it more of a fun and games/something to do on Friday night-type thing, with the last 15-20 minutes of each night spent discuss faith and in prayer.

She found the baby in the King
Cake.  In France they have their
king cakes for the Epiphany
holiday.. makes since.
They're not always happy that I take tons of pics..

One Tuesday last month we were taken on a tour of the Crypt of our church, Notre Dame Auxiliatrice, by one of the older brothers.  He told the kids an incredible story about how during WW2 the church was able to successfully hide 50 Jewish students from the Gestapo.  It was even more impressive being that we could hear the story while seeing how small the crypt (maybe 500 square feet) really is.

It says: In this crypt in 1943, hunted by the Gestapo, Jewish children and adult were put
under the protection of the fathers Michel Blain and Vincent Simeoni.

Tuesday and Thursday night activities with the boarding school are still going strong. They've recently been obsessed with ping-pong, I think in part due the weather being cold and rainy, so we've been hitting the tables pretty hard.  With it getting nicer out I look to restart my push to popularize football soon!

An action pic of the Champ.

The Fetes!

For the Feast of St. Francis of Sales, on the 24 of January, we got together with the Salesian Sisters, who run the Institute of Nazareth, another Salesian school across town, to have a nice dinner. We celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Sales because it's he who St. John Bosco, the founder of the Salesians, developed his methods of teaching and accompaniment of the young from.  That's also where the name Salesians comes from.

Top: Another volunteer helping to
explain a game for the school's
celebration of St. Don Bosco's Feast day.
Left: The Salesian Community of
Nice on St. Francis's Feast day.
The next Friday, the 31st, was Don Bosco's feast day, and we celebrated for the entire weekend. It all got kicked off with both Salesian schools having a sort of game/fun/adventure day.  A lot of the kids came to school wearing costumes and were ready to play games, dance, and eat all kinds of junk food. 
The next day our Parish had its celebration.  We had about 25 kids show up and we played a variety of different games, ate all kinds of homemade desserts, and then finished with a Mass; the bishop of Nice came to preside. 
On Sunday, the parish came back to watch the Don Bosco movie.  It also happened to be the same day as the Fete of the Chandelles, a celebration of when the Pope fed hungry Roman pilgrims crepes, which in turn has become a Holiday celebrating crepes, so fittingly we ate an assortment of crepes after the film.

The church was packed!
Left: The kids from our parish.

And Finally..

What I'm most proud of doing these last couple months, is getting the opportunity to put together a team of alter servants.  With our aging congregation the church has been without alter servants for a while, and it's generally been rare to even see kids at Mass, so doing this felt like a needed contribution.  The first step took place about a month ago in convincing Father Pascal to teach me how to be alter server, being I'd never done it before.  After that, I practiced for a couple weeks and then we started putting the word out. It didn't take long to find our first two volunteers. We were able to get together last Tuesday for a class, and then last Sunday we helped with our first Mass, and they did great! 

Looking back on it, I think our participation made the whole parish and Mass feel a little different.  It reminded me of how it feels to go to Mass at home, and how the Mass is an event for the whole family (the alter servant's families came to watch), rather than just the elderly.  I think the parish noticed a little difference also; afterwards there were a lot of the loyal elderly ladies who came up to us with big smiles on their faces. They talked about how happy they were to see us and wished us luck in continuing. Hopefully it all works out and were able to keep the team growing.  By the time I leave I think this will be the contribution that I'm most proud of, and if they continue once I'm gone maybe it'll be my sort of small legacy.