Arlington diocesan mission produces medical vocation

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Yohanser Contreras grew up in Pedro Santana, a small village in the Dominican Republic, with no running water, spotty electricity and no telephone service. Limited opportunities for employment in the village often led to pervasive poverty and alcoholism.

But Pedro Santana also was where Contreras grew strong in his Catholic faith and felt the life-changing generosity of people he'd never met.

Due to the Arlington diocesan mission, with parishes in Bánica and Pedro Santana, "I was given not only the opportunity to dream, but to achieve a dream - a dream that seemed impossible," said Contreras.

The 29-year-old and 20 other young Dominicans received scholarships through a program organized by Father Patrick L. Posey, pastor of St. James Church in Falls Church and director of the diocesan Mission Office, who spent eight years serving the mission.

The scholarship enabled Contreras to attend medical school in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, and this summer he will begin a medical residency in internal medicine at Providence Hospital in Washington.

"The only thing Father Posey asked of (scholarship recipients) was to help others in the future, and that's what I plan to do," said Contreras.

Learning to dream

Contreras spent most of his childhood living with his grandparents after his mother died when he was 2 and his father was forced to leave Pedro Santana to find work.

As a teenager, Contreras was active in the church, helping with catechism classes and assisting at Mass as an altar server. When Father Posey came to the mission in 1995, Contreras sometimes joined him on treks to the surrounding mountain communities. The two diocesan mission parishes serve more than 70 small chapels in the mountainous region along the Haitian boarder.

During these trips, Contreras witnessed simple health issues that, because of insufficient medical care, became life-threatening. A sonogram, for example, could have prevented the death of a breech baby, and the proper medication could have cured what became a fatal case of pneumonia.

These observations, along with the death of his mother, grandmother and two aunts from cancer, "awakened my desire to pursue a career in medicine," said Contreras.

A motivational program for youths started by Father Posey also provided an important stepping stone along Contreras' road to medical school.

Growing up surrounded by poverty and a lack of opportunity, "you're not exposed to different possibilities … and it's difficult to have a goal, a vision for life," Contreras said. "When you don't see anything different, you just follow what is around you."

The weekend motivational mini-retreats, which featured a variety of speakers, challenged participants to consider what brought them joy and how they could share their gifts with others.

"It was a place where we learned to have dreams for the future," said Contreras.

Talents at the service of God

After returning to the United States, Father Posey created the college scholarships in part out of an already existing fund started by Msgr. Thomas Cassidy, then pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville. Msgr. Cassidy, who had served in the Dominican Republic in the 1990s, began the Preferential Option for the Poor Fund to aid the needy in the United States and developing countries. Father Posey was named pastor of St. Francis in 2003, and with the support of parishioners, the fund was redirected to aid the Dominican college students. St. James Church and private donors also funded the program.

Although the scholarships provided the opportunity to attend college, earning a degree meant "dealing with a lot of challenges," said Father Posey.

Students rented small rooms, which often lacked privacy, and took a nearly hourlong bus ride into Santo Domingo for classes. They also worked 40 hours a week in order to accrue some savings. Contreras was in class from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and then worked from 4 to 10 p.m.

And it was a big transition from high school to college. The village school was a cinderblock building with no computers and one globe. "Things we just assume all classrooms have just did not exist," said Father Posey.

Father Posey said it has been "beautiful to see" so many people coming together to support Contreras and his 20 classmates, who overcame countless hurdles and graduated with college degrees.

"Because so many people had one mind and one heart" - offering financial assistance, advice and networking - the students were able to achieve their dreams, he said.

In return, the graduates are coming back and helping youths in their communities.

"That's the ultimate success in the formation of the whole person - mind, body and spirit," Father Posey said.

With the support of St. James Church, Contreras has spent the past three years in the United States preparing for and taking five grueling residency admissions exams. He was one of seven applicants out of 1,000 to earn a spot at Providence.

Contreras will spend a month in Pedro Santana before starting his residency, and he hopes to complete a fellowship in oncology before returning to the Dominican Republic to help in whatever way he can.

"I believe in God deeply, and a way that we can show God's love to people is to use our talents to help them. Jesus took care of people - that's the example He preached with His life … and that's the example I hope to follow."

Diocesan mission scholarship efforts

The first pastor of the 23-year-old diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic, Father Gerry Creedon, established college scholarships for local students, and subsequent pastors have developed the program as they've seen fit.

Father Patrick L. Posey, pastor of the mission from 1995 to 2003, said that while each priest's approach is different, all want scholarship recipients to be self-sufficient and to give back to their communities.

Father Keith M. O'Hare, pastor of the mission since 2008, created a scholarship program called Jóvenes Misioneros ("Young Missionaries"), and 18 students currently study courses in Santo Domingo on the weekends and serve as missionaries on weekends.

A new scholarship at Marymount University in Arlington, spearheaded by President Matthew D. Shank in collaboration with the diocesan Mission Office, will enable an additional student to receive a college degree. The scholarship recipient will take English classes and testing this fall and enroll at Marymount next spring.

How to help

To support the Arlington diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic and the Jóvenes Misioneros scholarship program, go here and click on "Donate."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015