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Students serve in Puerto Rico during Alternative Winter Break

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WASHINGTON — They say that home is where the heart is.

Fourteen students from Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass., understood this adage all too well and sacrificed a significant portion of their winter break in January to help rebuild the ravaged houses of families who had seen their hearts and lives broken by the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

During a weeklong service trip that took place while other students were reveling in their new Christmas gifts or stressing over their schedules for the upcoming semester, the Anna Maria students were taking on "a variety of home construction assignments at three different homes in San Juan, Puerto Rico," which included "installing/gluing floor tile, caulking, painting, installing window trims, grouting tile and dry walling," according to a news release from the university.

Melissa LaNeve, director of campus ministry at the small Catholic liberal arts college, also made the trip. She said in a phone interview that she was impressed with the initiative taken by the students and hoped the college's integration of service into its mission would serve as a model to other institutions.

She was most impressed by "their determination," as many of the volunteering students "had not done service work" prior to this trip. Some students had gone from hesitant to "completely determined to get the project done" over the course of the week, said LaNeve.

LaNeve hopes that other colleges will "see the value in offering these kinds of opportunities to students because it helps get them "out of their college bubble." She sees no reason other colleges shouldn't put service directly into their missions, because "it can only benefit someone to do service and integrate it" into their long-term career goals.

But LaNeve noted a particular kind of service.

" ‘Helping' is bringing someone up to your level," LaNeve explained, " ‘serving' means recognizing someone's dignity" as an equal. Assuming that kind of humility means donating your time and talent even if the assigned job is "not how you want to contribute," she said. It was this distinction between "helping" and "serving" that LaNeve tried to impart to her students during the trip.

Jessica Barbera, hailing from Anna Maria's class of 2020, was among the students who made the trek to the battered island.

Barbera, who plans on becoming a nurse, affirmed that the mission dovetailed with her career plans by fueling her desire to help people.

"I already like serving others," Barbera said, pointing out that her nursing training and service trips constituted "two different ways of helping others."

And even though Barbera had been on service before with Habitat for Humanity, this was an entirely new experience for her.

Her favorite moment was meeting the family whose house they worked on. It was clear that "they saw how lucky they were" among other families in Puerto Rico, she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019