Liam Westhoff of Kenosha (far right, second row) was one of 18 college students who recently completed a two-week mission trip to Peru. The member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish attends college at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. (Submitted photo)
When Liam Westhoff, 20, returned to college after two weeks on a mission trip to Peru, he remembers extreme gratitude for running water and anything green.
“Pamplona is a mountainous desert, and it never rains — like, actually never rains,” Westhoff said. “One of my friends described his first night when he got back to Atchison. ‘I flushed toilet paper, brushed my teeth with tap water and slept in a bed where my feet didn’t hang off the end.’”
The Kenosha native and member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish recently completed the mission trip, where he worked with the poor in the slums outside Lima.
Westhoff is a junior majoring in mathematics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He traveled through BC Ministry and Peru Bridges with 17 other students and a registered nurse from an Atchison hospital.
“We stayed in Lima and traveled to Pamplona, which is on the outskirts of Lima, where the people have been pushed into the mountains,” he explained. “It was about a one-hour trip with traffic across the city. We also visited other places in Lima, like the Inca Market.”
The group of missionaries stayed in a retreat center attached to a home for the aged. Peru Bridges provided the housing for the team. While they lived among the poor, Westhoff quickly added they were still somewhat coddled at the retreat center.
“We could have been roughing it a lot worse,” he said. “We saw poverty, but didn’t experience it for ourselves, even for the two weeks we were there.”
A large part of the mission was to interact with the impoverished families and children in Pamplona.
“Over half the kids are fatherless, there is no running water and they live rough, difficult lives,” said Westhoff. “We visited them in their homes, played sports with them and made friends with the children. Some of us formed legitimate bonds during the two weeks we were there.”
Another aspect of the mission was in helping with concrete. The residents of Pamplona live in shanties located on steep mountains.
“The dirt roads don’t go all the way up, so they are constantly working to build concrete walls and staircases up the mountain,” Westhoff said. “We mixed and carried concrete for a couple of hours most days.”
Students held a small medical camp over four days of the mission. Peru Bridges brought in several local medical providers, and they helped residents with medical issues and provided basic hygiene principals and long-term health education.
One of Westhoff’s favorite aspects of the trip was getting to know his fellow students and sharing the experience with them.
“I didn’t know any of them super well coming into it, but our team meshed perfectly,” Westhoff said. “It was also eye-opening to see another culture, both in its rich and impoverished aspects.”
In spending time with children and families in Pamplona, Westhoff realized it wasn’t important to share the same language. The universal language of love takes precedence and overrides most communication difficulties, whether it is in picking up a child or helping someone with a task.
“There is a certain level of communication you maintain with someone just by being present to the same things,” he explained, adding, “I also learned that traffic in Lima is crazy. Everyone honks to communicate, not out of anger, and people cut each other off constantly as a normal and accepted part of driving.”
Most challenging for the students was overwhelming fatigue, explained Westhoff.
“We were there for two weeks and midway through the second week, energy was dropping for all of us,” he said. “That was when it was necessary to remember that we were there on mission, not vacation, and it was good that it was a sacrifice which could be given to the people we were serving. This was the thought that kept me going through the last few days.”
While it was exhausting at times, Westhoff said he misses the people of Pamplona. It opened his eyes to the charity of his fellow missionaries as well as increased his capacity to bear suffering joyfully.
“I saw that in the people we were serving in Pamplona. I also saw a lot of good witnesses in the people around me while I was there and that inspires me to become a better person,” he said. “I think I’ve been encouraged to take a deeper look at my faith life. We had Mass and holy hour every day, and this gave me a lot of time to reflect on where I’d seen God in the people I’d interacted with that day.”