For many college students, spring break consists of vacationing in balmy oceanside resorts or relaxing at home with family and friends.
For UW-La Crosse junior, Avery Hembrook, it also included a trip to Lima, Peru with FOCUS Missions, one of the largest Catholic mission trip organizations in the world. Along the way, she learned a little about herself too.
“I was on the Peru 2B group,” said the 21-year-old member of St. Andrew Parish in Delavan. “Our three missionaries were from George Washington University. Half of the participants were from George Washington University and the other half were from all over the United States.”
From March 10-18, Hembrook and her team worked in the Pamplona neighborhood building a set of stairs to serve over 50 families that resided on a steep dirt-covered hillside.
“These families fled to Lima, escaping the terrorism that was going on in Peru,” she explained. “The government gave the refugees a piece of land to live on. This land was on a mountainside with loose dirt and is the worst kind of dirt that can be built on. This makes it very difficult to get up and down.”
Though Hembrook had no previous experience building staircases or other construction work, the difficult task was rewarding when she saw the grateful expressions of the neighbors (name the locals call themselves) using the stairs, instead of making the climb up and down the treacherous hillside.
“This trip took me out of my comfort zone, but is one of my most favorite memories,” she said. “I became very close with my group members even though we came from all over the United States.”
The residents worked side by side with the mission team in building the staircase.
“This shocked me because we traveled all this way to help them and yet they still wanted to work beside us and get the project done,” said Hembrook. “they were hard-working people who were very kind. Every day they made us lunch that fed our team as well as the medical mission team that was working in Pamplona. They were also giving and generous people. On our last day, they gave each girl a coin purse and each guy got a keychain. This meant so much to me because they do not have much of anything and yet they went and got us all presents.”
While in the country, the team’s native host, Alejo brought the students to various areas of Lima to embrace the Peruvian culture and to show them the diverse styles of housing among the Peruvians.
“We also had the opportunity to visit the tombs of St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres, who are two patron saints of Peru,” said Hembrook. “We also had daily Mass and Holy Hour, which were some of my favorite times on the trip.”
The mission trip cost $2,300, a difficult sum for most individuals, but especially daunting for college students. Fortunately, many stepped up to support Hembrook on the trip.
“It’s crazy how much people are willing to help, realizing you are spreading the word of God,” she said. “I not only reached my goal, but went far beyond what I was expected to fundraise.”
Missionary work is not new for Hembrook, who is majoring in therapeutic recreation. In high school, she went on four mission trips within the United States.
“I absolutely loved the mission trips and knew that I wanted to go on one abroad. I wanted to grow in my faith with the Lord and to help others grow in a deeper relationship with him as well,” she explained. “I have also experienced something special on my trips. With each trip, I seemed to grow closer with God. My trips have also helped me want to learn more about the Catholic faith and to teach others what it means to be Catholic. God calls us to go into the world and share our faith and his story and I wanted to follow this call.”
The missionary students lived in the Good Shephard Retreat Center during their mission week. The center is a home for retired nuns and a sanctuary for women needing shelter.
Students carried bottled water with them wherever they traveled during their stay, but a water truck traveled most days to fill small tanks of water for residents of Pamplona that they shared with other families. The water was expected to last one full day.
“We were not allowed to use any of their water for drinking,” said Hembrook. This was eye-opening for me to see and I also felt guilty for this as we were on this mission trip in a poor community and yet with still had access to good water. This made me realize how lucky I am to come from where I do.”
The last day the team was in Peru, mudslides devastated large swaths of the country, ultimately cutting off access to running water for many communities.
“We were not allowed to shower, flush the toilet or anything that required the use of water,” said Hembrook. “Fortunately, we were leaving late that night and only had to go a day without water. Unfortunately, the city did not get water back on for a couple of days afterwards. Because of this experience, I am very conscious of how much water I use and how much we waste.”
Of the many lessons learned during each of her mission trips, the week in Lima helped Hembrook become more patient and flexible. Normally regimented and scheduled, she was accustomed to living according to her written plans. Life in Peru was not as Hembrook expected. Life was slower and plans changed constantly.
“I learned that being patient is a gift,” she said. “When you look at things in a different perspective, it becomes easier to be patient and flexible. This trip also helped me to realize what I may want to do in life. I have always thought about being a missionary or joining AmeriCorps. After high school, I didn’t really know what to do, so I went to college because that’s what the norm of today is. However, after this trip, I am really considering being a FOCUS Missionary. God has placed this heavy on my heart since the trip and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. I think my future has been clearer from this trip and I am finally starting to see the path that God has laid out for me. This trip helped me realize that because I could spend a lot of time in prayer and silence with the Lord. I normally don’t get that time daily.”
Also difficult for Hembrook was the language barrier, as she does not speak Spanish. Thankfully, there were six Spanish speaking members of the mission team to help facilitate communication.
“The other difficult part was climbing the mountain every day,” she said. “I didn’t realize that it would have taken so much out of me to climb it, but it was very steep and we were working close to the top.”
Before making the trip to Peru, Hembrook believed in God, but wasn’t actively practicing her faith. The immersion in poverty, working side by side with those who have so little, yet had a strong faith was impacting for her.
“I now understand what it means to practice my faith and I want others to know how much God loves us no matter our stories,” she said.
“I am not afraid anymore to talk about God in a daily conversation or to spend time in prayer each day. I want to learn more about my faith and the theological aspects of Catholicism. I want to be an example of Christ for people here on this earth and I trust that God will place me wherever I am meant to be in life and I will fully accept it. I struggled with this before Peru because I have always planned my life and the way I thought it would be.
“I had a hard time trusting him because I wanted things to go my way. I’ve learned that I need to fully commit myself to Christ. A life fully committed to Christ is the most fulfilling thing you can do. After I committed myself to him, I have experienced things differently. I feel happier, more optimistic and on fire about sharing my faith with others. God has perfect timing and he planned this trip right when I needed it.”