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A group of Caldwell University students had life-changing experiences on a service mission trip in a remote village in Belize during their winter break. They spent nine days in January rebuilding a church, making friends with villagers, sharing food and games with children, and learning a little more about what is most important to them in life.

The Caldwell group stayed in Punta Gorda, a port town on the Caribbean Sea, and did service work in Santa Cruz in the country’s Toledo district. Each morning the students would get up and eat breakfast, which usually consisted of leftovers from dinner and food brought from home, such as pop tarts. They would pack their lunches—typically peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and snacks—the night before. They were on the road by 7:30 a.m. and at the work site by 9. They spent their days replacing the wall of a church with cinder blocks and making mortar from scratch with limited tools.

This was the second adventure to the Central American country for Crista Cattano, a junior, who took part in Caldwell’s 2013 mission trip. A highlight was being able to connect with a woman named Domitilla. “She was so welcoming. She shared her life,” said Cattano. It was a learning experience to accompany her newfound friend to the river where she did washing and cleaning every day. Cattano said Domitilla would walk down a “crazy steep” hill in the mud, in sandals or barefoot, to wash shirts and pots and pans in the river.

During their lunch breaks the students had time to play with the village children, offering toys and food they had brought from the United States. Cell cameras and selfies were a big hit too. Kaitlin Rodio, a senior, recalled one of the experiences that stood out for her. As the group was handing out crackers to the children, someone asked one little girl what she’d had for lunch. The child responded, “Nothing.”

In the evenings the students enjoyed dinners made up of rice and beans, a vegetable and a delicious dessert cooked by Miss Olive, a local woman. They relished being able to sit down to dinner together each evening, share stories and laugh about the day. It felt like a family meal, said Rodio. “Everyone got along so well,” said Sean Puzzo, a sophomore. The students were exhausted from their exhilarating workdays and “were in bed by 8:30 p.m.,” he added with a chuckle.

The students were struck by the joy of the villagers. “They have so little and are so happy,” said Puzzo. Yet in America, people “have so much (materially) and are often so sad.”

The other participants were students Jessica Marco, Catherine Ringhoff, Debra Pellegrino, Virginia Johnson and Emma Clarke and alumnus Patrick Lehosky. The chaperones were Tim Kessler-Cleary, director of student engagement, Meghan Moran, assistant director of student engagement, and Amy Rizzo, athletic administrator and women’s lacrosse coach.

Other activities included playing the drums with the locals, visiting a group of Jesuits who serve in the area, and attending Sunday Mass in the village of Crique Jute, which has a population of about 220 people.

It was an experience the students say they will remember for the rest of their lives. “It set my priorities straight,” said Rodio. When she got home she could not help thinking of the amount of time she spends on her phone versus the time Domitilla spends washing clothes. “I don’t want to put material things first. Rather than dedicating time to my phone, I could be improving myself as a person and student.”

“I can’t complain about heat or lack of air conditioning again,” said Puzzo. “It is a good feeling to bring back to campus.”