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A group of Caldwell University students and faculty and staff spent a week in January volunteering in an impoverished village in Belize.

They helped repaint a school, spent time playing with the children and were treated to gracious hospitality and home-cooked meals.

Marisa Juliano, a senior, attended for the first time. “I saw things that broke my heart a little and things that were so beautiful.” Working with the schoolchildren made her heart “grow 10 times bigger … As soon as I met them I wanted to do 10 times more. I wanted to paint the whole town for them.”

Senior Sean Puzzo was on the mission trip for a third time. The villagers are not rich in material things, he said, but they are certainly rich in “community, spirit and respect.”

Many of the people have no electricity, wash their clothing in the river, live in homes with dirt floors, sleep on hammocks and grow their own food. Jobs and education are scarce.

Sophomore Zachary Weinberg found his first mission trip a rewarding experience.   The villagers “don’t have half of what we have, but they have joy in their simple life,” he said.

In the evenings the group was treated to Belizean meals  prepared by Miss Olive, a woman Caldwell students have gotten to know over the years. “She taught us how to cook some of the traditional items, and it was really nice to have that interaction,” said Crista Cattano. “We call her our Belizean mom. She takes such good care of us.”

The students stayed at a retreat house in Punta Gorda, run by the Jesuits, and were off the grid from technology, eating dinner at night and sharing the day’s activities for hours. “I love being disconnected for the week,” said Cattano. “They have a simple way of living. You become very present to the environment you are in and why you are there.”

Cattano was thrilled to see Domitilla, a woman whom she had met in previous years and had promised to visit again. “She welcomed us into her home and cooked for us.” On their way out of the village that evening the students saw a beautiful rainbow, an affirmation for them.

Henrietta Genfi, Caldwell’s director of advisement, was one of the chaperones.  She said the students were grateful for the opportunity to help others and learned that happiness lay in human connections and not in material things. “Service helps us all realize that no matter how far apart in distance we are from each other, we are all one community.”

The other students who volunteered on the mission trip were Katlyn Houtz, John McLaughlin and Kenneth Duffy. Staff and faculty included Genfi, Psychology Professor Thomson Ling and Caldwell Dominican Sister Lena Picillo, O.P.

Other activities included visiting Mayan ruins and a waterfall and enjoying a Mayan cultural dance assembly featuring the children.