In the frigid 30 degree weather on March 4, students huddled by the entrance to the parking deck on Seton Hall campus. The sun had not risen, adding to the chill and preying upon those who had opted to wear clothing more suitable for the climate of their destination.
It was nearing 4:30 a.m. before the bus containing 22 students and five chaperones departed for the airport. Destination: El Salvador.
The Releasing the DOVEs: El Salvador program began in 2004 when director Michelle Peterson and Fr. Mino Chica decided to work together to create an immersive experience for students while doing service.
“When I became the Director of DOVE, I knew that I wanted our students to experience living in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need,” Peterson said. “Fr. Mino was a classmate of mine who was from El Salvador, so we created the trips together. He found the worksites, [and] I recruited and prepared the students.”
Peterson has been to El Salvador about 20 times since 2004 and continues to foster relationships with the families there.
“Children who I held as babies are now teenagers.” Peterson said.
She confirmed that more than 350 students have taken part in the opportunity to experience a service trip to El Salvador.
The Seton Hall groups have become well known to the area, receiving visits from the Archbishop, survivors of the civil war in El Salvador and receiving priests and sisters in the United States so they may fundraise locally.
Seton Hall students have made an impact through the years, according to Peterson. They fundraised for a bus to take children from an orphanage to school, built a psychological center at an orphanage and paid the first year salary for the psychologist.
They have funded a water filtration system, surgery for orphans, a washer and dryer for the nursing home, physical therapy equipment for another nursing home, repairs for various site, and school supplies, all through service trips.
“Year after year, our students return to campus changed,” Peterson said. “They have experienced material poverty, yet spiritual richness. They love children and adults who they only knew for a week. The trips to El Salvador leave a lasting impact on each one of us; we know love in a very real way.”
This year the group consisted of 27 students and chaperones who traveled from Newark to San Salvador, El Salvador met Fr. Mino in his home country to begin their journey. After spending the first days experiencing the culture of the country, the groups split up.
Half stayed in the city of Santa Tecla and worked at sites including a nursing home, day care, and a soup kitchen from Monday through Friday.
The other 14 students traveled to San Miguel where they spent their time at an orphanage, nursing home and a special needs school for children.
Many of the students who took part in the trip had experienced service trips before. Ian Galamay, a sophomore biology major, participated in last year’s trip to Haiti. After that experience he had the “urge in his heart” to do it again.
“It made me realize that what we have here are just add-ons to what we need,” Galamay said. “I feel like there, they know how to live.”
He felt the most impact on the trip when he met women at the nursing home and through the relationships he built at the orphanage. In these moments, he said he knew what pure happiness felt like.
“One thing that I’m scared of is that it’s just going to be something I did,” Galamay said. “Maybe, if people see what we did, they will do the same. Our feelings are too great to keep to ourselves. Now we have to share it.”
Acting as one of the lead chaperones for the San Miguel team was A.J. DeSilva, a seminarian at the Immaculate Conception seminary at Seton Hall. He had worked for three years as a campus minister and has led a total of six mission trips with Seton Hall.
This being his return trip to El Salvador, he knew that something felt different.
“What excited me about this trip was I felt like a lot of students were open to a spiritual experience as well as service,” DeSilva said. “We need to be taken out of our comfort zone to make sense of our own lives. Our lives can be put into perspective when we see how others live.”
DeSilva described service as a gift. No matter how much he gave, he always received so much back. “I wish everyone could have that experience,” DeSilva continued. “Obviously, I really hope people fall in love with Jesus Christ, that’s really why I do it.”
Editor’s Note: The reporter, Evelyn Peregrin, was a part of the DOVE trip to El Salvador.
Evelyn Peregrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,edu.