Villanovans build homes and futures on break

Jenny Dwoskin

Cell phones, Humvees and 24-hour 7-11s are luxuries that most Villanova students take for granted. When hunger strikes, we grab a Snickers. When our Quad quarters become uncomfortably sticky, we flip the fan switch. Sprawling across a futon, we turn on the evening news and ponder plans for the upcoming October break.

“How often do we stop to make someone else’s life easier?” asks Noreen Cameron, director of Villanova’s service break mission and Habitat for Humanity trips.

Not enough. Surely, it is not our duty as college students to sacrifice our October break; yet Cameron says, “Sometimes service is left to those who are privileged.” So why not part with the cell phone for a week and help improve the lives of those in need?

This fall, approximately 400 Villanova students are doing exactly that, as they embark on global outreach mission trips to 11 various destinations, from Georgia to Ecuador.

Unlike Habitat for Humanity, mission trips encompass more than just the construction of housing for the homeless population.

Sometimes the name causes confusion, but in fact, the actual “mission” aspect of the program is not a quest to convert impoverished neighborhoods to Catholicism, but rather it is an agency designed to serve less-fortunate communities in various ways. Activities include building homes, tutoring children, visiting the ill and elderly, interacting with children at orphanages, serving food at soup kitchens and teaching at GED centers.

The Experience:

“I go on mission trips because they force me out of my comfort zone for at least a week and allow me to meet new people and experience new places and cultures,” senior Fareha Ahmed, who has been to both Mexico and Costa Rica, said. “My mission trips have made me think about who I am, why I am here, and what I can do to help others.  You learn about yourself and share an amazing experience with strangers who by the end of the week become your best friends.”

Cameron, who has been running the program for over 11 years now, agrees with Ahmed. “Students give up their vacation and have to pay their own way, but for one week they can forget about fraternities and sororities and not have to worry about whether to wear J. Crew in the morning, or Abercrombie and Fitch,” Cameron said. “Mission trips – an ideal one, anyway – can be compared to an Amish barn raising, an occasion when a group of people get together to complete one common goal. On these trips, the students form special bonds, a sense of community that they bring back to the campus.”

Kerri Zaino, also a senior, volunteered on the Navajo Nation trip in Tohatchi, New Mexico and describes what she has gained from her experience, “Before I went on the service trip, I thought I would be giving so much to a community in need. But, when the week was over, I realized how much more I have gotten out of the experience; in my opinion, I have received more than I have contributed.”

Zaino’s own experience encouraged her to lead her own trip next week. “I am leading a trip because I want

other students to see the things that I have seen, I want them to feel the feelings that I have felt, and I want them to be inspired to continue doing service throughout their lives.”

“If there is something that you should do before you graduate, it should be to go on a service, global outreach trip and get out of the Villanova and experience something that you will remember for a lifetime,” Ahmed adds.

The Problem of Poverty:

Ponder this: in a hypothetical world with a whopping population of one hundred people, 67 of them would be considered “poor,” eight would have money in the bank, 47 would be illiterate and only one person would be privileged enough to have a college education.

“The lack of housing in this country is mostly due to the lack of affordability,” Cameron explained. “And what most people don’t realize is that real estate taxes are allocated to public school funding. One’s housing and one’s neighborhood is so much more than just a building. Crime rates and the quality of education, as well, are directly related to housing.”

By participating in a mission trip, students are able to personally experience poverty, rather than vicariously through a TV screen or consensus statistics.

A week of volunteering makes more of an impact than most would imagine.

“Leaving the ‘Villanova bubble’ made me realize how fortunate I am to live the life I live,” Ahmed said. “I appreciate everything I have ten-fold, compared to before the trip.”

Obviously, don’t expect Plaza-esque accommodations; students bunk in either less-than-convenient lodging, or they stay in the homes of the local families.

Not that the students consider themselves to be “roughing it.” While I was in Tohatchi, I stayed with a Navajo family on the reservation, as all the students were split up into different families,” Zaino said  “I can tell that the family genuinely appreciated all that we had done for them. I was taken in as their ‘daughter,’ as one of their own.”

A Sample of Destinations:

Annunciation House: El Paso/Juarez, Mexico – This particular program is affiliated with the Border Awareness Experience and focuses on the interaction with border-community residents and strives to educate students on the importance of breaking down barriers and promoting social justice.

Trinity Missions: San Jose, Costa Rica – Costa Rica is a third world country with magnetism for first world tourism. Beneath the exotic travel brochure photos, there is a mass of people living in socially underdeveloped communities. Students participate by interacting with the Costa Rican people on a more personal level – constructing houses for families and working with children at a state-run orphanage.

Selma, Alabama – Poverty poses a threat to North American communities, as well. Selma iss still very much living in the shadows of the Civil Rights Movement. Students who chose this particular mission trip learn about racial justice, repair homes and tutor at GED courses (only 25 percent of Selma’s high school students graduate).

For more destinations and additional information on Service Break Trips for the Spring Semester and Habitat for Humanity, go to or visit Campus Ministry in the basement of St. Rita’s Hall.