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20120625 Colonia Service Project St Paul Catholic 0187-featureJack Cavazos and April Cerda measure insulation on a house they are renovating through St. Paul’s Catholic Church and the Catholic Youth Renovation Project, which is a program from the Brownsville Diocese. Progress Times photo by Mark ReaganNORTH OF PEÑITAS — A dust devil ripped up dirt and trash as it crossed Tom Gill Road a mile or two south of the Pueblo de Palmas colonia where Rio Grande Valley youth spent a week in late June helping people improve their quality of life.

Roughly 50 teenagers teamed up to spend a week erecting walls, sheet rocking, building a roof, installing insulation and more as part of the Catholic Youth Renovation Project, which is sponsored by St. Paul’s Catholic Church, of Mission. The church established the project three years ago to help improve and repair the homes of needy families in the Mission area.

Coordinator of Youth Ministries Joe Vela said nearly 50 young people signed up to help in the colonia, a small unincorporated community lacking basic infrastructure.

“We want to showcase our youth and educate people that the stereotype that young people are self-centered and don’t think of anyone else is wrong,” he said. “And even more, we wanted to help improve the quality of life for people living here.”

Veterans Memorial High School Senior Rik Garza, 17, said he is getting more from the people they are helping than they are getting from him.

“When you give to people and they smile, it will touch you for a lifetime,” he said while eating a brown-bagged lunch in the sanctuary of a small church at the colonia. “I’ve received more than I’ve given, spiritually.”

Garza said the life lessons he is learning in the Pueblo de Palmas colonia will help shape the person he wants to be as he finishes off high school and works toward a career as a nuclear medicine physician.

“This experience will help me remember that there are always people who need help and if I hadn’t done this, I don’t think I would have known about the need that there is to give back to the community,” he said.

One of the young adult leaders, Joe Hernandez, 19, a graduate of VMHS, said this is his third time out to do service work in the colonia with the Catholic Youth Renovation Project, which is an offshoot of the Mission Service Project that first got Hernandez involved in service work.

“God generously gives us the opportunity to help our community,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing that helps us personify the characteristics Christ calls us to have.”

Hernandez said he is a seminarian who is deciding between becoming a priest or marriage.

Abbie Respondek, 14, and Monica Salinas, 17, said the whole experience was a humbling one. For Respondek, seeing a hungry child changed everything for her.

“I remember seeing this little girl going to the fridge, opening up and then seeing that there was nothing in there,” she said. “I feel grateful for what I have. The family whose house we are working on is poor and needs money for food.”

Salinas chimed in and said that despite living in poverty, many of the families whose homes are being worked on share what they have with the young volunteers, despite not having enough food on a regular basis.

20120625 Colonia Service Project St Paul Catholic 0165This photo shows Anyssa Vela, Erica Barrera and Willie Martinez getting prepped to work after a short lunch in the Pueblos de Palmas colonia where they were working to improve the quality of life for people living there through the Catholic Youth Renovation Project. Progress Times photo by Mark Reagan“And even though they don’t have much food, they still try to feed us,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is never to take life for granted.”

Alec Banda, 21, one of the young adult leaders in the group, said he spent the majority of a brutally hot morning working on a roof. He said working in the colonia has taught him that he has a lot of possessions that he doesn’t really need.

“I really don’t need the majority of my things,” he said.

Cory Garza, 33, is a substitute teacher for the Mission Consolidated Independent School District and this isn’t her first mission trip.

“This is my third year with this project, but I also volunteered for the Mission Service Project,” she said. “Missionary work consists of getting better and better. And each and every year these kids come out and get more enthusiastic about the project.”

Vela said the number of young people participating has tripled since the program began three years ago.

But for Garza, continuing to come to the colonias and help families living in them improve their life is something she hopes to continue to do for the rest of her life. And she hopes the same for her daughters.

“There was a family and we worked on their house two years ago,” Garza said from a pew in the church. “Before we started working, the youth made a cross and put nails in it. And with each nail, a different prayer was said.”

On June 23, two years later, she went back to visit the family and spoke with its matriarch who told Garza that the cross brought them blessings.

“I mean, the place transformed from a house to being a home,” she said with a smile.

The family has added onto improvements made by Catholic Youth Renovation Project volunteers. And Vela said that’s one of the project’s goals.

“We want to give these families a shell that they can continue to build off of in years to come,” he said while wiping sweat from his brow.

The project ran from June 25 to the 29 and received a special visit from Bishop Daniel E. Flores on June 28. The group worked on eight different service projects, which cost approximately $18,000.

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