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Catholic students help colonia residents

20140627 Catholic-youth-service 2066Bobby Acosta helped nail down a porch roof while 15-year-old Samantha Guerra balanced on a ladder around the corner, putting up trim.

They were two of more than 50 students who dedicated a week of their summer to working on the houses of low-income residents in Pueblo de Palmas, a small community north of Peñitas.

Last week was Acosta’s second year participating in the Catholic Youth Renovation Project in its fifth year. A Mission resident, Acosta, 14, said last year he helped install a toilet.

“I’ve gotten real handy with tools and measuring,” he said. “The adults are always there, showing you how to do it. If you can’t do it, they don’t take it away and do it themselves. They actually show you how to do it.”

Joe Vela, one of the committee members who helps organize the event, also coordinates the youth ministry. He said one of the things the church tries to teach youths is the idea of social justice. When the teens start work on Monday or Tuesday, they’re regretting signing up for the project, he said, but by the end of the week, they find it rewarding.

“I think for our group, being that they’re not really exposed to colonia living and conditions such as what you see here, it creates a lot of awareness,” Vela said. “ It’s a different story to tell it and then experience it in a week when the wind’s blowing and sun’s hot.”

Melissa Salazar, another committee member, said the theme of the week was “Do Something.” There’s even a song to go with it. The teens have really embraced it, she said. They give up the comforts of home and technology and get to work. They not only put in a hard day’s work, but they bond with the families they’re helping.

During Mass the night before, she saw a girl get up to greet a family when they walked into the church, grab one of their hands and lead them to come sit with her group.

“It said a lot that they connected with the family,” she said. “They became family.”

The students also presented gifts to the families, and Vela described a prayer blanket one teen presented to her family. For every knot tied on it, the teens say a prayer, and as this girl gave the family the blanket, she became overwhelmed with emotion.

“Instead of just reading about it or seeing it in a movie, they’re living it,” he said.

It all takes a lot of community support, the budget has doubled to $30,000 over the past three years, Vela said, and it’s all in donations. Also, he said, agencies like the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office donate time and resources. A mobile command unit went from site to site, offering students a place to use the restroom or take a break.

“I think this community sees what this program does for those kids. They’re making them leaders,” said Kristie Lee, also a committee member. “As a community member, not as a person of the organization, it makes me have some peace in my heart because they have compassion, and there’s a chance that this world can change because of their love for God and what they’re doing for somebody that they don’t even know.”

Thalia Mirelez, who just graduated from Veterans Memorial High School, was serving her fourth summer as a volunteer in the project. She’s not only learned how to use a saw, hammer and a drill, she’s also becoming a leader, Mirelez said.

Mirelez’s mom, Paula, said both her children have been involved in the Catholic Renovation Project for years. She usually helps provide meals or chaperone but the past two years she’s gone out to the site to help.

It’s brought the entire family closer, Paula Mirelez said, and she hopes her children remember her example when they have kids of their own.

Thalia Mirelez said her peers tend to have everything handed to them on a silver platter. This experience, Thalia said, teaches them how to work hard for something.

“Doing this, it made me realize how grateful I am to have what my mom has provided me with,” Thalia Mirelez said. “It’s a life-changing experience. It opens your eyes and makes you see you don’t need to go to third-world countries to see this kind of poverty when it’s in your backyard.”

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