While her friends are saying "hello" to fall, Mara Wicket will say "hello" to a new life. On Oct. 17, the Steubenville grad will fly to Ecuador to begin a year of missionary service with Heart's Home.
Wicket, 21, will spend the next 14 months in Guayaquil, the largest and most populous city in Ecuador, where she will try to be a friend to the needy in her neighborhood. Heart's Home is an international Catholic, non-profit organization that works to promote a culture of compassion around the world through charitable efforts.
"The mission is very relational in that you're trying to build authentic friendships with the people who are there and the people who need you the most; the people who need that presence of love," she explained. "So, within the neighborhood, you do a lot of reaching out to the people there. A lot of work with the kids in the street, whether or not they live in the streets or just don't have great situations at home. Every day, we open our house for a few hours for the kids to come in and have time with us in a safe environment to play with one another, and be able to teach them about the saints and Jesus."
"It's very Mother Teresa," Wicket added. The missionaries deal not only with the material poverty, but poverty of the spirit of those feeling unwanted and unloved."
Wicket will share a home with two other Americans and three French women when she arrives. Volunteers cycle through on a regular basis, so Wicket will be the newbie for a few months. Then, around December, one member will leave and be replaced. "There's always people who have been there longer than the new people, so they can introduce them to the neighborhood and the mission," she explained. One French woman is a lay consecrated member who lives there permanently. Wicket already met one of her partners in a Brooklyn training session last summer, and Skyped with another, so she won't be surrounded by strangers when she arrives in South America.
After being homeschooled in the Southtowns of the Buffalo Diocese, Wicket attended the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where she majored in psychology. She had planned on going to graduate school to become a counselor, but became unsure of her plans. Service projects always satisfied her soul, so when she heard about Heart's Home in the middle of her senior year, she decided to put grad school on hold. Graduating a year early allows her to take some time off without falling behind.
"Franciscan (University) was a huge source of formation for me in my faith and my desire to serve. Franciscan emphasizes the importance of serving and gives you a lot of opportunities to do that," she said. "I think a year in Ecuador can change a lot of things, so I'm not too tied down to anything when I get back."
Heart's Home is an international Catholic missionary organization founded in 1990 and present in 24 countries worldwide. Its mission is to be a presence of compassion and consolation to those that suffer the most, like the Blessed Mother at the foot of her Son's cross. The missionaries live among the poorest neighborhoods and minister to those, especially children, in nearby areas, often going into slums, jails, nursing homes and hospitals. Missionaries live a simple but intense life of compassion, prayer and community.
Heart's Home and their missionaries rely entirely on private donations for the success of the mission. While fundraising for herself, Wicket met Peter Santandreu, currently a seminarian at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, who had spent 18 months outside of Buenos Aires with Heart's Home.
"As of right now, I can say that was the single most life-changing and important thing I have ever done," he said. "It was such a deep, personal encounter with the risen Christ. It's hard to put into words because it was such an intense, extreme experience, but something that was really worth it. I think it functions like a novitiate for life in a lot of ways. People I lived with decide what it is that they want to do with their lives."
His time with the mission helped the young man focus on his vocational goals. Santandreu, 29, knew he wanted to be a priest, but wasn't sure which discipline was for him. He considered Dominican and Franciscan, but seeing the way diocesan priests in Argentina worked with the local people helped him discern his call. He is now set to be ordained for the Diocese of Buffalo in about 18 months.
He heard about the program through the Catholic Volunteer Network website. He typed in what he wanted from a service experience, then received invitations from organizations where he might fit. "I had just finished my master's degree at the University of Toronto and I was beginning to discern my call more seriously," he said. "At that moment, I needed some time away to let it all percolate and think about what it was I would eventually dedicate my life to. I had some criteria. I wanted a prayer life - we prayed the liturgy of the hours - and also a community life to see if religious orders were more for me or if a diocesan priesthood was better. The only one that had those was Heart's Home."
They offered a list of places where he could serve. He asked for Senegal because he knew a little French, but was sent to Argentina, where they speak Spanish.
An average day involved a "prayer and work cycle" with a morning, evening and night prayer, daily rosary, and one hour of adoration daily. When not praying, they opened their house to the neighbors. They lived community life in a slum. At times, their low-quality house with its electrical and plumbing problems could be quite dangerous.
"I was electrocuted a few times," Santandreu said matter-of-factly.
"It was all about being close to the people, living in their reality, and somehow trying to bring the Lord to them or translating to them the compassion of Christ. Just being with them through their pain. Not necessarily changing it. We didn't run a soup kitchen or really affect some sort of social change, it was just that we were present to them in their trouble. We would say we were friends to the friendless. Whatever a friend would do for someone, we would do for these people," he explained.
His crew dealt with homebound shut-ins, poor children, alcoholics and some people that were just plain hard to get along with.
"Being down there woke me up to the reality of poverty," he said. "It's not just poor, underprivileged, exploited workers in the field. These people were poor because they made poor choices in their lives, like drug addiction, alcoholism. You can see the cycle of poverty continues. It isn't all an external oppression. There are internal factors that continue that cycle."
The program is different from many of the service projects high school students might be familiar with. They don't ladle out food in soup kitchens or patch roofs on hospitals. It's about being present to people in the way Mother Teresa did.
"It's not necessarily about saving their lives, but helping them die with dignity. We weren't doing that, but that's my comparison. It wasn't about making their situation better, but showing them someone cares," Santandreu said. "It showed me a new way to be with people, a new value on friendship, a new love of reality I guess is the way I would put it; a new love of the way things are instead of the way I perceive them, because I have a different vision of how things should be or I'm obsessed with a sort of perfection of things. (I now have) a real appreciation for the reality of the other."
He can now accept things as normal rather than try to force them to fit his preconceived ideals. He also has an appreciation for immigrants.
"I feel close to them in a certain way because I was once a stranger in a strange land. I once had to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture that wasn't my own. So, I get where people are coming from when they come to this country."
For more information on Heart's Home visit usa.heartshome.org.