‘Rays of Hope’ has profound effect on eighth-graders
By Eddy Rodriguez
Special to The Witness
A ray of hope. A ray of hope is what 26 of my eighth grade classmates and I strived to be for one weekend to the elderly, poor, homeless, and at-risk people of Omaha’s inner city. For those of you who don’t know, Rays of Hope is a three-day, two-night mission trip for LaSalle’s eighth-graders to do service in the heart of Omaha, Nebraska’s inner city. I really didn’t know much about Rays of Hope, other than what I just told you. My older brother had gone on Rays of Hope as an eighth-grader five years ago and he told me it was a great experience with lots of fun, but for some reason it still didn’t sound too interesting or exciting to me. Then, as Rays of Hope grew nearer this year, I made the decision to go, concluding, “What do I have to lose?”
It was a chilly Friday morning on April 27 when I climbed onto the charter bus for a four-hour trip across the state of Iowa to Omaha. Eventually, we arrived in Omaha after lots of singing, laughing, and some heated freestyle rap battles and got to our first stop at Seven Oaks at Notre Dame, an assisted living facility, where we had lunch with the sisters and other elderly residents. After spending time visiting with and entertaining the people there with songs and speeches, we moved on to our next service sites. My team and I were taken to the house of a woman named Ella Willis, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Parish, who needed some yard work done.
When we first got there, Ella was nowhere to be seen, so we checked inside her house. What I saw really opened my eyes. The floor was cluttered, the room had a musty smell, and the whole house looked dark and dingy, plus a very mad dog was barking at us. Mr. G. told us that this was what many inner-city homes looked like and how many poor people live everyday. Once we walked back outside, a short, sweet, energetic, elderly African-American woman pulled up to the curb in an old beater and jumped out to greet us; of course, it was Ella. After introductions, she put us to work hoeing and weeding her garden as well as raking, trimming trees, and shoveling mulch; we worked hard, but it was very enjoyable.
Even though we only spent two hours with her, she was so friendly and welcoming and positive I felt as if I had known her my whole life. Before we left, our group gave Ella a Rays of Hope T-shirt, and her once tired eyes lit up with joy when she saw not only that it was a gift, but also a gift in her favorite color — red.
Later that day, we stopped at another team’s service site, where we found everybody eating ice cream and relaxing after finishing their tasks. All of a sudden a man walking down the street ran over to us, asking if he could please have some ice cream, and we gave him some. It occured to me that he asked us for ice cream because he didn’t have the money to buy a simple treat like ice cream, which is a luxury for him, but is something we undoubtedly take for granted. It then struck me that today was the first time in my life that I had really seen poverty with my own eyes.
The next day, my team and I worked at a homeless shelter called Open Door Mission, which also supports a thrift store where the needy can come and fill up a shopping cart with whatever food, clothes, toys, or household items they need to live another day. The first thing I saw when my group walked through the door was so many needy people waiting in line before the place even opened. I told myself I would work hard to make sure these people would get what they needed, and I kept my word. For almost two hours we sorted personal hygiene products, makeup, used clothes, and even an occasional pair of underwear in the dusty donation room in the back of the store.
As we sorted the donations I wasn’t sure if what we were doing would really make a difference, but when we took the cart filled with supplies out of the back room to distribute throughout the store, I realized how wrong I was. I saw mothers racing back and forth grabbing things they desperately needed, from diapers to tennis shoes to canned foods. But the one person I remember most vividly was a little girl, not much older than 4 or 5 years old, who was running back and forth getting school supplies and dumping them into her mother’s shopping cart. She bumped into me, looked up into my eyes, told me she was sorry and kept running, without giving me a chance to answer. While she only looked at me for maybe one second, I saw her haggard expression, her bony body, her dirty clothes, her messy hair, and the pained look in her eyes. I wondered if she ever knew what it was like to have nice clothes or a warm bubble bath, or to ever have enough food to eat. The smiles on the people’s faces was all the proof I needed that we had made a difference!
On Sunday morning when we arrived for Mass at Sacred Heart Church, I could tell right off the bat that this was going to be way different from the Masses we were used to back home. Every part of the Mass was sung, including the Our Father. Small children walked through the church ringing bells during the Gloria, and in front of the church a woman interpreted all the prayers and songs for the hearing impaired using sign language.
At the end of Mass, a lively older woman named Toni moved from the choir down the main aisle to where our La Salle group was sitting, clapping a tambourine and telling us to get up and dance for Jesus. So all my classmates and I quickly filed out of the pews and made our way to the front of the church, clapping, singing, and dancing. The whole church was all smiles, cheering us on and making us feel so welcome. And to this day, I’ll never forget standing in front of Sacred Heart Church singing, “I’m not afraid of the darkness” with all the heart I had.
Rays of Hope was not just the highlight of my eighth grade year, nor my time at LaSalle or Holy Family, but quite possibly the highlight of my whole life. The mission trip made me realize just how many blessings from God we all have and how much we take for granted. If I were to roll all the experiences I had on Rays of Hope into one special quote it would be, “It’s about everybody but you.” Jesus absolutely loved and cared for every single person, and I believe that that is what He calls each of us to do, too.
A group of students and chaperones from LaSalle Catholic Middle School in Cedar Rapids, including Eddy Rodriguez (second row, second from left), is pictured with Ella Willis (first row, holding T-shirt), an Omaha resident whom they provided help to as part of a Rays of Hope mission trip. (Contributed photo)