Discovering Purpose in a Detour on One’s Journey

Three months feels like a lifetime ago.

 April 24th marked 9 months since my community of volunteers began our year of service in Monte Sinai, Ecuador. Unfortunately, we did not quite make it 9 months in Ecuador before the spread of the coronavirus escalated causing us to very suddenly receive the news that we were being sent home before the travel bans were instituted. Before hitting you with the details of how COVID-19 has impacted my community and I, I would like to fill you in on what I have been up to during the last 3 months.

At the end of January, we had our 6-month retreat at the beach. I remember wishing I could stay in Monte Sinai to spend more time with neighbors in the community, but was at the same time looking forward to being with my Arbolito volunteer friends, as well as Manny, Jimmy, and Evan; not to mention spending time on the beach. That retreat ended up being a powerful spiritual cleanse for me. I felt renewed by the beach, the peaceful sounds of the ocean, the feeling of the sand on my feet, being knocked over by powerful waves, collecting over 20 sand dollars, and enjoying many beach walks/talks. We all watched the Super Bowl together and obsessed over the halftime performance with Shakira, JLO, and the special appearances by our favorites, J. Balvin and Bad Bunny.

One of the greatest blessings in the past few months was having my parents visit our community in Ecuador and be introduced to so much of my family in Ecuador. I felt my two worlds coming together. On their first day in Ecuador, we attended a surprise birthday party for Juana planned by her neighbors. It was so special to celebrate such a joyous occasion all together. Juana refers to herself as our Ecuadorian mother, so having her tell my parents that I am one of her children directly (well, indirectly because I had to translate!), meant the world to all of us. The following day, after bringing my parents to mass at our wonderful parish, Bautismo de Jesus, we went with my community mates to drink cocos (coconut water fresh out of the coconuts). I brought my parents to meet David (one of our guards), Monica (David’s wife), and their kids, Mauricio, Angie and Samuel, which was really special. Monica’s birthday was that week, so we brought a cake and shared in great conversation. Again, Monica and David assured my parents that I am loved and cared for by them and many others in Ecuador. After bringing my parents to my worksite, Casa de Acogida, a shelter for women and their children who have faced domestic violence,  to show them around and introduce them to the families there, we then headed to Cuenca, which is a beautiful antique town in the Sierras (mountain region). 4 hours east of Monte Sinai. I was so grateful to spend time with my parents, showing them this beautiful country, and most importantly, introducing them to people who mean so much to me. My parents now have an understanding of my experiences in Ecuador having walked the muddy streets of Monte Sinai and received warm loving hugs and hospitality from neighbors. Saying bye to my parents as they left Ecuador was much harder than I expected, but they left saying they were at peace leaving me in Ecuador and told me to lean into my family here.

In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, Carnaval is celebrated in parts of Latin America. The celebrations differ by location, but in the Guayas region of Ecuador, Carnaval is celebrated by playing with water, paint, and many other things. For three days, we played Carnaval with many neighbors throughout Monte Sinai. We played much dirtier than with just clean water and paint. Some of our neighbors played with eggs (often rotten), flour, mud and more. In Monte Sinai in the rainy season, there are many sitting large puddles of water on the roads, and part of the fun of Carnaval is having your full body thrown into those nasty puddles. Those three days were some of the most fun days of my life, just playing like children with our Ecuadorian family.

Ash Wednesday 2020 is a day I will never forget. While my community and I were at Ash Wednesday mass, there was a monsoon occurring outside, and none of us could have imagined we’d be leaving mass only to journey through flooded streets with water up to our thighs and a current. Then upon returning to our house, we were confronted with a nice thin layer of water and mud caked to the floor. We spent the next few hours and days cleaning our house before welcoming students and faculty from Villanova University as our retreatants. The Villanova retreat group came in the beginning of March, and I had the honor of being their volunteer leader. Throughout the week, I was challenged and inspired by the deep questions they asked neighbors and their insight. I learned new things and felt myself connecting more deeply with neighbors. The biggest challenge I faced during the week was with translating. My Spanish has improved tremendously, but translating for a group of college students throughout the week, some of whom are more advanced in the language than I am sometimes presented challenges and often frustrations. However, I got through the week with much support and encouragement from the group. Shortly after Villanova headed back to the States, COVID-19 was being talked about more regularly. 

The day before we received news that we would be sent home to the U.S., we went with Juana, her five daughters and some of their neighbors to Tres Bocas, which is a river people swim in during the rainy season. It was such a fun outing spent in nature. Afterwards, we returned to Juana’s house and ate a delicious meal. Little did we know at the time that the fun day spent with Juana and her girls would be one of our last in Ecuador – at least for the time being.  

Have you ever taken an ice bath or participated in a Polar plunge? If so, you most likely felt shock, then maybe pain and numbness. That is how it felt when my community mates and I received the news on Monday, March 16th that we were being sent back home that night to the United States indefinitely until COVID-19 is better managed. After a chaotic day of running around Monte Sinai saying bye to our neighbors and home for the past eight months, we boarded on a plane back to the States. 

Many who know me know that I am a morning person. I love mornings! Waking up early, exercising, having a nice cup of coffee and some oatmeal before going out into the community. Well, now that I am back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania living with my parents and two brothers, that motivation has been lacking. This past month and a half, I have stopped setting alarms and wake up much later than I am accustomed, with the mindset of “Well, it’s not like I have anything to do today.” As someone who is highly motivated and finds joy in getting out of bed each morning, I knew I was and am still struggling. And you know, that is okay.

I love discussing self-care and putting it into practice. Self-care does not come easily to people; and I am no exception.  It requires taking time to know and love yourself. Even with my struggles in getting out of bed each morning and finding my purpose since returning from Ecuador, I continue to find ways to care for myself and let others care for me. One of Rostro de Cristo’s focuses is on “being” rather than “doing”. This is a tricky concept, which I myself and many others struggle with.
The culture in the U.S. trains us to ask questions like “What can I do to help?”, “What do I need to do to succeed?”. What about being? For those of you who know the love languages exam, quality time is my highest-rated category. I thrive off of intentional face-to-face interactions, which was a big part of my experience in Ecuador, spending intentional moments with neighbors, at my worksite, and in community. Life in quarantine for a month and a half now, has left me thinking a lot about my purpose, not in life, because I know my worth, but in these moments of difficulty. How can I do my part? It has taken a lot or reflection, but I think I finally am beginning to understand my role. While I may not be doing school work or work assignments, I am being there as a daughter, sister, friend, community mate, kind stranger. I want to be a force for good. I recognize now that my purpose is to be –  and it is beginning to feel like enough. So for those of you lacking to find purpose, know that you are enough, and you being simply you is purposeful.

A Lifetime of Service

February 13th, 2019 is a day I will never forget. It was the day Granddad, my dad’s father, left his human body to go be with God. While that was a sad time for my family and the many other people who were touched by Granddad’s light and love, it was also a moment of celebration with a powerful revelation to follow. Granddad was a loyal member of the Lion’s Club International, a global service organization, for many years. He and my grandmother, Nanna, have lived their lives to serve others, in a manner that God calls all of us to serve. In the song, “We Are Called,” the lyrics read, “We are called to serve one another. To walk humbly with God”. That is what my grandparents did and do. A few months after Granddad’s passing, he was to be honored with being inducted to the position of Governor representing the southeastern region of Lion’s Club International. Granddad was also an active member of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, where he had lifelong brothers whom he served with, including my father. I heard many testimonies from members of the Lion’s Club and Alpha Phi Alpha, as well as a beautiful performance by his Alpha Phi Alpha brothers at Granddad’s funeral that showed me just how significantly he impacted others with his will to serve others. His light was felt then, and it is felt as strongly now. With me being more than six months into my year of service in Monte Sinai, Ecuador, I continue to feel grandfather’s spiritual presence strongly with me.

A year has gone by, but there is not a day I do not think about how Granddad has inspired me to follow my heart. I give tribute to my being here in Ecuador for a year to my grandfather and how he inspired to do this by his will to serve. I am indeed thankful to get to walk compassionately with my Ecuadorian neighbors and my community and serve others in the spirit of Christ. When I came to Ecuador as a retreatant in March 2019 with other students from Catholic University, I saw the large lion statue with the Lion’s Club International emblem and I knew that it was no coincidence. That was not even a month after my grandfather’s passing; I felt something deep inside of me by seeing the presence of Lion’s Club International in Guayaquil. Recently, at my worksite, Casa de Acogida, the women and children received a beautiful visit from some members of Lion’s Club  International, Guayaquil chapter. I immediately felt the presence of Granddad with me witnessing how joyful the women and children at Casa de Acogida were to receive a visit from the Lion’s Club. I had the opportunity to speak with one of the members, learn more about their involvement in service, and tell the story of my grandfather. I felt so full of joy from their visit.

I am spending this February 13th as a day of remembrance of Granddad’s life, and doing so with my parents who are visiting me in Ecuador. How special it is to be together and to show my parents how Granddad’s passion to serve has inspired me in the way I walk compassionately here in Monte Sinai, Ecuador with our neighbors.

Fueron Seis Meses (6 Months Have Gone By)

Image may contain: 6 people, including Isabel Ibarra, Julia Murphy, Victoria Turner, Maggie Sheehan and Carolina Ball, people smiling, people standing

There is a song we often listen to in our community called, “Un Año”, which is actually quite symbolic to our one year as volunteers in Monte Sinai, Ecuador. One of the lines in the song says, “fueron seis meses”, meaning “six months went by”. It is quite hard to believe that six months have now gone by seemingly this fast. It felt like just yesterday I was writing my 3- month blog. As we reach our half-way mark in this unique yearlong experience, I find myself reflecting a lot on the concept of time and its paradox. In Eckhart Tolle’s, “A New Earth”, he writes, “Yet, if you look more closely, that is to say, through your own immediate experience, you find that there are not many moments at all. You discover that there is only ever this moment. Life is always now.” This concept of the present moment is one I am working on delving deeper into, as each week feels faster than the one before.

The passage of the last six months feels like both no time at all and a long time. This is the longest I have been apart from my family. Although fortunately, my parents will be visiting me in Monte Sinai in a few short weeks. For the first few months of getting acclimated to a new culture, country, language, and so on, I spent much of my time looking ahead to when I would feel more comfortable with Spanish, feel more connected with neighbors, understand more of what my role is at my work site, but not actually soaking in those anxious but beautiful moments of the unknown. There are many moments I reflect on as if I am still reliving that moment, but more recently, I have been trying to be fully present in the here and now. Anytime we ask many of our neighbors how they are, their response is “Estoy aqui. Gracias a Dios” (I am here. Thanks to God). It is a simple yet powerful phrase. I am here right now; I am present, and I have God to thank for that.

As we approach six months in Ecuador, I find myself feeling more attached to my feelings. I have never really been one to outwardly express my emotions for fear of being judged or hurt. So many of our neighbors are extremely vulnerable with us, and now that I realize I am halfway through my year, I am challenging myself to grasp an understanding of my emotions and allow myself to express them. Thinking about returning to the United States after this incredibly challenging but beautiful year of witnessing the injustices many of our neighbors face but also witnessing their joy is very overwhelming.  Nonetheless, I remind myself that I still have another six months to live in the here and now being fully present with those I encounter. I am approaching the coming months with an openness to love, be loved, and allow myself to be broken.

I reflect a lot on time with neighbors as well. Juana, a mother of five wonderful daughters is one of the strongest women I know. Juana’s youngest daughter, Lia just turned one year old. When Lia was only a few days old, she entered into a coma, which she remained in for a few weeks. Throughout her first year of life, she has faced many health complications, but their family remains strong and faithful. Days before Lia’s first birthday, Juana teared up as she told me that this has been a difficult year, but it was filled with a lot of faith and love.  Another neighbor, Gloria and her son, Raulito, were living in a cane home with rotting wood. A local university has volunteered to help in rebuilding her home and was supposed to begin in September, but for a number of reasons, it kept getting pushed back. Finally, in November, my community mates and I, some neighbors and members of the Church community assisted in disassembling her rotting cane home, so the university could build a new home. They are currently staying in a temporary home made of makeshift wood, old cane, and metal. What they were told would take two weeks has turned into an ongoing process to this day. Gloria and Raulito barely leave their home because she does not have one of her legs and uses a wheelchair, and her son, Raulito has Down Syndrome. Even with their limited ability to leave their property, Gloria and Raulito continue to put their trust in God. Every Thursday morning when Owen and I visit Gloria and Raulito, Gloria says, “Con el favor de Dios, estamos aqui” (With the favor of God, we are here). Her faith, love, and patience of not knowing when her house will be finished as we enter deeper into the rainy season and her temporary home becomes more vulnerable, inspire me daily. Amidst their suffering and challenges, Gloria and Raulito always find reasons to be grateful with their strong faiths and lovingkindness.

Juana, Lia, Gloria, Raulito, and so many others remind me of the importance of being present in every moment and always being grateful for the present moment. As my youngest brother, Jason, beautifully wrote in his recent newspaper article, “If you have a dream, chase it. If you have a passion, pursue it. If you have something you love doing, then do it. Do not wait for tomorrow to live the life you want to live today.”

Image may contain: 18 people, including Carolina Ball, Julia Murphy, Jess Pareja, Victoria Turner, Lili Castro, Isabel Ibarra, Dan O'Connor and Maggie Sheehan, people smiling, people sitting

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, If Only in My Dreams

As Christmas rapidly approaches, I can often be found listening to Christmas music, especially Josh Groban’s Christmas album. Recently, I listened to Groban’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” as I laid in my bed in Ecuador while tears streamed down my face taking in the lyrics. In that moment, it sunk in that this will be my first Christmas in my 22 years of life without my family. I felt a mixture of emotions from sadness to joy. Yes, I am sad to be away from my family and friends for Christmas, especially since my family is going to spend Christmas in New Orleans with all of my family on my mom’s side, but I also feel extremely grateful for the opportunity to be here in Ecuador celebrating with my community and our neighbors in Monte Sinai who have graciously welcomed us into their families. This Christmas will certainly be different from every other Christmas in my past, but it has the opportunity to be one I will never forget and cherish for life.

Being in Ecuador is very different during the holidays than back in DC or Pennsylvania where it is now getting colder. Here in Ecuador, it is getting hotter and the rainy season is approaching. Listening to songs such as Baby Its Cold Outside, Let It Snow, and many others take on a different meaning. I am constantly sweating due to the strong sun and growing humidity. While neighbors tell us about how hot it gets here, they also tell us about the abundance of mangoes and how Christmas is a time for all. This time of year is mango season, and fortunately, just in time for Christmas, my community and I have a mango tree with a large supply of delicious mangoes. As it continues to get hotter, I am reminded of how unique this year and this Christmas experience are for me, and I find myself fortunate to be here, despite the intense heat.

While this Thanksgiving was very different because Thanksgiving is not a holiday here, we still made it special. The entire Rostro de Cristo staff and their spouses, all of us volunteers, and the retreat group gathered for a beautiful Thanksgiving celebration. It was a very special celebration shared between multiple cultures. We also had our first retreat group visit during the week of Thanksgiving. After the joy that I and many others experienced from that celebration, I feel peace knowing that Christmas will be just as special with my Rostro de Cristo community. This will, though, be the first Christmas since before I can remember that I am not going with my family to New York City to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, but I will be making new memories here. We recently had a Rostro de Cristo Christmas party with all of the staff and their families. It was a very beautiful celebration with many friends who have turned into family. Many of our neighbors have been reminding us that we are their family too and we should feel as if we are home.

I find myself reflecting more this Christmas on the story of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:1-22). “I am here to give you good news, great joy for all the people. Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town; he is the Messiah and the Lord” (Luke 2:10-12). As a Christian and volunteer for Rostro de Cristo, translated to mean “face of Christ”, Jesus is the foundation. This Christmas season, as I spend time away from my family and have been more reflective than in the past, I am especially grateful for those moments I see the face of Christ in those I encounter here in Ecuador.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and joyous New Year!

Tres Meses en Ecuador

Just like that, 3 months have come and gone. I have been contemplating for a while whether I wanted to create a blog and finally decided, as the phrase my community commonly says, “vale la pena” (it is worth it). October 24 marks exactly 3 months of being in Ecuador. I live in a community within the city Guayaquil, called Monte Sinai with five other volunteers from Rostro de Cristo (translated as “the face of Christ” in Spanish), Dan, Isabel, Julia, Maggie, and Owen. Monte Sinai is unlike anywhere I have been before with an abundance of dust and burning trash, but people with the most generous hospitality. Monday through Thursday, I work at Casa de Acogida, a shelter for women and children who have experienced domestic violence. Friday through Sunday and after work, my community spends a lot of time visiting our vecinos (neighbors) in Monte Sinai. We have received an overwhelming spirit of welcome from many of our neighbors into their families. In the 3 months of being here, I have built many relationships with neighbors and felt welcomed into their homes and families in a way I did not think possible in only 3 short months. So much has happened in these past three months, and I wish I could share every experience with all of you, but a few areas I would like to take this time to focus on are stepping out of my comfort zone, practicing patience, and seeking gratitude.

Having been to Ecuador for a week as a retreatant in the other community in Duran in March this year, a few months prior to returning as a volunteer for Rostro de Cristo in the Monte Sinai community, I had seen the previous group of volunteers in action, building bridges and lasting relationships with our Ecuadorian neighbors. There were still so many unknowns going into this year of service, but I was up for the challenge. I have been learning Spanish in college and high school for nearly six years and hit a proverbial wall around the intermediate level. My trip to Ecuador in March served as a reminder that I want to be conversational in Spanish, so I can be more versatile in how I communicate with people throughout Spanish-speaking world. In these past three months, I have made a fool of myself more times than I can count on one hand for not understanding something someone said or saying something that did not make sense. One time I called by phone Jessenia, whose number was in my contacts, thinking she was one of our neighbors asking when we can visit, only to find out seven minutes into the conversation, that I called a different Jessenia, who works for Rostro. Had I understood more Spanish, I would have realized much earlier in the conversation that I had called the wrong person, but that is now something we still laugh about. Without mistakes that in the moment may seem embarrassing or shameful, we would never improve. I have challenged myself to speak more Spanish with neighbors and occasionally go on solo visits, so I can continue speaking as much as possible. At this three month mark, Spanish is still a challenge, but I understand a lot, am speaking a lot more and formulating more thoughts, and have successfully read a Nicholas Sparks book, and the first two Harry Potter’s in Spanish. As my community and our neighbors remind us, “poco a poco” (little by little). Another way in which I have had to step out of my comfort zone is dancing. I like dancing every once and a while but am terrible and do not like when people are watching me. Since being here, we have learned different types of dance that are very common in Ecuador, such as bachata, salsa, salsa choke, and cumbia. My community and I have attended many birthday parties in which we have been pressured to dance while mostly everyone else is sitting. For every birthday party we have attended, there is at least one video of my poorly moving hips and lack of rhythm. At first, I was embarrassed that people were taking videos of us dancing, but I eventually embraced that in a simple way, I am bringing joy. While stepping out of my comfort zone has been a constant work in progress, I would like to move on to practicing  patience. 

I have always struggled with being patient. I like to be on time, have things planned ahead of time, and do not like when people are late. All of that has been tested since I have arrived in Ecuador. Every moment of every day, I am practicing having more patience. Everyone is chronically tardy. It is referred to as “Ecua time”. Three months into being here, I am finally starting to become used to people arriving late, my community going places later than the start time, and understanding that sometimes my day will not go according to plan. My community hosted an event for the youth in our community to share how we are feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually, as well as getting to know one another better. The first person to show up was a half hour late, and we did not start the event until 45 minutes after its original start time. Of course, by now, we knew everyone would be late. Another way in which I have had to practice patience is at my work placement. I do not have much experience working with kids other than as a lifeguard. Some of the kids at Casa, have tested my patience in more ways than I thought possible. One of the girls who is nine would mock my spanish for the first month and a half, when I was trying to help with homework. Now, I receive many hugs from her and she helps me discipline some of the other kids. Another major way in which I have been practicing patience is with myself. I am not perfect, and I make many mistakes, but I have to remind myself that I am enough. Sometimes I feel like a fool trying to search for words to make myself understood in Spanish, or I get extremely frustrated when I cannot understand what a neighbor is telling me, but I remind myself to trust in God and remember to love and be kind to myself.

“It is hard for me to accept that the best I can do is probably not to give but to receive. By receiving in a true and open way, those who give to me can become aware of their own gifts. After all, we come to recognize our own gifts in the eyes of those who receive them gratefully. Gratitude thus becomes the central virtue of a missionary” (Henri Nouwen, Gracias). There is so much I am grateful for that contributes to where I am in the here and now. There are many people, experiences, moments that I am so grateful for. Recently, Father Jim, the founder of Rostro de Cristo visited us in Monte Sinai from the States, and we had a one on one check in. During our meeting, he said to me, “Think what it will take for you, Victoria, to have a grateful heart each day. That will change the way you wake up each morning, take your first sip of coffee, encounter neighbors”. Father Jim put it beautifully. Each day, I do wake up with a grateful heart, to have this incredible experience, to constantly learn new things, to be surrounded by so many people who I see the “face of Christ” through. These three months have had their share of challenges too, but how I get through those challenging moments are by seeking gratitude, even in the smallest of things. I recently had an upsetting and frustrating day at Casa that left me feeling slightly insignificant, but what brought me back to the beauty of this life and that day was watching the sunset as I exercised on our patio and saw the baby mangoes that are growing on our mango tree. The sunset and growth of mangoes brought an overwhelming sense of peace over me. Each day, I experience so much gratitude, and I owe it all to Dios (God).

I am hoping to share a blog post every three months during my year in Ecuador. In a few short weeks, us volunteers in Monte Sinai will be embarking on our three month retreat to Quito with the other Rostro de Cristo volunteers living in Duran. I have grown to love Monte Sinai and call it home, but I also love when we have opportunities to explore other parts of Ecuador. There is so much nature and beauty, all part of God’s wonderful creation. Even as the first three months as a volunteer for Rostro de Cristo in Monte Sinai, Ecuador wrap up, I will continue challenging myself to step outside of my comfort zone, practice more patience, and search for places of simplicity to show gratitude. 

Thank you for sharing this experience with me through this blog. Hasta pronto (see you soon)!