Needham youth answer call to serve poor in Peru

BRIGHTON--”The motivating concern for the poor -- who are, in the very meaningful term, ‘the Lord’s poor’ -- must be translated at all levels into concrete actions, until it decisively attains a series of necessary reforms,” said Pope John Paul II in the encyclical letter, “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.”

In the 1987 document, in English “On Social Concern,” the late pope outlines the call of all Christians to serve the poor -- a call that 17 teenagers from St. Joseph Parish in Needham responded to last month.

For nine days of their summer vacation they, and several adult chaperones, refurbished a preschool near Lima, Peru. They sanded and painted the walls, decorating some with murals. The group also created a playground for the children by building a swing set and making a soccer field.

Liam Gluck, who is entering his senior year at Needham High School, said he learned the importance of caring for the poor from his first service trip.

“I think I’ll take away the need to serve other people, because after what I’ve seen, that’s more important than going for any personal profit or fulfillment,” he said.

While in Peru, the youth toured a hospital in one of the poorest sections of Lima. Liam said the visit contributed to his desire to aid others.

“I think I’m going to start a club at the high school to raise money to help send them medical equipment,” he added.

St. Joseph Parish has sponsored the annual Peru service trip for youth for seven years, and in 2005 parishioners donated $70,000 to build a church near Lima. The money was raised in honor of retiring pastor Msgr. James Haddad who passed away on Aug. 11. Msgr. Haddad had requested that the church be named Capilla San Jose (Spanish for the Chapel of St. Joseph) after the Needham parish.

The poverty in some areas near Lima is staggering, according to the youth who went to Peru this year.

Heinz Brinkhous, who will be a junior at Needham High School in the fall, said, “Living in the U.S., we’ve got it really good here.”

In some Lima villages, the people live in cardboard boxes, he added.

“They had nothing,” he said. “Just the memory of those little villages is going to stick with me forever.”

Another image that will stick with Heinz is the wide smiles of the preschool children whose school they renovated.

“I brought five deflated soccer balls and inflated them there,” he said. “That was like gold to them.”

Lucy Bayer-Zwirello, a doctor who works in high-risk obstetrics at Caritas St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Brighton, has chaperoned the trip for the last three years. She said that many of the children at the school are undernourished, which has stunted their growth.

“They lack in basic needs, but they have huge hearts and they’re very faithful,” she said. “I’m always impressed with how faith is so important for them. It keeps them alive.”

Their faith reminds her of its importance in her own daily life, she added.

Liam too noted the Peruvians’ faith.

“They really get a lot of that strength from Christ and their faith, and that was very inspiring for me,” he said. “My Catholic faith has multiplied two-fold since this trip.”

Leaving Peru was “bittersweet” because the group wanted to do more, he added.

“We were helpful, but we’re all 17-year olds who aren’t professional constructors or builders,” he said. “The people were all so gracious and grateful of our efforts, and it was just sad that we couldn’t do more.”