International service program brings life-lessons for youth

After viewing the devastation in Bosnia while doing humanitarian work in 1999, Eileen Weisslinger quit her job and formed Mir Pace International, an organization that gives high school students a chance to help those in need around the world.

Weisslinger, who lives in Hull, wanted to give teenagers the same life-changing experience she had. She started the organization two weeks after she returned from Bosnia.

It was a “deep, strong calling” that “Jesus and Mary brought to light,” said Weisslinger, a Catholic. She continued making service trips, including a trip to El Salvador in December of 1999.

"The calling to this was just so strong. I didn't go through a thought process," she said. "When you go to some of these places and you witness what's happening there -- El Salvador in particular still haunts me today and it always will -- it keeps you focused and motivated in doing this sort of work. You can't go and come home and be the same and not do anything."

Weisslinger came home, left her job as an executive assistant at a law firm and enrolled in a degree program. With the support of a volunteer board, Weisslinger organized Mir Pace while still in school. She now works at a law firm at night while spending her days contacting sponsors and possible hosts for different service trips, she said.

The name Mir Pace means “world peace,” she said. “Mir” is Russian for “world” and “pace” is “peace” in Italian. The organization has a dual mission of providing humanitarian aid and touching the lives of high school students.

Weisslinger has made frequent trips all over the world — including Bosnia, Guatemala and Peru — to scout for locations where she could take students and make a positive difference. Mir Pace received non-profit status in 2003 and had a pilot mission with two students in April of 2004, she said.

One of those students shared her experience with her parish, Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon, and inspired others, like Stephanie Pietal, to make a second trip to Guatemala. In April of this year Pietal and 14 other students spent a week building a home, visiting a school and feeding the hungry, she added.

Pietal, 17, said the work was difficult and involved carrying heavy bags of cement on a two-hour trip up a mountain. The group was able to build most of a house and she said, “The accomplishment that we felt after was indescribable.”

The local Guatemalans, who did a lot of the work building the house, thanked the students for their help, she said.

"They actually said that their view of Americans was that we were selfish and that we didn't care for anyone but ourselves, and they said that us coming there and helping as much as we did, it completely changed their view," she said.

Visiting the people changed her view of others as well, Pietal added.

"Even though they were living in such horrible conditions, they are really the same people you would find here," she said. "Wherever you go around the world, you're going to find the same people, and it's really a good feeling to know that everyone has something in common."

The service trip also made participants more grateful, Pietal added, and Samantha Fortin, a 15-year-old from St. Anthony Parish in Cohasset, agreed.

"I don't like to waste a lot now, and I don't really find a need to go out and buy a lot of clothes anymore," Fortin said.

Fortin added that she enjoyed visiting with the children in Guatemala who do not expect as much as children in the United States and make their own games out of what they have.

Next year, Weisslinger hopes to expand by adding more programs. There will be a trip to the Dominican Republic in February 2006, a return trip to Guatemala in April, and summer trips to Guatemala and Tanzania.

In an effort to reach out to youths of all faiths, Weisslinger has decided not to declare Mir Pace an explicitly Catholic organization, but her faith sparked its formation and continues to influence its efforts.

"God was so present in every minute and in so many different ways that it almost takes the breath right out of you," she said.

"We just want to reach as many people as we can and involve as many of the high school age group that we can. I think the more that we're able to expose really what is the standard way of life outside the United States, the more active our young people will be," she said. "We need a little more understanding and compassion in the world, and they're our hope to bring it about."

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