A new summer service trip fosters social awareness and cultural exchange


Zara Black '23

Volunteers and immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley learn and grow alongside one another.

In previous years, Sacred Heart Greenwich students have participated in summer service trips around the United States.  These programs fulfill Goal Three of the Sacred Heart Goals and Criteria, emphasizing a commitment to “social awareness which impels to action.”  This summer, students hope to embark on an in-person summer service trip to the Texas Rio Grande Valley where they will work with the ARISE Adelante organization, a foundation that supports local immigrant populations.  Through their service, participants will learn about different communities in the United States and examine the challenges immigrants face while creating lasting relationships.

Sister Gerrie Naughton of the Sisters of Mercy Order founded ARISE Adelante in 1987  as a community-based program.  Sister Naughton believed that with the leadership of women, the project could achieve its goal of sustainability.  In addition to working with immigrant families, ARISE allows volunteers to develop individually through educational workshops and focused sessions on social justice issues such as immigration, housing, and the environment, according to arisesotex.org.  

Volunteers immerse themselves in the community, getting to know immigrant families.  Courtesy of arisesotex.org

Sra. Montserrat García, Upper School World Language Teacher and Network Exchange Coordinator, first considered volunteering with Arise Adelante four years ago after contacting Sister Reyna González and Sister Inma De Stefanis.  Sister González and Sister De Stefanis are members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ) and have worked to connect Sacred Heart with the ARISE organization.  COVID-19 restrictions postponed the trip in 2020 and 2021, but this year, Sra. García resurfaced the idea with the help of Mr. Michael Maida, Upper School Math Teacher.  The trip is for rising seniors with Spanish proficiency and encourages students to immerse themselves in different cultures and communities.

Mr. Maida and Sra. García believe that the program gives students the chance to create deep bonds with immigrants through immersion in an immigrant community and discussion of current events.  Participants will learn about obstacles to immigration, including the Texas Senate Bill Four (SB 4).  The SB 4 law requires all Texas law enforcement to adhere to United States Customs and Immigration Enforcement detainers.  Local governments that fail to comply with these rules will face punishment, according to immigrationforum.org.  Students will also learn about the history of the Rio Grande Valley, the populations of border towns, and the cultures and religions of these towns.

The service trip will provide a deep understanding of the immigration process.  Mr. Maida hopes that with this exposure, students will utilize their experiences to help communities around Sacred Heart.

“I think we both hope the girls can gain an understanding of the perspective of an immigrant coming across the border and what it is like for them to come to this country with basically nothing,” Mr. Maida said.  “Working with these children and getting to know their families through conversations, dinner, planned events, and hearing their side of the story and [will put] that reality into focus for our students.”

Volunteers will work with students from the Sacred Heart Network school, Colegio Sagrado Corazón México, to organize and teach lessons to the children in these communities.

The ARISE Adelante program provides a welcoming environment for children.  Courtesy of arisesotex.org

Along with the knowledge students can gain from this trip, Mr. Maida explained that participants will also learn how to educate and create a fun and accepting environment for the young immigrants whom they will teach.

“Students will have to educate themselves about the experience of being down there, and they will learn a lot, but they will also be educators as well,” Mr. Maida said.  “They will learn about immigration and the issues that surround the topic, but they will also be educators to these young immigrants and have fun with them.”

Additionally, the service trip provides opportunities to develop relationships with not only immigrants and their families in the Rio Grande Valley, but also with students of Colegio Sagrado Corazón México.  This will strengthen the practice of Goal 4 of the Sacred Heart Goals and Criteria, “schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to the building of community as a Christian value.”

Sra. García believes that, despite cultural differences, students from Colegio Sagrado Carazón México and Sacred Heart Greenwich can form strong bonds with immigrant families through a shared Christian faith.  This preexisting link will allow for deep connections and understanding.

“We are going to live as a community with a dozen other people from another country, working with our sister school in Mexico City,” Sra. García said. “I think the Christian values are almost going to act as an umbrella for this whole program.” 

Both Sra. García and Mr. Maida noted that the benefits of an immersive service experience go beyond the community that students will serve.  Through the incorporation of mutual learning, shared religion, and emotional connection, students hope to leave a mark on the Rio Grande Valley community, bring new perspectives home to King Street, and become emboldened to help local immigrants in Fairfield and Westchester counties.  Sra. García and Mr. Maida believe the experience will have a lasting impact on students.

Sra. García believes that this opportunity provides students with the chance to learn from different cultures and perspectives and will allow them to make a difference.

“To me, it is learning.  We need to learn and educate ourselves about the issue and through educating ourselves with our wise freedom we can make decisions and make a difference,” Señora García said.

Featured Image by Zara Black ’23