`Day for the Children' builds solidarity between local middle schoolers and their peers in Guatemala

It is not uncommon for children in Guatemala to play soccer using deflated balls and goals made out of rocks, yet you will never hear them complaining about subpar equipment.

“There’s an appreciation that you have when you lead a simpler life, more of a degree of gratitude,” said Houston Okonma, a seminarian at St. Joseph Seminary College in Covington, offering highlights from his November mission trip spent in fellowship with indigent families in the village of Santa Ana, Guatemala.

“To be able to experience Christ in these guys was such a gift,” Okonma said. “I could see it in their smiles.”

On Jan. 23, Okonma and his fellow fourth-year seminarian Joseph Hastings shared their mission stories with fourth through seventh graders gathered for the first annual “Day for the Children” at St. Clement of Rome. More than 20 students from Visitation of Our Lord in Marrero and St. Clement took part in the Saturday morning event, organized by the local Maryknoll Mission Education Office and the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education (ORE) to build solidarity between children in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and their peers in Central America.

Propelled by Pope Francis’ observation that the earth is “our common home,” the young participants learned prayers and songs in Spanish, viewed a video on family life in Santa Ana and read the book “You’re Special,” in which the characters discover that God loves them no matter what negative labels others put on them.

“God has placed within every one of us much that is good,” said Aline Harbison, the ORE’s associate director of catechetical leadership, who planned the event with local Maryknoll director Matt Rousso after Rousso conducted similar catechetical days in Guatemala that drew 125 children.

“The kids are just like you,” said Hastings, who visited Guatemala over the New Year’s break and recalled how children’s faces lit up when he offered them their first hot dog at a party arranged by the visiting seminarians.

“They love candy, they love fireworks,” said Hastings, who also took the local children swimming and to an amusement park during his stay.

But like their respective soccer equipment, there are stark differences between the children of the two countries, the seminarians said: Guatemalan children work from a young age, picking coffee beans to supplement their family’s income – an economic reality that shuts down schools from October through January and pressures the majority of Guatemalans to leave school in the sixth grade.

People often sleep five to a bed in sparsely furnished homes; barbed wire is used as fencing; and children are called on to haul laundry to streams in the absence of running water.

Some seeming deficiencies are turned into positives in Guatemala: residents always will joyfully and generously share what little food they have with visitors; and the absence of cell phones creates an atmosphere in which multiple generations take the time to converse with one another, eye-to-eye.

The morning concluded with Rousso reading notes from the Guatemalan children and inviting the American children to write responses.

“It’s intended as an exchange-type program,” Rousso told the children, alluding to the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

“We hope the seeds that you have planted in each other today will continue to grow!”

Visitation of Our Lord seventh grader Kathryn McCormick told her unknown pen pal that she loved sports, social studies and religion and would love to meet her new friend one day.

“We (Americans) are lucky because some kids in the world don’t have everything that we have and we should be grateful,” Kathryn said. “We’re all created in God’s image. We’re all brothers and sisters.”

Catholic World News

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