A group of 17 St. Joseph’s Academy students and technology department members spent Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico, working at Colegio Nuestra Señora del Carmen, a Catholic school serving students in prekindergarten through eighth-grade.

The SJA team transformed a sparse computer lab into a colorful and functional collaborative space, featuring educational murals and donated tablet computers. Team members also repurposed desktop computers that were sitting unused in the lab, adding more workstations for student use. The family of Caroline Wright, a senior on the trip, made a donation to provide chairs for all the new workstations, and SJA donated several projectors and cameras.

The six adults and 11 students stayed with the family of SJA faculty member Lee-Ann Vidal in Guaynabo, part of the metropolitan San Juan area.

In addition to their work at the elementary school, the team spent a day at Santa Rosa de Lima, a Catholic church in the neighborhood where they stayed. The students designed and painted an inspirational mural for the youth recreation room and cleaned the church facilities.

To gain a better understanding of Puerto Rican culture and history, the group took a walking tour of El Viejo San Juan, the historic, walled center of the capital city. They spent a day at El Yunque Rainforest National Park, hiking one of Puerto Rico’s diverse terrestrial ecosystems. The travelers also enjoyed the opportunity to snorkel a coral reef off the coast of Fajardo.

After snorkeling, the team decided to pick up trash strewn across the beach in Luquillo. In keeping with Generous Promise No. 2 of the Sisters of St. Joseph, this simple act allowed the students to “take steps now to strengthen, heal and renew the face of Earth.”

Colette Burke, SJA’s help desk manager and one of the leaders of the excursion, said the sight-seeing excursions were both fun and educational, “supplementing the real-world problem-solving and skills learned from the work completed on the computer lab. SJA provided a well-rounded service experience for our students.”

While on the trip, John Richardson, co-director of technology at SJA, met with administrators and technology personnel at another Puerto Rican school, Academia Maria Reina. The school is a ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph.

Richardson was able to lay the groundwork for future collaboration between SJA and a sister school.

“We want to create a partnership through which students from both schools can travel and stay with host families,” he said. “Our technology team will be able to help with their technology needs. I look forward to planning our future service mission trips and exchanges.”

Sophomore Natalie Baldwin said she enjoyed interacting with the students and teachers at the school.

“All the kids were so happy with what little they had,” she said. “On the second day, the principal came into the computer lab to see how things were coming, and she began to cry when she saw all that we had done to the room in just two short days. We had covered every wall with a beautiful message and set up Internet connections throughout the school. Throughout the time in Puerto Rico, I learned to be grateful for what I have, because people in parts of Puerto Rico don’t have much but learn to be happy with what little they do have.”

Sophomore Jamie Lato said her first mission trip far exceeded her expectations.

“My favorite part was getting to talk to the kids at the school,” she said. “I went around and spoke Spanish to them and got to know them. I thought this was really cool because most of them spoke English, and they helped me with my Spanish. I also showed the priest how to work his computer. The priest didn’t know much English, so I had to use my Spanish, which helped me get better at it. The trip made me feel more comfortable speaking Spanish now. It also helped me see the different culture and how different things are, and it made me want to help more.”

Sophomore Shelby LeBlanc called the Puerto Rican trip the best she’d ever been on. “I loved it, and it was the best Thanksgiving break I’ve ever had,” she said. “I loved working at the school in Ponce and painting all of the murals. I also loved meeting all of the kids when they were at recess. It was fun to talk and play around with them. It was interesting to learn what and how many languages they spoke. It was also nice knowing that the kids will have a better place to learn.”

Sophomore Ainsley Sonnier said she enjoyed the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the Puerto Rican students.

“I really wanted to do this mission trip because I love serving others and being able to see results and physical improvements,” she said. “I also really love to travel and see new places and meet new people. Besides the sight-seeing and actual work we did, one of my favorite memories is the view of the island from the backyard of the house we stayed at. You could see all of Puerto Rico! We also enjoyed Mimi, who is Ms. Vidal’s mother. She was so amazing to us throughout the week and cooked for us almost every night. I will really miss seeing her every day.”