Ridgefielder lends hand in Central America

Lauren Bonistalli, left in light hat, helps plant a garden in El Salvador last spring. Ms. Bonistalli, a 2009 graduate of RHS, is traveling to Guatemala from Feb. 27 to March 8 to help raise health awareness and promote education in the small village community of Cerne.

Lauren Bonistalli, left in light hat, helps plant a garden in El Salvador last spring. Ms. Bonistalli, a 2009 graduate of RHS, is traveling to Guatemala from Feb. 27 to March 8 to help raise health awareness and promote education in the small village community of Cerne.

Lauren Bonistalli could have decided to have spring break like many of her peers — reclined on the beach somewhere, partying until the wee hours of the morning.

Instead, for the third straight year, the 2009 RHS graduate will spend her vacation from school as a volunteer helping to spread health awareness and education in Central American communities.

“I’ve been looking forward to going back there for an entire year now and haven’t thought about doing anything else,” she said. “I don’t even look at what other people are doing for spring break because in 20 years, I won’t remember spending a week on some beach in Cabo, but I will remember helping a boy or girl who needed me and I was there for them.

“I consider myself very lucky because this is an experience that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Ms. Bonistalli first went on the trip, which is run through the volunteer programs and service learning office at Sacred Heart, in 2012. That year, she traveled to El Salvador to learn about the country’s history and interact with its people. The trip marked Sacred Heart’s 20th anniversary serving the area.

It was a “no-brainer” for her to return there in 2013 after she had been accepted again as one of 15 volunteers.

“I found out about the application for the trip through a friend in the fall of 2011 and wrote my essay explaining why I was interested,” she said. “I thought it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I couldn’t go, but I ended up being accepted, and this has been a huge part of my life ever since.

“The first year down there I realized that, even though they were living in poor conditions, they were the happiest people I’d ever met,” she said. “When time came around for the second trip, I didn’t even have to think twice — I was going.”

This year, Sacred Heart has extended its destination list to include Costa Rica and Guatemala, which is where Ms. Bonistalli has decided she will work.

She is raising funds for a new water-purification system for a small community of 26 families called Cerne, which has one of the few schools in the area as well as a medical clinic that serves neighboring communities.

“Their water is filled with dirt and animal feces and pesticides, and who knows what else,” she said. “We collect the money here, stateside, and give it to them to purchase the new system.”

In each of her previous trips, Ms. Bonistalli said, her group has raised more than $20,000, which goes toward funding school lunch programs in Central America as well as increased health education.

She’s also collecting non-monetary donations for the trip, including shoes, clothing, school supplies, and sports equipment.

“The children aren’t allowed to go to school without shoes on their feet,” she explained. “We each bring down a suitcase full of donations and give them to the kids down there.”

The training process for each trip takes several months, Ms. Bonistalli said. It includes monthly meetings that feature lessons on fund-raising tactics and backgrounds of different cultures.

Ms. Bonistalli said the most important thing for people with whom she’s interacted in Central America is spreading awareness back home.

“We do a lot of things down there, so it’s really a cultural immersion trip more than anything else,” she said. “This type of work links Central America and the United States together, which is extremely important.

“The people in the village tell us to raise awareness back in the United States, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Ms. Bonistalli admitted that she doesn’t know exactly what to expect when she leaves for Guatemala on Feb. 27.

“I know it’s going to be another rural area, like El Salvador, where all the families work and the kids go to school, but what we’re doing when we get there is going to be a bit of surprise,” she said. “Usually, it’s just been helping them with whatever they need.”

That “whatever” has taken many different forms over the first two trips, ranging from building a new home to gardening with local people to replacing mold-infested ceiling tiles in a hospital.

Ms. Bonistalli’s favorite memory was helping to build a new home for a grandmother and her three grandchildren during her first trip.

“The woman had to be in her 70s and her home was destroyed by an earthquake — they were all living under this tree without a roof over their heads,” she said. “The community started the building process and we joined in when we got there.

“We got to see the final product last year,” she added. “It was so cool to see something we worked on with our hands.”

The hands-on experience is what keeps Ms. Bonistalli coming back, though this will be her last year doing the trip through Sacred Heart. She plans to graduate in May with a degree in health science.

“I had raised money for the homeless here in the U.S. through my sorority before, but I was never exposed to the poverty up close,” she said. “Seeing the conditions and getting to treat it hands-on is definitely rewarding.

“Living with the people for more than a week brings it up an extra level.

“Getting to go back down a third time is the best thing that could possibly happen because I’ll be able to learn about a whole other culture and gain even more exposure than before,” she said. “It’s good to be away from the cell phones and all the technology, even if only for a week.

“Down there, you don’t have access to any of that, and you get to be disconnected and live free amongst the people there.”

Those looking to donate may write a check to “Sacred Heart University” with “Guatemala — Lauren Bonistalli” written in the memo portion. Or go to the fund-raising page http://www.razoo.com/story/Guatemala-Mission-Trip-Lauren-Bonistalli  (note: corrected address) and donate directly through the website. Those looking to donate goods will find a collection box at the Recreation Center marked “Guatemala Donations.” For any additional questions, email Ms. Bonistalli at [email protected]

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