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Learning Immersion Trip 

June 2019

In June 2019, the founders of Fiesta4Hope worked in coordination with Centro PASO to organize a learning immersion trip to Puerto Rico. Traveling from New York and New Jersey, Catherine Bagin, Jillian Busetto, Angelina Busetto, Emily LeHane, Rianna LeHane, Olivia Leonard, Olivia Martinez, Giselle Martin, Lucy McAuliffe, Julianna Pomerico, Emilie Thomas, Vickie Thomas, and Gabriella Sandoval attended the trip and  were accompanied by Christine Bagin, who acted as the adult chaperone. Each girl paid for their own housing, flight, meals, and other expenditures. From June 18 to June 25, the group participated in a series of activities recommended and organized by the board of Centro PASO. The group was joined around the island by a local mother and her daughter who provided transportation and acted as guides. Their service was paid for by a generous member of the board of Centro PASO as a thank you for Fiesta’s partnership and contribution to PASO’s improvement of their case management and counseling services. 

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When asked about the purpose of the trip, Fiesta4Hope Cofounder, Rianna LeHane explained:


“We feel it is important to make the distinction between a service trip and a learning immersion trip. Although our visits to Centro PASO consisted in part of cleaning the concrete classrooms or painting staircases, the primary goal of the trip was to provide an immersive experience that would introduce our peers to PASO in a more personal way. The reality is that service trips are often more helpful to those who go on it than those who are being ‘served.’ The nature of our trip was very different from the first time we visited Puerto Rico. The level of wreckage that we played a small role in clearing in June 2018 was simply not the same in June 2019. To say that we visited again in 2019 to solve a problem and make the town a better place would be grossly inaccurate. We were invited by PASO to return to the island with peers who had been involved in Fiesta the year before, to learn about Puerto Rico, and grow our relationship with the community center.”


The seven-day trip started in San Juan, where the group went on a city tour of notable sites including the Castillo de San Cristóbal. After a two hour drive from San Juan to Aibonito, the girls settled into their accommodations at Casa Manresa, a local Jesuit retreat center. The next day was a trip to Centro PASO where the group was introduced to the volunteers who shared their personal stories and experiences. Separated into teams, the girls took on various tasks around the property. Centro PASO is closed during the summertime, meaning they do not offer education classes, workshops, or other similar activities. The volunteers take this time to prepare the center for the upcoming hurricane season and academic year. Classrooms are cleaned, the gardens are maintained, buildings are repainted, and storage rooms are cleared for expansion. These seemingly menial tasks characterized the work that we did during our stay. One volunteer frustratingly asked when we were going to “help people.” 


LeHane stated, “This was definitely a dilemma that troubled me for much of the trip as we realized that the girls had certain expectations for what the trip would look like. Part of me felt guilty that the trip wouldn’t live up to these expectations. Then I realized that to have those expectations would be to make any service work we would do about us. There isn’t always going to be this grand project that will make you feel really fulfilled if you complete it.” 

LeHane’s partner and Cofounder, Catherine Bagin emphasized Fiesta4Hope’s goal in saying, “Helping isn’t about doing what you want, it’s about aiding in whatever way is most needed at that time. It wasn’t until speaking with some volunteers at Centro PASO until I myself realized how helpful and meaningful the little tasks were. The PASO volunteers mentioned that cleaning the empty rooms in Centro PASO allowed them to focus on setting up counseling rooms and after-school program rooms. If we had not done that, then the older PASO volunteers would have had to.” 


The volunteers returned to Centro PASO the next day to continue working and in the evening met local kids who are involved in their parish’s youth group. Despite language barriers and nervousness, the local teens taught the visiting group several dances that they do at their own gatherings. Thursday consisted of work at Casa Manresa, where the group cleared branches and other leftover wreckage from past storms, On Saturday night, PASO invited the visiting group to a dinner with the Centro PASO board members, hosted by the same generous board member who had funded transportation for the week. The group was able to thank the board for inviting us back to Aibonito and bond more with the local teens.  


“I made friendships that will last a lifetime. I met friends in Puerto Rico who were so different from me yet so amazing in each of their own ways.” remarked Gabriella Sandoval, former President of Fiesta4Hope AHA.

“My Fiesta4Hope experience was one that was so unique and special in its own away. Being able to learn and experience the different culture in Puerto Rico is something I will never forget” said Vicky Thomas, Fiesta4Hope AHA club member.


Other activities included a visit to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest Service, a visit to Luquillo Beach, another day of helping at Casa Manresa, and a visit to Isla Verde beach in San Juan before our flight home.


The trip was important to Fiesta4Hope as it strengthened the personal connection between those who contributed to the Fiesta Family, and the people of Centro PASO and Aibonito. The group was able to meet several locals aided by PASO and, in a couple of cases, visit their homes. This gave the group the opportunity to not only see the ways that PASO helps people first-hand, but also grasp the reality of the poverty that many people in the area experience.

Sandoval describes Aibonito as “a town that had been hit so hard yet still holds so much love and strength... Puerto Rico is absolutely beautiful in its entirety but what makes it so beautiful is the people, and that starts in Aibonito.” 

Olivia Martinez, who will be the President of Fiesta4Hope AHA this upcoming school year reminisced about her time in Puerto Rico saying, "During the summer of 2019 I along with 12 other young women traveled to Puerto Rico with Fiesta4Hope. I went into the trip thinking I would simply be providing services to help those who were in need. Little did I know, that I would be leaving the island with an experience that changed my outlook on life. When visiting communities such as Aibonito that had been  left with so little I found people who lived in these broken down homes who continued to remain so optimistic. I felt very welcomed by the incredible staff and volunteers at Centro PASO, and enjoyed making friends with fellow teens who told us of their own personal accounts of the hurricane. I saw that there was still much work to be done but felt blessed to be able to partake and make some kind of a contribution. The other girls who went on this trip are still people I consider to be good friends with to this day. I will never forget the bus rides where we sang so loud, the dancing in the mornings, and the late night talks. I am eternally grateful for each of the friendships I made. This was most definitely the highlight of my summer of 2019, if I could do it all again I would in a heartbeat."

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