In its simplest sense, Niagara University’s Brothers and Sisters in Christ program is a mission in support of the mission.
B.A.S.I.C., as it’s more commonly known, requires students to abdicate their typically restful winter or spring breaks in order to work side-by-side with the poor in urban or rural areas in the United States and the Republic of Panama.
When individuals volunteer to participate in a B.A.S.I.C. immersion trip, they are choosing to fulfill the mission of St. Vincent de Paul, the Vincentian mission promulgated at Niagara University.
Just last week, 34 students and seven chaperones returned to campus after having spent Christmas break ministering to the underserved in Panama, Camden, N.J., and the Germantown and Huntingdon Valley sections of Philadelphia, Pa.
Eighteen students traveled to Panama, where the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal was being celebrated, along with the centennial of the Congregation of the Mission’s Panamanian presence. The group spent one day of the trip in the outpost town of Soloy with the Rev. Joe Fitzgerald, C.M., who toils among the reservation’s indigenous community.
Despite the sizeable language barrier and the natives’ primitive lifestyle, the interaction was amiable, noted Howard Morgan, ’86, one of the employee chaperones. “The smiles and openness of everyone broke down any barriers and the love of the Lord shown through it all,” he said.
The local children performed traditional dances, while the NU students handed out balloons and stickers, before engaging in a friendly game of soccer.
Due to the polar vortex that blanketed much of the Northeast in ice and snow, Morgan’s group had its flight to Panama pushed back three days. The abbreviated schedule necessitated some long bus rides, one that was 10 1/2 hours, to take them from the Daughters of Charity house in Panama City to remote locations like Puerto Amruelles and Volcan.
Sophomore nursing major Brianna Rodriguez called the trip an eye-opening experience, regardless of the sometimes difficult travel arrangements.
“I can speak for the group when I say that this trip has made us realize all of the things that we take for granted each day,” Rodriguez acknowledged. “Staying overnight with a Panamanian family, visiting the indigenous people in the mountains of Soloy, and spending a day with a teenage youth group has allowed me to build new friendships and to see life from a different perspective. Seeing everything from beautiful mountainous terrain to a simple wooden home, this trip allowed me to grow and, in some ways, mature.”
The students were so moved by their time in Soloy that they’re planning fundraisers to send money back to the mission there, and to donate to a youth group in Concepcion, another one of their stops in Panama.
Stateside, seven Niagara students lived at the St. Vincent de Paul Service Center in the historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. During their seven-day stay, they served lunch at St. John’s Hospice, an inner city soup kitchen and shelter; lent helping hands to afterschool programs at DePaul Catholic (Elementary) School and Mercy Neighborhood Ministries; assisted at Whosoever Gospel Mission, a faith-based agency working with men with addictions; spent time with inhabitants of Bethesda Spruce Ministry, a shelter for recently homeless women; rehabbed homes for low-income residents; and visited retired Vincentians at St. Catherine’s Infirmary.
Over in Huntingdon Valley, the smallest Niagara contingent – a group of three students and one chaperone – spent the week serving at six locations.
On Sunday evening, they planned and prepared dinner for members of the Old First Reformed Church, the city’s first church to open its doors to homeless Philadelphians. Monday was spent at the Dreuding Center, a transitional housing program, where the quartet assisted with prepping, painting and stocking shelves in an afterschool program classroom.
The Holy Redeemer Food Pantry was Wednesday’s focus, while Thursday was reserved for conversing with developmentally disabled individuals at the Indian Creek Foundation, and packaging dinners at the Manna on Main soup kitchen. The group had a free day to explore Philadelphia on Friday.
Throughout each of the trips, an emphasis was placed on prayer, community-building, fellowship and spiritual reflection, which was held every night.
Participants were particularly delighted to share stories with the Vincentians, among them Father John Carney, C.M., ’78; Father Teddy Rios, C.M., ’72; and Father Alcibiades Guerra, C.M. The students in Panama also learned of the late Father Joe Shuster, C.M., whose two-decade advocacy for the poor and oppressed in Soloy is well documented.
The Rev. Kevin G. Creagh, C.M., vice president of campus ministry, said that the students’ understanding of his confreres’ “ministry of presence” is a critical component of these weeklong trips of service and spirituality.
“In many of these areas that we send students to, they are working with people who are impoverished, but also living predominantly in isolation,” explained Father Creagh. “These are people in desperate need of human and financial resources, but they are also yearning for personal attention and the love of others.
“We have a moral and spiritual responsibility to meet these needs, for that is what St. Vincent asked us to do.”
At least a dozen of the students involved in the most recent B.A.S.I.C. excursion had previously participated in the Niagara Plunge, a program instituted at NU in 2010 to indoctrinate incoming freshmen into the university’s culture of service.
Wappingers Falls native Mitchell Willie was a member of the first group of “plungers.” He said that the early experience helped shed light on the Western New York area’s rich culture but, more importantly, on many of the community’s unmet needs.
“Thanks to our great (Niagara Plunge) leaders – Monica Saltarelli, ’86, Dr. David Taylor and several Vincentian priests – we quickly learned how to serve those around us, even before learning anything in class,” affirmed the senior ROTC cadet. “Ever since then, I have helped out as best I can between other service immersion trips, serving at the local soup kitchen, supporting a food drive, and being involved in many of the programs that NUCAP hosts.”
Moving forward, the next installment of B.A.S.I.C. is slated to take place closer to Monteagle Ridge, this March 1-8 at the Franciscan Guest House of St. Lawrence Church on the east side of Buffalo. Interested students should contact the Office of Campus Ministry at 716.286.8400.
B.A.S.I.C. is but one component of Niagara University’s nationally recognized service learning program. With students contributing more than 1,000 hours of community service each week, NU has been tabbed a “Top College” in the area of service learning by U.S. News and World Report and named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll every year since its inception in 2006.
“Serving the community gives me great joy because, just like St. Vincent de Paul said, ‘you can see the face of Christ in the poor you serve,’” added Willie. “Over my past four years here at Niagara University, I have met some the most outstanding men and women who cherish that same fact. As graduation creeps ever closer for me, I grow sad that I am leaving this great community here at Niagara, but also excited for the future. I look forward to meeting other great people and to serving other communities.”
To learn more about Niagara University’s heritage and mission, please visit www.niagara.edu/our-mission.