Sean Donohue set down the wooden panel for a moment.
He squinted his eyes, hoping for a better look up the mountain ahead.
It had to have been 100 — or maybe 200 — more steps until the construction site. But, who knew, he thought to himself. The glare from the sun made seeing anything almost impossible at midday in Peru.
Sean sighed. Then, he hoisted the panel up over his shoulders again, turned his neck, and made eye contact with his classmate, Dan Sheehan.
“I remember carrying it and thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is so heavy,’” said Sean.
Dan had helped him carry the panel up the first flight of stairs. But with each passing second in the dry air, the panel felt only heavier.
Neither wanted to quit. They kept thinking of the house they and their Catholic Memorial classmates planned to build for the family living on the outskirts of Lima.
“I told him, ‘I’m not stopping unless you’re stopping,’” said Sean.
“Danny said, ‘Okay’ and we just kept going up.”
When they arrived at the site, the rest of their CM classmates greeted them before taking a water break. Within minutes, they began their next project: Building a home for a family on the mountainside.
For seven days in February 2019, Sean, his classmates, and two CM faculty members built homes for the urban poor at a Christian Brothers mission site as a part of CM’s Blessed Edmund Rice Solidarity Initiative (BERSI) in Peru.
Sean would realize that, during those seven days, he learned everything he needed to know about service and empathy.
The Christian Brothers site where Sean and his classmates stayed at housed a school and a community center for the urban poor. Another site called Villa El Salvador gave the students a chance to work at a health clinic and daycare. At each site, Sean and his classmates met men, women, and children who considered themselves blessed to receive a meal at the end of the day.
Sean remembers one child he met named Miguel. Miguel lived with just his mom and had suffered from a disability. Their home had been destroyed a few weeks earlier.
Despite the physical limitations from his disability, Miguel followed Sean throughout the work site and helped him paint homes.
“Seeing this kid with such little to give, but giving his all anyway, motivated us to keep working,” said Sean.
“Even though he couldn’t do much, we were still working together. That, to me, is what service is all about.”
Sean never forgot Miguel. When Sean returned to CM, he began thinking of what he could offer to the rest of the CM community. Vice Principal of Mission Integration Mr. Kevin Durazo, who accompanied Sean on his trip to Peru, took notice.
“He was a leader by example to the younger members of our groups with his work ethic during our service projects,” Mr. Durazo said.
“His thoughtful, genuine, and personal reflections on how the experience and encounter with the poor and marginalized were impacting him.”
Keeping Sean in the back of his mind, Mr. Durazo found the perfect opportunity for him to share his story last summer. He asked Sean to give a talk on his own personal growth at the annual Freshman Experience retreat.
“I didn’t see myself giving that speech at first,” admitted Sean.
“But, Mr. Durazo motivates me in a way that not many people do.”
So, with a little encouragement, Sean agreed. He began his first draft with a reflection on his personal growth through the many service opportunities at CM, hoping to encourage freshmen to sign up for the program.
Sean wrote that, after attending the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk during the fall of his sophomore year, he decided to join CM’s BERSI trip to Philadelphia. He had already joined the varsity cross country team and met an initial group of friends on campus.
“That trip changed my whole entire outlook on life,” said Sean.
On that trip to Philadelphia, he said that he served in homeless shelters and soup kitchens with classmates he never knew before.
“Being together with nothing else to distract you taught me how to engage with my classmates on a whole new level,” he said. “You start to understand their personal life and how to relate to them inside and outside of school.”
Sean wrote that when he returned from that BERSI trip, he returned ready to do more. He signed up for the school’s Peer Ministry Program and then applied for the BERSI Peru trip, this time ready to build homes for those living in the mountain community outside Lima.
When Sean put the finishing his touches on his talk, he emailed a draft to Mr. Durazo. At first, he didn’t think much of it. Mr. Durazo’s response surprised him.
“He called the draft perfect and reminded me that no other person should have given the speech but me,” said Sean.
On the day of his talk, a round of applause greeted Sean when he finished. Few people in the gymnasium clapped louder than Mr. Durazo.
“Sean stands as a relatable and everyday example of what CM stands for and aspires for all students,” said Mr. Durazo.
“His journey at CM represents what we hope an entering student can aspire towards: joining a new community, exploring academic and extracurricular passions and interests, building authentic relationships with peers and adults, giving back to the community as a peer minister, and living the mission beyond Baker Street through service to others.”