by Joe Tressa
During the summer, most high school students are trying to find jobs and some are just trying to relax. This is not the case with Casey Dwyer, a Chestnut Hill native and La Salle College High School student who joined fellow students on a service trip to Coachella Valley, Calif.
Known as the Migrant Worker Immersion, the trip ran from June 22 to 29. Students and faculty members worked with rescue missions and other services that assist migrant workers in the Coachella area. Most of these workers tend to be illegal immigrants who are poor and/or drug addicts and who live in small, run-down houses.
“I could never imagine living in the condition that the workers live in,” Dwyer said. “Seeing all of the ways that a worker gets by made me and all of my peers truly happy with what we have been blessed with. Everything we as kids take advantage of are all things that a worker simply can’t have. I’ve taken up a new attitude towards things I have, and I am truly thankful for everything I have in my life.”
The students and faculty members gave out clothes and food to the workers who were in need. They also took time to talk with the workers, who told the students what their everyday life is like. Many of the students were shocked to hear how hard the workers’ lives were and it made them appreciate having access to food and a clean home.
This trip is one of many that LSCHS offers throughout the summer. The trips began at the end of May and will continue until August. The first series of service trips began with the “Urban Immersion,” which started on May 26 with the first group.
Four separate groups were scheduled to participate in this five-day trip to sections of Philadelphia where there are high levels of poverty and homelessness. Students had the opportunity to work with Project HOME in West Philadelphia, St. John’s Hospice in Center City, Blessed Sarnelli House in Kensington, and the St. Lucy School for the Hearing and Visually Impaired in Juniata.
Other locations for the summer service trips include West Virginia, St. Lucia in the Caribbean, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, New Orleans and the Bronx in New York City.
The goal of these trips is to allow students to experience and examine social conditions that are different from their own communities and neighborhoods. The students and faculty also aim to help the community members in any way they can, such as helping at shelters and soup kitchens or painting and fixing houses.
Dwyer said the week he spent helping migrant workers gave him a new outlook on life and a sense of how some Americans take things such as clean food and water for granted.
He also talked about a moment when he and his classmates walked through an abandoned trailer park camp and witnessed how harsh the workers’ and immigrants’ lives really are.
“We all gained a true sense of what it is like to live as an illegal immigrant,” he said. “Everything that we as Americans take advantage of, such as clean water, air conditioning and electricity simply don’t exist in an illegal immigrant’s living quarters.”
The most difficult part of the trip for the students was the heat.
“The temperatures were like nothing I have ever experienced,” he said. “At the beginning of the trip, the temperatures were in the low 100’s and we were constantly reminded how lucky we were. This all changed when Thursday came around with roughly 118-degree temperatures. The heat limited what we could do outside, but fortunately, everyone stayed hydrated and safe.”
The daily struggle that the workers go through just to make enough money to get by was also eye-opening for the students.
“No one I know personally could do what they do for a week,” Dwyer said. “Picking grapes and fruits in 120-degree weather for hours on end just to make around $20,000 a year is something I could never see myself or anyone I know doing. At times it was hard to try to keep a smile and try to brighten a person’s day when all you can think about is how anyone can live like that. While a homeless person in Philadelphia can try to cover himself from the cold in the winter, nothing can save those in Coachella from the deadly heat.”
When the trip finally came to an end, Dwyer reflected on his overall experience of the Migrant Worker Immersion.
“There are so many things I have taken from the trip, it would be impossible to pick out one,” Dwyer said. “First of all, I now have a sense of how truly blessed my peers and I are. I have a sense of what it’s like to be homeless in an environment where everyday life is a struggle.
“Secondly, I now have a completely different view on illegal immigration. I do not condone illegal immigration, but after seeing the work they do every day, I can confidently say that, without them, work would never be done.”
Finally, Dwyer mentioned the bonding and relationship development that went on during the trip between him and other students.
“The levels of bonding on the trip were off the charts,” he noted. “During the trip, we all shared in our ups and downs, bringing us all closer together. We prayed, worked, sweated, and lived together for a week, and, through it, we all developed into close friends.”