It was Memorial Day. Benedictine Military School science teacher Ms. Adell Sheahan and 13 teenagers – eight students who attend Benedictine Military School and five from St. Vincent’s Academy – had arrived in Puerto Rico the previous day on a mission trip.
The group’s objective was to provide hurricane and earthquake relief to villagers near San Juan, as well as to perform interior and exterior repair at the home of a woman named Frida, who lives alone and is confined to her bed.
Since their arrival, Sheahan and her students had been reading the Bible, particularly studying John 21, the final chapter of the Gospel of John in the New Testament. She asked the group to find opportunities to see God during their mission trip. On their first day helping Frida, she grabbed Sheahan’s arm and asked for prayers.
“The girls surrounded her and prayed,” said Sheahan, who was cleaning and painting inside with SVA’s Saints while BC’s Cadets were outside cutting down trees. “The girls surrounded her and prayed, while tears fell down her face and ours.”
Moments like that made the trip worth the effort and expense, Sheahan said. The mission trip is open annually to any BC Cadet or SVA Saint. Students pay for their trip through a combination of fundraising and after-school jobs. It cost $1,800 apiece for each student to travel to Puerto Rico. The price included airfare, gas for the van that transported them to and from their destinations, three meals per day, snacks, and a hotel room on the last night before they returned to Savannah. A missionary organization assisted in identifying how BC and SVA students could help in Puerto Rico.
“It really makes you realize how lucky we are and how we take things for granted sometimes, whether it’s just having someone to take care of us or even like at Frida’s house, all of her windows were open, and all of the doors were open,” said BC Cadet Charlie Iannone. “Animals were just coming in and out of her house – spiders, cats, lizards. There were so many different types of animals that we saw. I had never seen an iguana before. I saw a ton of those. They had toads there that were giant. The labor was the toughest (part) for sure. There were a lot of different (challenges) but none of it seemed like it was impossible though. There were little things like language barriers and crowded areas that were different than what we’re used to. Frida’s backyard was a jungle. That was one thing I didn’t think we were going to get done.”
To be clear, the mission trip was not – and never is – a vacation, not by any stretch of the imagination. Each day, the students awoke at 7 a.m. and provided manual labor from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.
“It was backbreaking work,” Sheahan said. “It was not easy work. It was removing trees that were still down from the hurricane. It was landscaping. It was roofing. We each probably drank four-to-five Nalgene bottles of water a day.”
In 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing catastrophic damage, including the destruction of the electrical grid that had been damaged two weeks earlier by Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years. In 2020, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Puerto Rico and caused more destruction. The island’s residents are still struggling to recover. Because of the damage, it was the perfect place for Sheahan and her students to help.
“(For 2022), we’re going to wait and see what the hurricane season does (this year),” Sheahan said. “If there’s a need back in Puerto Rico or Haiti or Jamaica or New Orleans, we’re going to see if anything devastating happens, but for right now we’ve been asked by the missionary company that we use to come to Jamaica and do a special needs mission trip. In Jamaica, they abandon babies who are born with Down syndrome, or any type of special needs, and the church adopts them and raises them in Jamaica. We’ve been asked to come over and help rebuild some of the damaged buildings over there and work with the local communities and the church and provide some support and play with some of the kids, which I know our kids would fully enjoy.”
In 2018, Sheahan organized a group of students, and she was the chaperone on a mission trip to Canada. She planned the entire trip. In 2019, Sheahan and BC’s Br. Matthew Hershey, O.S.B., chaperoned students on a mission trip to Alaska.
“We went to Saskatchewan, Canada, and did a vacation Bible school for the First Nations Indians,” Sheahan said. “And then we went to Alaska and rebuilt a sobriety home and worked in a soup kitchen in the evenings. (The Canada trip) was more challenging than I would like to admit, planning an entire mission trip. I thought to myself, ‘There have to be people out there who do this for a living.’ I went online and I Googled it, and I came across (a missionary organization). They are an international missionary group that runs hundreds and hundreds of mission trips every summer. I looked up their reviews and I said, ‘Alright, let’s give it a shot’ and we went to Alaska, and it was the most amazing partnership. We were supposed to go (on a mission trip) last year but with COVID-19 we couldn’t go.
“The people who run (the missionary organization) live in the community so when you get down there you really have a connection through the consultants of what needs to be done,” Sheahan continued. “They attend the church services. They go out in the communities and help people. A lot of them are from the countries. Our consultant was from Puerto Rico. It was really nice to have somebody who knew the area so well for missionary work. You kind of get to know all of them because it’s this network system. The consultant for Alaska and the consultant for Puerto Rico know the one from Jamaica so we all exchanged telephone numbers and will start working for the next year.”
BC Cadet Turner Watson said the Puerto Rico mission trip helped him to grow as a man. He said when some friends backed out at the last minute, he felt stuck and did not want to go.
“I was dreading not knowing anybody,” Watson said. “But on the plane ride down there we were all split into different groups, sitting with each other, and meeting new people and getting so close in only a week, it was just crazy. You didn’t really know how close you could get with somebody in that short of a time. The first day or two, I was kind of wanting to go home and thinking how fortunate I am at home. And then it just hit me one night, when we were all sitting and talking, about what good we are doing and how much fun we are actually having without even knowing it.”
Watson said the work that the group completed for Frida made it “the best week of my life.”
“Frida is a bed-ridden lady,” Watson said. “Her house was really in rough shape. We split up into groups, guys and girls, inside and out, and both the inside and the out were pretty rough. The outside looked like a jungle. All the guys were thinking ‘We’re never going to finish this.’ When we got to talk with her it was sad because she couldn’t even get out of bed. Once we finished, you just get this instant gratification. We actually completed it and it looks really awesome. The before and after pictures are just crazy. And the kids we met in the village were into a lot of the same stuff that we are into. They knew very little English but they were into soccer and baseball. It was cool to see how different we are but we are the same.”
Each night, except for the final night (hotel rooms), the group slept in the upstairs rooms of a church. Frida’s house was approximately a 30-minute drive east of the church, and the mountains were about 40 minutes west of the church. The BC and SVA students worked so efficiently that they accomplished their goals and were treated by the organizers to a guided hike to the tower at the highest peak of El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest about 35 minutes from San Juan.
“I definitely make sure that they are well-aware that this is not a vacation,” Sheahan said. “That’s the funny thing with the students. When we got down there they said, ‘Ms. Sheahan, you made this sound so much worse than it was.’ I said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be prepared for the worst than expecting luxury?’ And they said it really wasn’t that bad. Before you come on these trips you need to understand that you are here, first, to work. You’re here, second, to grow in your faith. And, third, you’re here for any extra activities. But we have to finish one and two before we can get to three.
“The great thing with the Puerto Rico trip was that we finished all of our work that, on average takes groups five-to-six days, we finished ours in three,” Sheahan continued. “The (missionary organization’s) people even said, ‘I don’t know if it’s because of how organized you are as a leader or if it’s because of how much stamina your kids have but we’ve done this before and this usually takes five-to-six days and you finished it in three,’ which is why we were lucky and able to go to the rainforest on Thursday. It was their present to us for completing all of the work early.”
During the hike in El Yunque National Forest, the group had a special visitor, albeit virtually, in MSG Reinaldo “Rey” Osorio, who retired from BC at the end of the school year.
“Rey Facetimed us four-to-five times a day,” Sheahan, laughing, said of Osorio, who was born in New York but raised in Puerto Rico, and has family on the island. “He hiked a mountain with us. We had him on Facetime as we hiked through El Yunque rainforest. I was like, ‘Rey, I can’t breathe. I have to go. I can’t do this. I’m running out of oxygen.’”
Said Iannone, “We were Facetiming him a lot during the trip. He told us all about the culture and why things are done certain ways.”
Added Watson, “I did not know that MSG Osorio knew that much Spanish. He had some pointers on what to eat and what parts of the town to go to. He knew a lot more than I thought he was going to.”
BC Cadet Evan Scarbrough said the most difficult part of the trip was not the labor. It was the anticipation of the unknown that grew throughout the flight to Puerto Rico.
“We were prepared for the worst and it was lot better than we expected,” Scarbrough said. “If I could do it again I would definitely go. It was one of the most fun weeks of my life. I really enjoyed it. I had a blast. And I think we got to help a lot of people.”
Scarbrough, Watson, and Iannone shared with their peers and church members about their relationship with God. Church parishioners showed their appreciation by supplying the group with homemade meals.
“A lot of rice and beans,” Iannone said. “Lots of plantains. It was all real good. I would eat everything they gave us. Their sweet tea was a little different. Instead of lemon they had lime. All their food was good and they were very nice to all of us. It was a great trip. I’m planning on going on (the next trip), too.”
Scarbrough said he, too, wants to participate in the group’s next mission trip.
“It felt amazing to see (Frida’s) reaction and expressions to the work that we got to do for her,” Scarbrough said. “You could really tell that she was grateful. It’s not a feeling that you can replicate with anything else.”
Sheahan said she makes it a point to keep the group between 12 and 15 students.
“It’s a manageable size for one chaperone like me,” Sheahan said. “I’d love to have more chaperones. For me, when you get anywhere bigger than 15, separate cliques start to emerge. It lessens the unity of the group and it becomes more of a branching off into their own cliques. I don’t allow that. Every evening we have what we call game time and I take their phones for an hour and I make them play UNO or trivia or signs. One night, by the end of it, I said, ‘OK, it’s 10:45, you’re done.’ And they said, ‘No! Just 20 more minutes!’ And I said, ‘No. You are done. You have to go to bed.’
“I think one of the best things that comes from the mission trip that has happened, luckily, is every single year that I’ve done it, is a group of students, all different ages, different schools, not necessarily from the same friend group, become best friends by the end of the trip,” Sheahan continued. “And I truly mean that. And they all said that. That’s one aspect of the trips that I want to come out of it. I want them to become friends with people that they never thought they could become friends with.”
Sheahan said this year’s group of students “proved themselves.”
“This was the best group I’ve ever taken,” Sheahan said. “I think a large part of that was because of BC and the Cadets that I took. I took Cadets who had a really strong affiliation with leadership. They weren’t afraid to talk about their faith. They weren’t afraid to get up in front of a group of people and talk about how important God is in their life. That was really inspiring for me, as a teacher, to watch them be so proud of their school and of their faith, and where they come from.”