“From the moment we began planning this trip we were aware of what a powerful experience it was going to be. But we never imagined the welcome we would receive from the people – especially the youth. We arrived after a trip that lasted for more than 12 hours. The school bell was ringing for us as we arrived. A large sign read: “Thanks for coming, thanks for coming here, we love you: WELCOME.” As soon as our bus stopped they began to greet us and unload our luggage. Then we played some games with the children and sang songs with them too.”
This is what 19 youngsters from Teens for Unity wrote in their diary. They were accompanied by 4 adults during their school holidays in the month of July, leaving behind Buenos Aires to go and spend a few days at the “Escuela km. 25” in Santiago del Estero Province, one of the many “existential frontiers” that Pope Francis has recently spoken about.
The location was a thousand kilometres from Buenos Aires, in the midst of a forest. The school has two classrooms, a kitchen, three bathrooms and a play area with a well that provides water for the 22 families of the community, who live in mud dwellings with dirt floors.
The school is attended by 35 children up to the age of 13. A lone teacher arrives every Monday and leaves again every Friday. The men work the fields and are away from home for up to three months out of the year.
“It took 4 months to prepare for the trip. With the help of the adults, youths and young people of the Focolare we held an evening event for gathering funds. We had to meet the cost of the trip, our sojourn and many other logistical problems. We brought school supplies, medicines, shoes and just about anything else that we could fit into our bags.
We all agreed that we weren’t only going there to bring the toys and activities that we had prepared for the children, but we were going there with an attitude of learning and receiving something from them as well: how they live, what their world is like, their values, what they do . . . And it turned out to be a mutually very enriching experience.
We visited their homes, taking breakfast with them. We planned to meet at 10:30, but at 9:30 they were already there waiting for us.
One day their teacher had told the children that to come and play with us, they must wear the best clothing they had. Perhaps it was the only pair of shoes they owned, while they went to school with bare feet. But they saw this encounter with us as a feast, and so they dressed for a feast.
Before we leaving we wanted to give them all the money we had for the school, and so that the children’s dream could come true of going to the city for an ice-cream! When we returned to the big city, we realised what an extraordinary experience it had been: ‘I was able to realize that living in solidarity, serving, it doesn’t matter at all, neither the place you live, nor anything else, because we truly are all equal.’ A new friendship has begun and we don’t want to miss the appointment they wrote about in their farewell message: “Goodbye until next year!”