Melissa Cortez, who’s earning a Master of Arts in Teaching (Elementary Education) degree at Chaminade University, received an education of a different sort when she volunteered to construct houses for needy families in Lima, Peru.
She learned about a vastly different way of life by witnessing the gratitude, generosity and steadfast faith in God that impoverished South Americans possess in abundance.
Accordingly, Cortez – who will be honored in December as the Division of Education’s “Outstanding Graduate” – received much more than she gave on a life-changing, 12,000-mile, roundtrip journey.
“It was good to experience what the less fortunate experience,” said Cortez, a sixth-grade teacher at Damien Memorial School in Kalihi. “We left our phones and laptops behind. We traded all we knew for a simple life.”
Selecting Cortez and a small group of Mainland educators for the two-week home-building project was the Congregation of Christian Brothers, a religious order that sponsors Damien and other Edmund Rice Catholic schools in the U.S. and Canada.
The humanitarian mission’s primary focus, Cortez explained, was “standing in solidarity with those who are marginalized by poverty and injustice.” Peru is so overpopulated, she said, that families often live in small, flimsy houses high above the flatlands where there’s a lack of running water and electrical service.
“The Brothers dedicate their whole lives to helping these people,” Cortez said. “Every day they’re going up into the hills, getting to know the families, seeing what hardships they’re going through. They’re building solid and positive relationships with the people, especially those who are suffering – those who truly need help.”
Cortez and her team assisted two families. The father of one family has a lung disease and can’t afford proper medical care. The other father is afflicted by seizures – caused by worms in his brain – and can no longer support his wife and two young boys.
When the volunteers finished their strenuous construction work each day, they wrote down their thoughts in journals.
“The Brothers asked us to reflect on what we did, the people we met,” Cortez said. “But the question wasn’t: What did we do for the less fortunate today? The question was: What did the less fortunate teach us today? The less fortunate taught us to be grateful. They taught us to have faith.”
Although Cortez only spent a fortnight in Peru, she left as a changed person.
“I realized that a lot of things I take for granted on a daily basis are luxuries to these people,” she said. “But they have an unwavering faith in God and they have their families. That’s really all they need to survive.”
The Master of Arts in Teaching program offers licensure in Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, Secondary Education and Special Education.