If there’s one word to describe the residents of Blessed Assurance orphanage in Montego Bay, Jamaica, it’s happy. Fourteen teens and adult advisors from Holy Apostles Catholic Church …
If there’s one word to describe the residents of Blessed Assurance orphanage in Montego Bay, Jamaica, it’s happy. Fourteen teens and adult advisors from Holy Apostles Catholic Church visited Blessed Assurance from Aug. 6 to Aug. 13 as part of the youth ministry program’s mission trip. This is the church’s 13th group to visit the orphanage – with these individuals being the first mission group to return to the orphanage since 2020.
Holy Apostles is part of Mustard Seed Communities Inc., based out of Medfield, Massachusetts, which is dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable populations in society. The nonprofit has a variety of places for mission groups to visit – one of them being Blessed Assurance. Blessed Assurance is composed of 32 residents from ages four to 30 who have a dichotomy of disabilities and handicaps; some have Autism, Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and only eight are mobile or don’t use a wheelchair. Mustard Seed Communities has 30 to 35 mission groups visit Blessed Assurance each year, with the next group coming in November.
Holy Apostles’ Youth Ministry Director Michael Santilli described the experience as an inward and outward journey. The youth who attend the trip develop their spirituality and transfer that faith and love to those 32 residents and staff members. As a team, their mission becomes seeing the work of God in service to a world that needs it more than ever.
The teens who went shared their experience.
“These kids have nothing, but they give everything they have,” said Michael Conti, who attended this year’s trip.
Conti and fellow missionary Dante Ciccharelli have been preparing for two and a half years for this trip. Their first one was canceled due to the pandemic and they jumped upon the opportunity to go this time around. Ciccharelli, who spent a year and a half in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, said one of his reasons for going on the trip was to give back (in spirit) to those who helped him and gave him the chance to live a better life.
Over their week in Jamaica, Holy Apostles Church’s missionaries fed residents, read to them, sang with them, entertained them and hosted craft activities which included creating bracelets with the residents' names on them and making picture frames. There was also labor-intensive work such as painting the dorms’ exterior and painting a mural of a mustard seed cross in one of the buildings.
The teens said one of the most moving parts was the way the Blessed Assurance residents welcomed them with signs even though they didn’t know them.
“These children just opened my eyes to what life is really about,” said Giana Mesiti, adding that she’s come to appreciate the little things in life.
Seminarian Michael Stabile said everyone who goes on the mission trip comes back amazed. He said the overarching reason for that is that, in America, people live in a culture that is all about materialism and individualism. When teens go to Blessed Assurance, they see that the residents own nothing and nothing is about them – yet they’re happiest and the most faithful.
“The irony in that is what leaves such an impression on our teens,” said Stabile.
Blessed Assurance’s residents ranged from four years old to 30, and adult advisor Rich Reilly said that some of the 30 year olds looked younger than 12. Advisor Maryann Johnson added that the four year old looked like he was 18 months old – with Mesiti saying that he wore 12 month old pants which were falling off him. Still, the residents were happy, with Conti saying they wanted to hug you, hold your hand and dance with you.
Since no mission groups have visited since the start of the pandemic, the adult advisors who attended past mission trips noticed Blessed Assurance’s residents had a little a bit of a regression; they add that the socialization that mission groups bring is invaluable because these residents receive individualized attention.
While this year's mission trip marked the end of a two and a half year hiatus to Blessed Assurance due to the pandemic, this was also the first time in 13 years that the mission group brought their pastor. Father William LeDoux, Holy Apostles’ priest, said prior to being at the church, he heard of the Holy Apostles’ teens on a mission and thought it was a wonderful idea. By taking the ministry outside the walls, it allowed the youth to see that the church was bigger than Western Cranston.
In Jamaica they held daily devotions twice a day, mass everyday and prayer time. Preston Kermen said he had looked forward to going on the mission since he was 10 years old and left the trip feeling more grounded in his faith.
Reilly said all seven teens came from different parts of life and, at the end of the day because of this experience, were one big happy family. The week ended with an affirmations session where the teens talked about what each individual brought to the team.
Johnson said teens often get a bad reputation.
“I see the good in teenagers. I see how they’re willing to share their faith – they’re willing to take that step out no matter what the world thinks of them,” said Johnson.
She added that the teens renew the faith of older adults because the adults see the hope of Catholic faith blossoming.
Holy Apostles Catholic Church starts preparing for its mission trips in the fall. Those who want to attend submit an application and, shortly after school starts, the ministry gathers its youth and prepares fundraising events for the trip. In the past, the church would take kids from junior to senior year for this trip. This past January, the Mustard Seed Communities decided youth must be 18 years old to attend.
Johnson said the trip is a huge financial undertaking, yet the parish comes together to support the youth.
“Never have I seen a bake sale anywhere else raise over $3,000,” said Johnson.
Through a number of events -- including a cabaret, Italian dinner, bake sales and soliciting sponsors -- the youth raised $31,000 for their trip. They also brought donations for the orphanage – with the group of 14 carrying their luggage plus a second one filled with donations.
Probably the most important, the parish also joined in prayer for the team and their travels.
After a long week, the teens returned to T.F. Green Airport Aug. 13 and were greeted by family and friends who cheered, screamed and held signs as they came down the escalator. Kids who were supposed to go on the trip that was canceled due to Covid and those who would like to go on the trip in the future came out to congratulate the teens on their success.
There were 14 individuals on the trip – seven youth and seven adults. The youth included Giana Mesiti (Cranston West graduate and Nova Southeastern University student), Michael Conti (Cranston West graduate and URI student), Isabella Conti (Cranston West graduate and Sacred Heart University student), Parker Pignataro (Bishop Hendricken graduate and High Point University student), Wilson Jablonski (Bishop Hendricken graduate and URI student), Preston Kermen (Cranston West graduate and URI student) and Dante Ciccharelli (Cranston West graduate and CCRI student). The adults included Father William LeDoux, Youth Ministry Director Michael Santilli, Seminarian Michael Stabile, Music Director Mark Colozzi and adult advisors Mary Ann Johnson, Rich Reilly and Christine Dooley.
Colozzi said the program is exceptional and gives teens the chance to strengthen their faith and make the church like a second home. He has been involved with the youth ministry for almost 25 years.
“Service is the crux of faith,” said Colozzi.
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