Last November, Evelyn Vazquez took a one-week missionary trip to Colombia and was struck by the sight of homeless children and broken down homes without roofs.
Vazquez, 18, worked with children who had no food, clean water, a place to sleep or parents. She saw families that were malnourished and homeless with nowhere to go. She learned to embrace people with open arms and serve others, she said.
Vazquez and 13 other students traveled to Bogota through Pathways to Children, a nonprofit that empowers children in poverty through education, healthcare and volunteering. They were paired with a group of 14 other students who lived in Colombia and attend Colegio Anexo San Francisco de Asís. Pathways also brings children and adults on volunteer trips to Ethiopia and India.
“When we were over there, the whole group was all one family,” said Vazquez, a senior at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis, “We were all united.”
Grace Strangis, a former pediatric nurse and travel agent from Minnesota, founded Pathways in Minneapolis in 2009. During a service trip to India after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, she was distraught at seeing hundreds of children living on the streets, including 6-year-olds taking care of their younger siblings because their parents had passed away from HIV, she said.
She decided to use her expertise after the trip to bring volunteers overseas to help people in need. Strangis would later receive letters from kids saying that she was their new mother and father.
“I started Pathways to Children because I wanted to make a difference in the world of poverty, and as importantly help others understand the needs and work to make a difference,” Strangis said. “I believe that making a difference is the only way people can truly be fulfilled in their lives.”
Pathways this past year has been able to help provide healthcare and education to 250 impoverished children in Kolkata, India. It has created job opportunities and offered free healthcare to illiterate mothers. It’s also given 309 children the opportunity to attend school in Bellisa, Ethiopia.
Strangis also has started “Home of Grace,” an orphanage and school in Kerala, India.
Pathways is funded by a variety of corporate and other sponsors.
The youngest of 12 siblings, Strangis grew up in a small house on a small farm in Minnesota. She was raised mostly by her brothers and sisters – just like the people she is serving now around the world. Living on the farm, Strangis learned to be independent and creative and to think for herself, she said.
“I daydreamed of traveling the world and meeting people from all over the world and helping people,” Strangis said.
Grace Strangis (top row, fourth from left) and students who went on the Bogota trip pose for a picture after a visit to an orphanage. The group spent a week in Bogota building and painting homes for families. (Photo courtesy of Pathways to Children)
Amy Aguilar, an 18-year-old senior at Cristo Rey, also went on the trip last fall to Bogota. On top of helping to build a home, she and other students spent a day at an orphanage. They read books and drew with the children.
“I think that they just need love and support, and I think that that hit me the most,” Aguilar said. “I think about my little brother, about how he would be if he didn’t have my mom. I think that was the best experience overall in the trip.”
Aguilar’s experience at the orphanage changed her perspective. Now she wants to go on more service trips.
“I’m not going through hard times, but there are people who are,” Aguilar said. “If they need help and you have the opportunity to help them, why not go out and do it?”
Cristo Rey senior Jennifer Roldan also went on the trip. It was Roldan’s first time out of the country, and she was welcomed with open arms by her Colombian partner. She initially felt apprehensive and uncomfortable when her partner’s group was leading an icebreaker by dancing. But she shed her inhibitions and joined in the fun.
“It’s a lot of dancing and singing and not really caring and being free,” Roldan said. “I let my spirit run free in Colombia.”
Roldan’s intent before traveling to Bogota was to serve the families, children and the elderly, but she felt different about the experience when she got back home.
“I thought that we were going to do the serving,” Roldan said. “But they ending up serving us.”
Editor’s Note: Jose Galvan Castro attended the Pathways to Children trip to Colombia.