Immersed in poverty, redeemed by love

21 Jan 2009

By The Record

For one young Australian on the east coast, it was all too easy to join the throng of happy young Catholics on Sydney’s streets when the Pope came to town for World Youth Day in July last year. But for Justine O’Connell, 33, the World Youth Day pilgrimage experience was just beginning…


Volunteering in South America: Health professional, Justine O’Connell.


By Bridget Spinks 

In the ‘Vocations Expo’, one of the permanent fixtures at World Youth Day – a huge pavilion lined with booths offering information and advice on potential spiritual life paths – one pilgrim found a phone number that would open up doors overseas.
Within days this polished young health professional had made inquiries both locally and internationally seeking a place to volunteer while on holiday.
Despite being turned away from her original dream volunteer destination, Brazil, on account of it being ‘too dangerous,’ her path was diverted to a company that organises volunteer programs (Cross-Cultural Solutions).
By October, Sydney University Masters student in Public Health Justine O’Connell, 33, had booked the flights for a three-week holiday in South America to exotic locations including Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
Her trip was to finish in Lima, Peru with two weeks of volunteering with the Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute (Hogar Nuestra Señora de la Paz de la Madre Teresa de Calcuta) and all with six months of WYD ending.
For this middle child of three girls, originally from Newcastle and working as a full-time sonographer at a Sydney hospital, her time in Peru still brings tears to her eyes.
But they are not the tears of shock, which trickled down her cheeks upon entering a room full of abandoned, disabled children she would care for last December. These tears are of helplessness that well up when she mentally revisits the suffering children she once helped for a short time.
“A lot of the children had cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and one girl had spina bifida,” she said.
“The first day I saw all the children I shed a tear. It was overwhelming and quite confronting, seeing 20 all in one room at once and knowing that they’re abandoned and really in need, and if it wasn’t for the nuns and locals they’d have nothing.”
In 1973, this Peruvian hospice of Mother Teresa became operational. Today there are nine Sisters of Charity from all over the world including Africa, India and Colombia as well as local nuns who run the hospice. Doctors, dentists, and physical therapists are on staff to regularly attend to the children as well as over 100 disabled adolescent and adult male patients in other wards.
In 1999, Mother Teresa’s Home in Peru started welcoming volunteers all year-round to help feed, clothe and bathe the patients, change clothing and bed sheets as well as help the trained staff with the physical therapy sessions.
After arriving at the Mother Teresa Home at 8am, the volunteers’ routine would begin by feeding three to four children by hand.
Given the conditions of the young and infirm, this was ‘quite time consuming’ as some had feeding tubes while others who had cerebral palsy had no hand and mouth coordination making them completely reliant on others for help to survive.
After changing their clothes and nappies, Miss O’Connell would then take one child to the physiotherapy room where she would do exercises with some of the children to improve their muscle strength.
“I bonded with a two and half year old called Mila with cerebral palsy. She couldn’t sit up or walk, [so I] would massage her hands and get her to flex her legs to get her to move or play with the ball,” she recalled.
“Being profoundly intellectually and physically disabled you don’t need to communicate with words – it’s with human touch. Disabled children are very receptive to affection, [all] children need love but disabled children even more so.”
After these activities, the volunteers would spend time changing linen, remaking beds and folding laundry with the Sisters while praying the Rosary. They would then help feed the children a lunch of pureed food before leaving the House at 12.30 pm. Despite working only half-days, the work was “very psychologically draining”, shel said. When the volunteers would leave for lunch, there would be families begging the Sisters for lunch outside the big high security bars. Some local teenagers would come in and receive a meal in exchange for volunteer laundry or cleaning work, she said.
According to a Cross-Cultural Solutions’ fact sheet regarding Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute, 54 per cent of the country’s 27 million inhabitants live in poverty – which the government defines as a ‘family of four living on less than $2 a day.’ Nineteen per cent of the Peruvian population lives in absolute poverty, which is defined as ‘a family of four living on less than $1 a day.’
“God has given us such a privileged life [in Australia],” Miss O’Connell said, reflecting that it’s important “to be able to detach yourself and continue with your old life – my place is here … I think it’s my vocation to be charitable towards others which is one of the most important virtues.”
Looking back now, Miss O’Connell says her World Youth Day ‘lasted about six months.’
“I wanted to grow spiritually, strengthen my faith further. That was primarily why I wanted to go with a Catholic organisation,” she said.
But going to a country where 90 per cent of the population is Catholic also proved to have a positive impact, as it was constantly visible outward expressions of faith that moved her, she said. The children in the street, who were given Rosary beads by the nuns, would wear them around their necks. The majority of cars would hang Rosary beads on their rear view mirror.
When driving down the street, one would pass grottos to Our Lady in the middle of the road. On a hilltop there’s a giant crucifix that’s illuminated by night.
“You wouldn’t notice it during the day, but at night you can see it. It’s really uplifting to see these constant reminders as you’re walking around living the day,” she said.
Although it’s difficult to define exactly how the trip has impacted upon her, Miss O’Connell knows it has.
“On a personal level, it’s made me realise I’m capable of dealing with a child with needs. On a spiritual level, I’ve got more trust in God now. Before I went, I was so worried about safety and absolutely nothing happened to me. And when I got back to work, a colleague of mine who’d been to South America said he got mugged eight times on his trip. And I was walking around by myself and nothing happened to me,” she said incredulously.
“It’s given me more strength and confidence to deal with the unknown … I’m always reflecting on my experience there and thinking about the children. People with healthy children are so blessed.
“If you’re fortunate enough to get married – it’s God’s Will whether you’re given a healthy child or a child with a disability. Both are equally a gift,” she said.
In the meantime, until the next combined charity vocational vacation trip to perhaps Africa or the Pacific, Miss O’Connell will keep up her night patrol with St Vincent de Paul and her hospital visits with the Legion of Mary.