SJND Students Visit U.S.-Mexico Border
This past summer, 17 students from St. Joseph Notre Dame High School (SJND) traveled to Imperial Beach, just north of the border between the United States and Mexico, for an exercise in service leadership. As participants in the Sierra Service Project (SSP), students had the opportunity to work on home-improvement projects for selected members of the community who could not afford to undertake these projects without assistance from SSP.
Projects ranged from house painting to fence-and-deck repair, gardening to building a handicap access ramp. In addition to serving the community, students learned about the socio-economic challenges of Imperial Beach, including its relatively high rate of residents living below the federal poverty line and an increase in gentrification caused by tourism.
Senior Emma Courville, who has been on two SSP trips, called it one of the “most memorable” experiences of her time at SJND.
“One of the home owners that my group had (we had three houses in total) was a couple who had adopted 10 children,” Courville said. “Their kids were all different ages and they came from broken homes and difficult backgrounds. The mother was the most hospitable person that I have ever met. Her personality and character was so kind and warm-hearted. She welcomed us into her home and she took the time to get to know us,”
“It felt very rewarding to be able to fix up their houses and be able to give back because I could see the difference that we made in someone else’s life,” Courville said.
SJND students also visited a spot on the border separating Imperial Beach from Tijuana known as Friendship Park where family members on opposite sides of the border have the opportunity to meet. After approximately a one-mile hike up an unpaved, dusty road, students met with a pair of liaison agents from the U.S. Border Patrol who answered questions before escorting the group through a locked gate where they were able to approach the actual border fence.
In addition to metal bars, the fence is covered in mesh that only a pinkie finger can fit through. Through the fence, students could catch glimpses of the flurry of activity and hear the lively mariachi music on the Mexican side — a stark contrast from the American side, and a powerful experience for many.
“When we arrived at Friendship Park, I was excited to be so close to Mexico,” said senior Iriana Aranda. “That was the bright side of this trip, being so close to my heritage. The sad part was being divided by a large wall, not able to venture forth and meet people from our border country.”
“It was heartbreaking to see how excited the people were to see us in the park. But their smiles did not fill me with joy because their smiles came from the fact that not many people are allowed into Friendship Park and rarely meet people from between the two fences,” said Aranda. “It was a terrible feeling to have to walk out of Friendship Park, listening to those on the other side of the border telling us to come back. It brought tears to my eyes.”
At the conclusion of the visit, participants gathered in a circle and linked pinkies in prayer.
“This trip, although it affected me emotionally, taught me the importance of working for others. I learned the importance of helping others who don’t have much to begin with,” said Aranda. “I hope to keep going to SSP and giving back to the communities who need it, to do something to make them smile because a smile from them makes the service all worthwhile.”