Monday, September 19, 2016
Cristina Cabrera Jarro
MIAMI | Holding him up, one under each arm, two volunteers help another man slowly lower himself into the cool and constantly flowing waters of the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France. It only takes a second, but the moment is enough to invigorate, to reawaken, even to heal.
“The water is cold, but think about it, you prepare yourself spiritually and emotionally as to what it is that you want to heal at that moment,” said Shirley Santos, a volunteer from Miami who served pilgrims seeking healing in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes this summer.
The June 12-22 trip was organized by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers, a group which brings together those who are willing to serve with those who need help, the ill and disabled.
The travelers’ journey actually began months earlier, when they experienced a virtual pilgrimage at the parish, put on by the North American Volunteers. The virtual pilgrims were shown pieces of grotto rock and holy water, and also introduced to the idea of actually serving in Lourdes during the summer.
“I told my husband and he fell in love with the idea,” said Santos. “He decided the entire family would go.”
Not your typical family vacation
“This was their family vacation for the year,” said Mercy Bagglio, another volunteer, of the families who went on the pilgrimage. “You have to pay for this and it’s not cheap, and yet you’re willing to spend your vacation, money and time (off from) work.”
There were opportunities to sightsee, but the volunteers’ main mission was to serve. Upon arrival in Lourdes, they received practical training on how to care for those they would help, with the tasks ranging from housekeeping to cooking to transporting the sick.
“We wanted them to arrive and make them feel like they were at a hotel,” said Santos. “We wanted to give them the best experience, the best service and we all made the effort to make them feel welcomed.”
Indeed, the volunteers felt sort of a “pilgrim rush” as they welcomed the sick with music and friendly smiles, and courteously escorted them to their rooms at the Accueil Notre-Dame, a hospital-bed facility located across from the grotto. The facility also hosted St. John Paul II when he visited in 2004.
Three pilgrims for three volunteers
While the volunteers were asked to meet and mingle with all the pilgrims, some of them made a special connection with the volunteers who first came to aid them.
Jean Sanchez, Santos’ son and a senior at Archbishop Carroll, bonded with Phyllis, a pilgrim suffering from a brain tumor and multiple sclerosis.
“I wasn’t assigned to anyone specific and the first time we met them in front of the hospital, they asked me to help Phyllis,” Jean said. “From then on she always asked for me. She called me her ‘little helper.’”
Despite her illness, Phyllis had grit and a sense of humor that made Jean laugh. During a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, she recalled her days of skating and skiing and, noticing two ramps in the structure, told him she was tempted to roll down the side of the building in her wheelchair.
Jose Sanchez, Jean’s brother and a Carroll High alumnus, made a similar connection with Rosaline, a lonely woman in search of healing after her husband died.
“The first day, I spent it with her until they asked me to help the person I was assigned to,” said Jose. “The next day, when we came down to help, apparently she had been calling for me the whole time telling people, ‘No, I want Jose to wheel me.’”
Anthony Valenzuela, a sophomore at Carroll High, established a bond with another Anthony, a 6-year-old they later dubbed “Little Anthony” to distinguish between the two when they were together.
“We got to know each other during the trip,” said Anthony. “We made a little handshake and everything.”
Little Anthony, who is battling a brain tumor and other ailments, travelled from Indiana with his two brothers, mother and grandfather. When Anthony met the family, he was shocked at how drained the adults appeared.
“You could tell they were depressed,” said Anthony. “It was beautiful to see that at the end of the week they were all happy and they didn’t want to leave. It changed their lives, not only Anthony, but his mom and grandpa.”
Pilgrim and volunteer transformation
Watching such transformations produced great satisfaction among the volunteers, and in a sense transformed them as well.
“For me, it was a transformation to see the pilgrims there because they spend thousands of dollars to be there looking for a miracle,” said Marcia Valenzuela, Anthony’s mother and a guidance counselor at Carroll High. “That kind of faith you don’t see every day.”
Santos agreed, noting how pilgrims returned from the pool, daily Mass, and other outings feeling refreshed.
“There was a pilgrim that told me, ‘I left searching for healing, but I leave spiritually healed, maybe not yet of body, but spiritually I feel healed,’” Santos said.
The transformation, for the volunteers, came through in a sense of gratitude for being given the opportunity to serve.
“You cannot possibly go to Lourdes, serve and not come back different,” said Bagglio. “You might not feel it at the beginning, but it does something in your heart.”
“The whole trip, the pilgrims made it for us,” said Jean.
For more information on how to become a volunteer visit http://lourdesvolunteers.org/