Araceli Guardado’s interest in teaching began when she was 10 years old at the United Nations‘ Mesa Grande refugee camp near the border of Honduras and El Salvador.
There Guardado taught the alphabet, numbers and drawing to preschool children. It was during the 1980s when thousands of Salvadorans, like Guardado’s family, fled to Honduras at the beginning of their country’s civil war that lasted 12 years.
Guardado, now 42 and a teacher who graduated from the National University of El Salvador, says that she owes her profession to Yvonne Dilling, who is now a mission promoter with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
After graduating from Manchester College with a degree in peace studies and working for a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., Dilling began her mission journey volunteering with Caritas of Honduras and accompanying refugees like Guardado. “God opened the doors, I felt God’s call and answered ‘yes.’ I immediately knew I was where God wanted me to be,” she says.
For two and a half years, Dilling coordinated an educational program for Salvadoran refugee children on the Honduran border. When she arrived, there were about 2,000 refugees, but a few months later there were more than 5,000. Caritas established small schools in 13 villages with about 25 children in each. It was a tiny budget so volunteers were selected as instructors from among the refugees. Later, after the refugees were moved from the villages to the Mesa Grande Camp, even children like Guardado were asked to teach those who were younger.
“The refugees were the protagonists,” says Dilling, who is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Caritas bought pencils, and the refugees split the pencils in half so that each child had a small pencil to write. We made our own blackboards; we sanded plywood and then painted it with black paint.” Dilling and the Caritas team also formed base communities to have Celebrations of the Word.
For Dilling it was a blessing to encounter a girl such as Guardado, who had the desire and talent to teach. “She always wanted to learn more,” Dilling says. “In the midst of tragedy, the refugees saw an opportunity. They would say, ‘We can’t be in our country because of the war, but we are going to take advantage of this experience to return and build our country.’ They had that perspective from the early days.”
Guardado was among thousands of refugees who returned gradually to their country from 1987 to 1990, and settled down in small communities. Guardado and her family started a new life in Nueva Trinidad in the department of Chalatenango. Dilling returned to the United States after finishing her volunteer work with Caritas, but returned to El Salvador as a lay missioner years later.
That is when she met Guardado, who was formalizing her studies through government post-war programs. Dilling accompanied a group through their university studies and to graduation with teaching degrees. Guardado remembers Dilling with love. “She is like my second mom and any time I had a problem, I would call her and ask her what to do,” Guardado says. “She inspired me and encouraged me to study. She has accompanied me on this journey and was a good example.”
Five years ago, Dilling joined the Maryknoll Hispanic Outreach Team as a mission promoter based in San Antonio, Texas. There she hosts a program on the diocese’s TV station, interviewing Latino leaders who are living their missionary call.
Part of her job for Maryknoll is to provide mission formation courses to help Catholics deepen their spirituality and theological understanding of their mission vocation. This includes bringing groups on mission trips overseas and in the United States. “Our mission is not only to help the needy but to share God’s love,” Dilling says. “Maryknoll’s mission experiences are to reflect on meeting God in people who are suffering.”
Last March, Dilling helped coordinate a mission trip to Houston for the youth group of St. Brigid parish in San Antonio. The mission was to work on two houses destroyed by Hurricane Harvey almost two years ago.
Nora Ruiz, director of youth ministry at St. Brigid, and Taylor Richardson, 18, a high school student from Marshall High School in San Antonio, assisted Dilling in planning the trip in which 23 middle and high school students and parents participated. “The mission of the youth ministry is to go out and serve the community. When they heard about the situation of these families, the youth felt the missionary call,” says Ruiz.
The trip was an opportunity for the group to show God’s love, Richardson says. “It was a great experience to help and listen to the stories of these families,” she says.
During the trip, the students also spent time reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the teachings of Pope Francis to care for the earth and on the Stations of the Cross. “There is a lot of violence in society and we just want these young people to grow up and have a good heart to help those in need,” says Ruiz.
Hearing the words of gratitude from the homeowners encouraged the students, adds Richardson. “While we were painting and cleaning the house, we were singing God’s music. It was a fantastic experience because we had so much fun and we were very productive,” she says. “The homeowners told us that our presence brought a lot of light to their homes.”
Richardson says Dilling was also a great source of encouragement and “a role model.”
Having gone on a mission trip to El Salvador in 2016 with Dilling, Ruiz encourages the youth at St. Brigid’s to support missions overseas. For three years they have donated to a project in the village of Ellacuria, where Dilling served.
Dilling says she will continue to accompany people who work with youth like Guardado, Ruiz and Richardson to help others find their mission in life.
“I feel that youth will respond to the missionary call. I see in them the love for God and concern for God’s people,” she says. “They will continue the mission.”
Featured Image: Yvonne Dilling (front, flowered shirt) and Nora Ruiz (front, green shirt) with youth group that joined in a mission trip to Houston to help two families affected by Hurricane Harvey. (N. Ruiz/U.S.)