A wonderful experience of immersion and Hope in Apopka!

The Service-Learning immersion program has allowed students from all over to experience life-long lessons about the challenges immigrant families must face. In turn, they learn what a loving, hardworking family can achieve with some faith and hope. We were so excited to receive a touching testimonial from one of our participants. Here’s what he had to say: 

“Hello, I am Tad Clifton (a junior), and I was lucky enough to spend the first week of my Spring Break in Apopka, Florida, on an immersion trip with Gonzaga. Apopka is home to a special place called the Hope CommUnity Center, where I met the coolest person on the planet, Sister Ann. In the 70s, she moved to Apopka with two other Sisters of Notre Dame. They immersed themselves in a community that needed help – a community of immigrant families north of Orlando, all leaving their home countries looking for a better life in the United States. Sister Ann knew that to help, she needed to know the people and the issues at hand. Today, Hope CommUnity Center provides classes, job training, financial and housing support, and a safe space for the immigrant community in Apopka. While there, I stayed in a homestay with a local family.

Celi, the grandmother of the house I stayed in, gave up her room for me to sleep in. She cooked my meals, packed my lunch, and told me about her immigration story. By the end of the trip, I was calling her Mama Celi. And get this; she did not speak any English. It turns out I had learned much more in Spanish class than I thought! In Apopka, I spent my days learning about the Hope CommUnity Center’s work and mission, working in gardens and nurseries, and playing with the five little girls in my homestay. I was their human Jungle Gym. This trip was very impactful on me. I learned so much about Immigration and the issue as a whole, and these lessons stuck with me due to the DC.

The DC was my sister’s old little pink Digital Camera that I took with me on my trip. My mum told me before I left, “Tad. Take pictures of EVERYTHING,” and ask anyone who went on the Spring Break Apopka trip, or even the people at the Hope Center. I took this advice to heart. I have pictures of the fun we had; the boys were getting ice cream, digging massive holes for compost in the garden, we did Zumba class with the moms of the community, board games with my Host Family, and the infamous Apopka youth group vs. Gonzaga soccer game (we won 6-1 in case anyone is wondering). I have pictures, memories, and stories of the people I met; Mama Celi, my host mother, Aimee, Kimee, Kelce, and Kenia, the little girls I lived and played with who have called me EVERY DAY since I left, and Sister Ann, the coolest nun on Earth. I have pictures of the challenges I faced; the hot weather, the hard work in the gardens, the new foods, the house I lived in, the nursery I worked in, and so much more. I took over 700 pictures and videos on this trip. Call me crazy, but I recommend you do the same on your trips. These pictures have helped me bring the issue I learned about back home and helped me talk to my friends and family about what I have learned. These pictures remind me of the people that make the statistics I hear on the news come alive. No longer are these numbers just numbers. They are PEOPLE.

On the last night of my homestay, I had a long conversation with my host family about their story. Mama Celi crossed the Mexico-American border three times. Her son was born in Texas, so he has his documents, but Mama Celi and her daughter-in-law do not. Her daughter-in-law shared with me the obstacles she faced because she did not have documentation. She goes five below the speed limit, is scared that she will get deported like her brother, and leaves the house every morning unsure if she will see her kids again. Her appointment to get into DACA was canceled due to the pandemic, and now, she can not reapply. I hear about DACA on the news all the time, but had never met anyone who is on DACA until I met her. Now that I have a relationship with the people this issue affects, I feel obligated to help. 

On this trip, I grew closer to my Gonzaga classmates. Looking at the list of names of the guys going on the trip, I was a bit weary. I knew most of the names and had some classes with a few, but I was only tight with one of them. Kevin Reese and I were in the same homestay. Walking into this trip, I knew who he was, but the extent of our friendship was a quick nod in the hallway. When we got to our house, Mama Celi showed us our room. Kevin went in first, and I followed after a quick “gracias por su hospitalidad” and a “Yo hablo un poco de español, él no habla nada”. Kevin stood in the room, holding all his bags and staring at the bed. There was only one bed, barely bigger than a twin. I shut the door, and we kind of just stood in silence for a second, not sure of what to do. We barely knew each other, and now we had to share a tiny bed? Remembering Ms. Flood’s challenge to live simply, we did what we had to do. Oh, and yes, I do have a picture of our room. Kevin and I went from not knowing each other to finding out we have lots of similar interests to now being pretty tight. I grew closer to everyone on the trip. Through working in the gardens and spending all day / every day with the rest of the boys, I saw sides of my classmates I had never seen before. I am so glad that I met these fellas, and if it had not been for the immersion trip, I’m not sure if I ever would have.

My faith was strengthened by my time in Apopka. Everyone we met told their stories of Immigration. Full of emotion, they discuss their experiences, some leaving their family behind, some feeling alone, and all facing prejudice. Yet, even in their worst moments, they trusted God. Through my daily reflections, I found God in all the people I met. I saw God in the farmworkers who laughed as I struggled to prune stems. I saw God in Mama Celi, who gave up her bed, so I would be comfortable. I saw God in the people in the Hope Center, who have dedicated so much time and energy to the never-ending pursuit of change. I saw God in the emotion people showed as they shared their stories with us. I saw God in every smile, every “thank you for being here,” every “YOU’RE FROM GONZAGA!!!” and every person I met. I see God in every picture on this camera. My relationship with Christ was strengthened, as I now have a deeper understanding of the Ignatian Value of Seeing God in all things. This trip was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and I am so grateful that I was able to have this opportunity.

Fellas, I have some advice for those of you who have not yet been on a trip. Dedicate yourself fully. Walk into your trip with an open mind. You will be challenged to think differently, and you will be challenged to live differently. Be thankful for these challenges. Second, immerse yourself in the experiences of the people you are with. Talk to the community you are immersed in. Meet the people, talk to them, and understand. These trips are a chance for you to live in a way you are not used to, to experience things you have never experienced, so do it. Dedicate yourself to learning. 

And most importantly, my FINAL piece of advice. 

Take pictures

Thank you.”

Our Service-Learning families open their homes and hearts to our immersion students every year during the service-learning season, treating them as their own, and helping them integrate into the community. 

If you want to learn more about our Service-Learning Program and how these families make a positive impact every year, visit our website.