While many used fall break as a time to relax and rejuvenate, five Goshen College students spent the time off classes a little bit differently, traveling to Puerto Rico as part of a short-term service trip organized through Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

MDS is a volunteer network of Anabaptist churches which seeks to assist those in need in the wake of natural and man-made disasters. They generally focus their efforts in the United States and Canada, as well as U.S. territories.

MDS contacted two pastors from College Mennonite Church, David and Madeline Maldonado, inquiring about interest in the trip. The church agreed to fund the excursion.

The Maldonados invited five students to travel with them to Puerto Rico. The students who participated in the trip were sophomores Mikol Aspinwall and Talia Miller, junior Erica Ewing, and seniors Vanessa Navarro and Sandra McMasters.

“I went in support of my church, my global community and my Mennonite family - a call to Mennonite servitude,” said Aspinwall, a member of College Mennonite Church.

The trip sought to aid in rebuilding what was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. While the trip began and ended in San Juan, the group spent the majority of their time—five days and five nights—in Utuado, a city located in the mountains of central Puerto Rico.

Utuado was deeply impacted by the Category 5 storm that has since been named the worst natural disaster ever to hit Puerto Rico. The town and its surrounding area suffered from major flooding, extended power outages and general destruction. The remoteness of the location impeded relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

During their time in Utuado, the group worked on a number of different manual labor projects.

“The main [projects] were helping to lay walls and foundation for one house being built and working on tiling the floors and painting the walls for the house being built for the pastor of the Mennonite church in Utuado,” said Miller.

Alongside their service projects, the group sought to make connections with the community that they were staying in.

Miller noted that not only was she able to improve relationships with the other Goshen students during the trip, but she also said that she “got to meet new people and create new friendships with the people living in the area” that they were working.

Navarro also mentioned the impact on her of the people the group met in Utuado, explaining the importance of building relationships, even within such a short time frame.

“The smiles from the people we helped out [were most impactful] because, despite it all, they still smile,” said Navarro. “They’re so happy to have people willing to help them out. Like my friend Sandra said, we are just a small piece of the whole puzzle. We all worked as a team, the people who live there and us.”