Notre Dame’s Sister Act 3: Spring Break in Queens

My Reflection on Last Month’s Service Trip

By Ciarese De Torres

Top row, left to right: Nia Willis, Sr. Linda, Sr. Jean, and Sr. Eileen Bottom row, left to right: Iza Balmes, Sr. Bern, Sister Cathy and me

If there is one word that encapsulates my time at Queens, it would be “blessings.” At first, I did not even imagine that I would be spending my spring break at a convent. Yet, there I was, with Sister Linda and two more university students at the School Sister of Notre Dame Educational Center (SSNDEC).

Before this trip, I never ventured to any other district in New York besides Manhattan. It was my first time in Queens—much less, my first service trip taking place out of state. The trip from Notre Dame all the way to Queens was quite the adventure. Though the two-hour bus ride from Baltimore to New York City was smooth, the travel by foot and subway (and another bus) felt even longer to reach Queens because we got lost not once but twice. By the time we made it to the center, we were exhausted. Nevertheless, I did not expect that in a span of a week, the center—and the city itself—would feel like a second home. That was the first blessing.

My second blessing would be the sisters: Sister Bernadette (“Bern” for short), Sister Cathy, Sister Jean, and Sister Eileen. The moment we stepped foot at the front door, they instantly welcomed us with open arms (and delicious homemade cookies) and strove to made us feel very comfortable in their home. The sisters had begun to feel like family. So much so, that about halfway through the week, I had already been looking forward to eating any of Sister Bern’s cooking, listening to any of Sister Jean’s mantras during prayer, seeing Sister Cathy smile at anything, and laughing over Sister Eileen’s stories.

(Left to Right) Me, Sister Linda, Sister Jean, Iza and Nia. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the first day onwards, I was excited for what the sisters had planned for us. From Monday to Wednesday, we were scheduled to educate the students there on things we each know well. Gerizza “Iza” Balmes, a junior majoring in psychology, taught the students about mindfulness and a breathing technique for meditation. Nia Willis, a junior double majoring in studio art and psychology, led a class on mandalas and the meanings of colors.

As a sophomore majoring in nursing, I thought it would be useful for the students to know about the basics of first aid, treating a burn, calling 911, and the Heimlich maneuver. Since it was my first time teaching a class first aid, I could not help but feel severely nervous and unsure of myself. Fortunately, Sister Linda came to my rescue by attending my first session. She not only eased my doubts with her supportive presence, but also made it easier for the students there to warm up to me. That was the day I realized there was another blessing: Sister Linda herself. Without her, I certainly would be missing out on many more wonderful memories.

My favorite moments were when I met and got to know many of the students, all of whom are women of different races and religions. They were all very kind, patient, and enthusiastic in my lessons despite my initial stumbles. Being around the women there had me realize several things about myself and the other people here—that I will always love helping people, that all the women there are amazing inspirations, and that everyone there is a family. The kinship they formed with each other and how they extended this warmth to me were more heartwarming blessings that I will always cherish.

Me teaching several students the hand positions for the Heimlich Maneuver.

In addition to teaching and learning more about the women, the wonderful sisters also blessed us with more adventures. To celebrate our last day of teaching the women, we had a delicious dinner at Caridad, a Dominican restaurant owned by the parents of Melissa, one of the students at the center. Even when we waited for our orders, we were both surprised and delighted to greet the familiar faces of several students passing by us. After chomping down on my beef stew with beans and black rice and sucking every drop of my heavenly mango smoothie, I left the restaurant with everyone else, satisfied.

Us at Caridad, a Dominican restaurant owned by the parents of Melissa, a student at SSND Educational Center.

Then, with Sister Eileen as our guide, we spent most of Thursday roaming around the UN building and learning from a panel of interesting speakers about the influence of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The next day, alongside Sr. Jean, we participated in a procession for the Stations of the Cross, where thousands of people trek from the Brooklyn Bridge all the way to Ground Zero. After one last train ride back to Queens, we celebrated Sister Linda’s birthday, complete with cake and cards. It was a lovely end to our Good Friday. It was a bittersweet goodbye the next morning.

Our trip to the UN on Thursday where we listen to a panel of speakers talk about the impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Overall, I felt so lucky to have spent my spring break in Queens. The trip was quite a humbling experience for me, filled with adventures and times to reflect the blessings I have had in this life. The love and support I felt with all the amazing women, students and sisters alike, made me more passionate in continuing to serve the community. After all, service is one of the things that defines a fearless Notre Dame woman.

Photos by Ciarese De Torres

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