Marc Haeringer, left, Jason Gunderson, Tiffany Loo, Courtney Haia and Jaime Kotake were among the students who went on a "mission to Majuro."

What I did on my summer vacation

Nine Maryknoll students
visit Majuro island to tutor teens
and do community service

When classmates tell tales of vacation trips and summer jobs, nine Maryknoll High School students will take their turn sharing their "mission to Majuro."

The youths spent three weeks tutoring other teenagers and doing work projects at Assumption School, operated by the Maryknoll religious order on the capital island of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

This is the 12th year that students from the Makiki Catholic school have participated in the exchange, which is as much a cultural experience for the Americans as it is an outreach to the Micronesians.

"It's not about trying to convert people to Catholicism, it's just to be with them," said junior Jason Gunderson. "The people are really nice. Even though they don't have much, they will give you anything you want."

Ann Hannan, left, and Maryknoll High School student Courtney Haia talk about their visit to Majuro.

The exchange program is an expression of the school's motto, "Noblesse oblige," which faculty and students translate as "To whom much is given, much is expected." The principle is expanded in a class on Maryknoll values, required for all seniors, and reflected in the graduation requirement of 100 hours of community service.

"The ideal of living Maryknoll is living outside your comfort zone," said counseling director Ann Hannan, who has coordinated the Majuro educational expedition for the past eight years. She said preparation for the trip includes an assignment to read "Hearts on Fire," about Maryknoll nuns and their practical medical and teaching work as well as spiritual missions in China.

Senior Courtney Haia said one reason she signed on was that "algebra is one of my favorite things to do." She and her classmates tutored 48 Assumption School freshmen in mathematics and English for four hours each day, reinforcing classes taught by Hannan to prepare the Micronesian students for high school.

"We're not going to teach people math in three weeks, and the same for English, but we can work on their self-esteem," Hannan said. "We go to affirm their lifestyle, to affirm their culture. We don't take our way with us; we experience theirs."

Maryknoll High School students went on a trip to Majuro this summer to help tutor students and do community service projects. Alex Hern, standing on the far left, helps a student with schoolwork.

The only formal religious or spiritual component of the "missioner" project comes in an all-day retreat that boys and girls attend together. "The students face the same cultural challenges as kids in Honolulu -- what is right, how should I live," Hannan said.

"Every one of these kids shared their love with them. That's what the Maryknoll sisters have done," she said.

Senior Angelica Zabanal followed her sister in making the trip.

"They are really bright students, and they came from the best schools, but they still had trouble with basic addition and subtraction," said Zabanal, who has kept in e-mail correspondence with her "host sister" since their return July 18. "They are all so shy to begin with. It just felt good to be able to help them in whatever way I could."

She added: "It was an eye-opening experience. We realize how lucky it is to live here."

Living the Micronesian culture meant wardrobe adjustments for the Hawaii girls. "We had to wear skirts and long pants, nothing higher than the knees," Zabanal said. T-shirts were on and spaghetti straps were out. Swimming was done fully clothed in shirt and skirt.

"I got so much more from the trip than I expected," said Haia, who found many links to Hawaiian traditions of family.

Angelica Zabanal, left, Tiffany Loo, Courtney Haia, Amanda Leong and Jaime Kotake find time for some fun.

The parents of her host family -- the father is a fisherman, and the mother is an elected member of the Legislature -- were often hosts to any number of visitors. "We would get up for breakfast and find people sleeping on couches."

There were modern conveniences, including air conditioning and computers, but the family had to boil water for drinking.

Tutoring was fun, Gunderson said, but he also appreciated doing some hard labor.

"We picked up garbage around school," he said. "The Majuro guys and I went and cut palms to weave into a shed for the school."

The Hawaii youngsters' experience included participating in a July 4 party at the U.S. Embassy, a billfish tournament and the burial service for the Rev. Leonard Hacker, the Jesuit priest who founded the Assumption parish 50 years ago. They met former Maryknoll religion teacher Ted Stepp, who initiated the "missioner" program and is still on a mission to Majuro, now teaching developmental English in the College of the Marshall Islands.

This year, the planners added a lesson in Marshallese legends that was successful in the socialization, cultural exchange and self-esteem departments. The youngsters acted in skits depicting stories of how the first coconut tree grew and how a kite became an island, a show that delighted the adults in the audience, which included the government minister of education.

"I wanted them to do it themselves," said Gunderson, acting veteran of campus productions and director of a skit. "They were very shy at first. It was like pulling teeth to get them to speak. I tried to bring comedy into it. That's why I led them to pick this one myth, because everybody laughs about."

His cast depicted the tale of how the island of Ujae came to have an elevated bump. The story involved a giant female demon swallowing the hero, who cleverly managed to escape time and again.

The method of his escape is described in the title of the famous legend, "Demon Fart."

Haia, left, Zabanal and Del Tanabe weave palm fronds.

Also on the Majuro expedition were Mark Haeringer, Alex Hern, Tiffany Loo, Amanda Leong, Jaime Kotake and Del Tanabe.

"I think everyone would say, 'I got more out of it that I gave,'" Hannan said.

Maryknoll high school Principal Betsey Gunderson said she's found her son to be more responsible since the trip. "When a student has taken the trip, you get a sense of tolerance and of mission. These kids become more aware of the need to be a responsible citizen."

The school's students are involved year-round in community service projects including stream cleanup, the children's justice system, feeding the homeless and teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation, she said. An earlier returnee organized a project to send plastic desks to replace rusting metal ones at Assumption School, and another seeks help in filling a container with books and school equipment.

"Majuro is just one piece," Gunderson said.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.


E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --