Vacation with a Purpose: Helping Schoolchildren on an Arizona Reservation

At the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, which stretches 90 miles across the southern border of Arizona into Mexico, Sister Janet Dalton, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA), helps people navigate some of the most difficult challenges life deals out: murders and suicides of loved ones, physical abuse, drug and alcohol use, gang activity and poverty. It might surprise you to see that her counseling space is papered in cartoon art and her “desk” is a table covered in coloring books and boxes of markers…until you realize the residents she’s helping are children at Indian Oasis Elementary School.

Mary Ellen Baumhover reads to children at Indian Oasis Elementary School
on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in Arizona.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
Roger and Mary Ellen Baumhover, longtime FSPA prayer affiliates from Iowa, have always had an interest in Native Americans, particularly in collecting Native American artwork. So when they heard of service opportunities where Sister Janet ministers they decided to use their vacation time to assist. That’s how on a hot day in March, in a vehicle loaded with enough toys to make a child’s eyes grow big as saucers—soccer balls, kites, coloring books and sidewalk chalk—they find themselves driving through the Arizona desert to a small school 60-some miles south of Tucson.

“I guess I was brought up by my mother to help other people,” explains Roger. “It was bred into me, so to speak,” he says. “Now we’re both retired and we have the time to do this.”

“This is such a rich area to explore and there are many opportunities for service here because there are so many needs,” says Mary Ellen.

Sister Janet Dalton, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, shows off a back room
stocked with donations of shoes, school uniforms, socks and underwear for needy children.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
Sister Janet greets them at the door—a front desk area plastered with artwork which reads “I am a PeaceBuilder;” words that bear Sister Janet’s thumbprint as she leads the non-violence, anti-bullying program at the school.

FSPA have had more of an impact on the school than might be immediately evident. Ministry grants pay for some of the art supplies used when Sister Janet counsels students or for an art therapy program. In addition, ministry grants help stock a back room full of new shoes, school uniforms, socks and underwear for needy children.

Mary Ellen arranges seating in a semicircle in a classroom where she is soon joined by a small group of children who wiggle in their tattered desks. A retired reading specialist, today she is doing reading exercises with the children. “I’m determining where the students are in their reading skills so I can give their teachers a heads up on what they might not see. They don’t work one-on-one with the kids as much.” When she shows them the pictures in the book they lean forward, pointing and chattering, nearly falling out of their desks with interest.

Roger fulfills other needs like repairing sports equipment and arranging bulletin boards. Both he and Mary Ellen shrug off the importance of the tasks they’re doing, expressing a desire to do more—which they hope will be possible over an extended time period in the future. Yet their influence today breeds an excitement in the children—visitors, particularly those who are interested in the students—are a welcome curiosity.

As the day nears an end, Roger bends over plastic sheets and wood dowels in concentration while children surround him in the cavernous gymnasium, breathless with curiosity. He’s showing them how to assemble the kites that made the journey from Tucson today. With time left on the clock, he urges them into the hot schoolyard outside where he holds the kite up to the relentless desert wind, little hands on the other end gripping tightly to the cord, waiting for the miraculous tug, the seemingly impossible launch.

Roger Baumhover helps children assemble their kites. He and his wife used their vacation to
assist children on the Tohono O’ohdam Indian Reservation in Arizona.
Photo by Charish Badzinski.
The final bell rings, and a little boy embraces Roger. “Just being able to help somebody is rewarding. Their little smiles, their little thanks and the hugs that I got,” Roger reflects.“I think when you can make anyone smile, that’s a good reward,” says Mary Ellen. “Or when you can give them something, and you can tell they got it by their smiles.”
After nearly a decade of counseling children at the school, Sister Janet knows the real value of such work. “I think you have an opportunity to take away some of the pain that the children experience from the various traumas in their life.”

Back in the schoolyard, as Roger holds the kite, a little girl with dark curls in a khaki school uniform skirt runs as fast as her tiny legs can take her. Dust clouds puff up from beneath her sneakers, and her arms strain against the pull of the kite string.

For a moment the kite catches the breeze and rises up toward the sun. It doesn’t matter how it got there. All that matters is that it is flying, that someone took the time to hold it up to the wind so it could fly, at last.

This article by Charish Badzinski was first published in Presence newsletter, a Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration publication. It is republished here with permission. 

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Charish Badzinski is an explorer, foodie and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations. 

Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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