Service trips to El Salvador and Mississippi

Notre Dame Preparatory School seniors Kate Somerville, left, and Maddie Wiklund discuss their recent service trip to El Salvador. (Photo by Steve Ruark / April 22, 2012)

The seniors from Notre Dame Preparatory School who returned to school last week after spending their spring breaks in El Salvador and Starkville, Miss., were understandably having a tough time describing the experience to their peers.

But if you want to know just how affected the 36 girls who took part in the 20th annual service trips to each location were by their experience, just ask them about prom.

"All the other girls are still talking about dresses, shoes and nails," said Jen Mallinoff, 17, of Glen Arm.

Not them, though. After coming from a place where the people had so little materially — but were spiritually rich — Mallinoff and the 19 other NDP students have found little time in their lives for the extravagances of that particular rite of passage.

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"It's just so different coming back, because you're trying to be like these people and have the same values," said Maddie Wiklund, 17, of Roland Park. "It isn't that hard for us to go from here to there, but coming back to this, it's impossible."

Cami Colarossi, Notre Dame Prep's director of communications, said the service trips are "rooted in a simple motivation to witness and act, as expressed in the prophet Micah — ''to love tenderly, act justly and to walk humbly with our God.' "

Over the years, 175 students and 50 faculty members have participated in the El Salvador trip, while some 300 students and 65 faculty members have traveled to Starkville.

Notre Dame Prep has made significant financial contributions to the village, Ignacio Ellacura, over the last two decades; enough to help fund the construction of a library, a youth playground, a youth center and fencing around the school to keep animals out.

They also annually provide school supplies to students and teachers in grades kindergarten through eighth grade, and have given scholarships to 10 university students in the last five years.

But the girls realized its about more than sending money. Every year, Notre Dame students return to the village to develop connections and learn the stories of its villagers. This year was no exception.

Wiklund was particularly struck by one woman in the town they where they visited who proudly showed off a kitchen that would seem primitive here in America.

It was an outdoor kitchen with a clay table and a pot, and Wiklund couldn't help but think of her own kitchen in Roland Park.

"I have a simple kitchen for someone from the United States, but she was so proud of hers," she said. "I wish I could give her a refrigerator."

Instead, she did the next best thing. When she arrived home and went right on vacation with her family, she had only the three dresses her mother brought to wear for the duration of the trip.

Wiklund had left her clothes back in El Salvador with the people she met along the way — and refused to buy anything while on the trip.

The students found that the material poverty in El Salvador didn't take away from the spirit of the people.

Strip that away, they said, and there were few differences between the Notre Dame girls and the students they visited.

Kate Somerville, 17, of Timonium, said kids in the El Salvador neighborhood, with their jokes and boundless energy, were exactly like her little brother.

Wiklund said she and others in the village bridged the language barrier for some quality "girl talk" and forged connections that will last a lifetime.

Similarly, the girls who traveled to Starkville, Miss., for a Habitat for Humanity project in which they ultimately built two houses, were struck by how nice everyone — rich or poor — was in the area.