Cape student moves up in the world — 9,000 feet up — on unique service project in the Peruvian Andes Mountains

By Dave Jolivet
Anchor Editor

SOUTH YARMOUTH, Mass. — This summer, countless teen-agers spent a good portion of their free time roaming area neighborhoods enthralled in the Pokémon Go phenomenon. They’re capturing Pokémon, collecting Pokémon balls, potions, incubating Pokémon eggs, and doing battle at Pokémon gyms.

One young man, not among the throngs enamored by the smartphone, interactive reality game, is Thomas Rezendes, a Yarmouth resident heading into his junior year at St. John Paul II High School in Hyannis.

Rezendes spent three weeks of his free time nearly 9,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes Mountains helping to restore a church building, assisting teachers, and improving his Spanish skills. Instead of running around looking for Pokémon, he was running around with village boys and girls playing what the rest of the world calls football: soccer.

Rezendes, an altar-server at his home parish of St. Pius X in South Yarmouth, was part of a group of 18 young men and three adult chaperones sponsored by Youth Service International, Inc., whose activities are entrusted to the Opus Dei community.

For nearly a month, the group lived and ate simply and worked and played hard.

“A friend of mine from northern Massachusetts went on the trip before and he highly recommended it to me,” Rezendes told The Anchor. “I was definitely interested and my mom and dad looked into it, and I was invited to attend this year’s trip.”

Rezendes said what piqued his interest in the trip was that he wanted to see first-hand the culture there and possibly improve his Spanish skills.

After several fund-raising efforts, online and in the area, Rezendes was able to make the long excursion to South America.

“Thomas worked hard to make this happen,” Tom Rezendes, Thomas’ father told The Anchor. “He raised all the funds, and gave up a month of his summer for something that wasn’t a pleasure trip.”

The Pokémon craze has as one of its purposes, to get young people out and about, instead of being planted in front of a TV or laptop screen. Rezendes’ Peruvian venture did that and more.

“Most of the guys attending were from the Washington, D.C. area,” said Rezendes. “I had to take a flight to D.C., then we flew to Panama, then to Lima, Peru, where we stayed the night, and finally we drove seven or eight hours to the mountain village of Llapay. It took us three days of traveling to get there.”

And as if that wasn’t enough wear and tear on the young sojourners, the adjustment of getting accustomed to such thin air in such a high altitude took days.

“I was nervous before I went,” Rezendes told The Anchor. “I didn’t know anyone else, I was going to a different country with a different culture and language. The only time I had been out of the U.S. before was a vacation to Barbados.” Hardly the mountainous terrain and simple living conditions of the Llapay region.

“It took a while to get used to the food, which had less meat and lots of rice and potatoes,” he continued. “But we did have bottled water, and our living quarters were comfortable. It was a nice building.”

Not there for R & R, the young men put in full work days. “Mondays through Fridays, we traveled to the village of Huantán, where we worked on a church building that was very much in disrepair.”

Pictures of the church before the renovation revealed cracked walls with plaster falling off, dire need of a paint job, altars in the same condition, a roof with a plethora of missing boards, and dirt and plaster everywhere.

“We spent each morning and three hours each afternoon plastering, painting and doing general repairs,” Rezendes continued. “And with the money we raised, we were able to have the roof fixed.

“The day we finished, the priest who was traveling with us, Father Diego, from the D.C. area, celebrated Mass in the church, and many, many people who didn’t usually attend, came and were very pleased with the outcome.”

In the “after” pictures, the walls were patched and painted, as were the altars and shrines. Colors abound in the renovated house of worship, which is now clean and bright.

“I’ve heard that in other areas as well, when a church building is renovated, people start coming back, because it’s safe and clean.”

When the group isn’t there, the area has one priest who travels from village to village celebrating Mass and administering the Sacraments. “This church will probably have Mass there once a month or so,” said Rezendes. The group had daily Mass since they had the benefit of a “resident” priest with them.

This particular region wasn’t impoverished; the people there had simple food and homes with electricity and running water; and a few had televisions. Life for the villagers there was simple and basic.

The weekends for the U.S. group consisted of visiting area shops, hiking in the mountains, and playing soccer with the local kids.

“I was amazed at the people there,” Rezendes commented. “They have such basic necessities and possessions, and they live in tight quarters, but they are so happy. These people are grateful for what they do have, and they take it and value it.

“And the children are always running around and they always have smiles on their faces. I’m grateful for having seen this because I’ll remember their simple way of life and the fact that they still lead very happy lives.”

Rezendes made two phone calls home during his three-week stay. “My parents were concerned about me there,” Rezendes said. “So it was nice to speak to them a couple of times.”

“My wife and I definitely missed him while he was away,” dad Tom said. “The house was quiet.”

One of the goals Rezendes had before heading to South America — teaching local children English and sharing the Catholic faith — didn’t really come to fruition. “We had a full slate of work at the church, but we did get to help the teachers out a bit, and as far as teaching the faith, the kids watched a great deal of the work we were doing on the church, so we were setting a good example,” Rezendes told The Anchor. “And I did improve my Spanish skills a bit, but only here and there.”

The return trip home was no less taxing than the way there. There was still an hours-long drive to Lima, followed by three flights back to Cape Cod.

“It took me a few days to get back to normal when I came home,” he added, “but it wasn’t too bad. This whole trip was a great chance to escape from the world we live in around here, and to realize what you do have. Living a simple life is not bad at all. I would do it again.

“And, I got to spend some quality time with God.”

Thomas’ father added, “Thomas came back more mature,” as a result of his experiences in Peru. “We are proud of him for making this sacrifice.”

Rezendes told The Anchor that when he returns to school in a few weeks, the students in his theology class will have to give reports on their summer service projects. It’s a good assumption that Thomas Rezendes will have quite the tale to tell.

He may not have experienced great conquests at a Pokémon gym site, but he served a small part of God’s large family nearly two miles above sea level, 3,800 miles from his home in Yarmouth.

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