When an American college student named Joe Czupinski was looking to find purpose in his life, he discovered the Salesian Lay Missioner program. Not sure what to expect, Joe embarked on a year-long journey to Brazil that would touch the lives of impoverished children living in a forgotten corner of the globe.
Joe was assigned to a Salesian school on the Iauarete reservation to teach English and art. "The biggest challenge for the community was trying to adjust to a world that grew up without them," he recalls. "They have only been influenced by Western civilization during the last few decades."
Joe was alarmed by another harsh reality of life on the reservation. "Alcoholism is a huge problem,” he reports. “Micro-communities throw huge parties where children eight and nine years old experiment with alcohol. By the time they are in their teens, many are overcome by alcoholism. It's heartbreaking to see young people so drunk in the streets."
Nevertheless, Joe found inspiration from the small miracles in his daily routine.
One Sunday at a weekly youth gathering, Joe noticed a 14-year-old girl named Sira sitting alone in the corner of the room. When he inquired why her friends were not there, she said they went to a neighborhood party so they could drink. She explained she didn't want to join them because she knew it wasn't a good idea.
"So I took her to play volleyball," says Joe. ”Then she met some new girls who asked her to join a soccer game. I gave her a thumbs-up when I saw that she had met new friends."
Another encounter also made a lasting impression. "When I announced that I was leaving the reservation, an 11-year-old boy named Fredson came up to me and asked if he could join my art class before I had to go," Joe explains.
"The boy was so excited and he really excelled in the class. It was very inspiring to feel that I had made a real difference in his life."
Joe reflects on how "many of the kids at the reservation take education much more seriously since they know they can't get it anywhere else."
Despite the challenges of living in poverty thousands of miles from the comforts of home, the outpouring of gratitude from the children made a lasting impression. Perhaps the greatest moment came on Joe's final night at the reservation, when 200 people lined up to give him hugs and well-wishes. Many said that they will miss Joe and that he really made a positive difference in their lives.
Joe had planned to pursue a degree in business when he returned home. But, the 12 months he spent immersed with the poor and needy, he realized he had a more meaningful calling. Joe now wants to devote his life to helping young people realize their full potential … just as he did on his journey as a Salesian Lay Missioner in Brazil.
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Find out more about the Salesian Lay Missioner program.