By Matthew Schreier
“There is nothing more important than a good, safe, secure home.”
Food, water, shelter, education.
These facets of a healthy, safe lifestyle are seen by most of us as a basic human right. It is in their steady presence that we are able to pursue our goals of personal growth, intellectual achievement, and career success. For people in many parts of the world, however, it is in the acquisition these basic rights that they must focus the bulk of their energy.
For one week of this summer, six fellow medical students, one physician, one bioethicist, one firefighter, one dean, and I had the opportunity to travel down to Belize and help a family build themselves a shelter. Estrella, the woman for whom we would be building a house, lived in a house with her son and mother that had all the components of a home: photographs, decorations, a pair of adorable dogs, and one of the strongest family bonds I have experienced. The structure of the house itself, however, was a bit less faithful, with the foundation sinking and the floor caving in to the moisture. The shelter that this family deserved was giving out on them, so together with Hand-In-Hand Ministries, we were to come down and assist them in building a new one…
Building a house is hard work. Building a house in a humid 106º heat tests more than a few of the body’s capabilities. Yet whenever I sat down to my many breaks to rehydrate, catch some shade, and attempt to regain basic human function, I noticed one person who never stopped working: Estrella. In her heart of hearts, she knew she deserved to have a functional, safe, well-built house, and yet not once did she sit back and expect others to build it for her. She never used words like “right” or “entitled” or “deserved”. Instead her vocabulary was filled with words like “blessed”, “honored”, and “gratitude”.
In the purview of modern society, Estrella had next to nothing. Yet in her eyes, she had everything. She had a loving family, a strong bond with God, an opportunity to build the home she always wanted for her family, and a sense of kindness and generosity that she showed to us every single day. Despite working with the strength and passion of ten people on building her home, she still managed to make it a primary concern that we were well fed, had enough water, and were happy while we worked. She even let a large group of strangers use her bathroom, which by itself should make her a candidate for sainthood. Through meeting this one woman, I gained a knowledge of what humility, generosity, gratitude, fortitude, and passion truly mean.
In our one week there, we helped build a sturdy, safe shelter for this woman and her family, and upon receiving the keys to her new home, a tearfully grateful Estrella assured us all of her gratitude, saying how she would never forget us. What I don’t think she realized is that we should all be thanking her. Through Estrella we saw the values of simplicity, kindness, and true happiness. We left Belize two months ago, and yet not a day has gone by where I have not thought of her. Her spirit, resolve, and love has stuck with me as I’ve moved forward, acting as a constant reminder not to take the things I have and the people I love for granted. I believe that these virtues and experiences will travel with us in our journey to become compassionate, empathetic, and humble physicians.
In that one week, we may have built Estrella a shelter, but she made it into a home.
“Be grateful for the home you have, knowing that at this moment, all you have is all you need.”
~Sarah Ban Breathnach
Matthew Schreier is a second-year medical student at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Learn more about his team’s Ignatian Service Immersion (ISI) to Belize by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNY_0WXOcKc