Victor Torres Gutierrez, a resident of Hogar San Francisco de Asis, enjoys a game of checkers with St. John’s students.
Story and photos by Gregory A. Shemitz
West Islip—For the past seven years, small teams of students and faculty members from St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School here have made mission trips each summer to a faith-based group residence in Peru that provides care for babies, children and teenagers with physical or developmental disabilities and other young people with serious medical conditions.
On March 23, Dr. Anthony Lazzara, 74, founder of the residence, Hogar San Francisco de Asis (Home of St. Francis of Assisi), was the featured speaker at the high school’s Coffee House, a monthly gathering of students that includes a presentation by a guest speaker, dinner, fellowship and prayer. The event is sponsored by St. John’s campus ministry.
Victor Torres Gutierrez, 17, a long-time resident of the Hogar, joined Dr. Lazzara at the Coffee House. They traveled to Long Island from Peru March 19 to visit with St. John’s students and staff before returning home March 26. An informal reception was hosted by the school March 24 to benefit Dr. Lazzara’s Villa La Paz foundation.
More than 50 students—several of whom have participated in mission trips to the Hogar—attended the Coffee House. Following a catered meal of Spanish food, Dr. Lazzara spoke about the Hogar during a Q&A session facilitated by Richard Costa, St. John’s campus minister. Dr. Lazzara opened the current residence in 1987 in the Chaclacayo district of the Lima province.
Dr. Lazzara had enjoyed a successful pediatrics practice in Atlanta and lived comfortably in a condominium apartment, but yearned to do mission work. An invitation by a Franciscan missionary to assist at a medical dispensary in Peru paved the way for the Tampa, Fla.-born physician to pursue his vocation in South America.
“I had a great job and lots of friends,” said Dr. Lazzara, a Third Order Secular Franciscan. “God had been good to me, and I owed him a lot.”
Torres Gutierrez, who was born without arms, socialized with the St John’s students throughout the evening. They played checkers, engaged in friendly banter, and shared many smiles and laughs. The Coffee House also presented an opportunity for students who had been on mission trips to the Hogar to reunite with Torres Gutierrez, who learned to speak English at an early age.
St. John’s has developed a strong bond with Dr. Lazzara and the Hogar over the years. More than 200 students and 25 faculty members have participated in mission trips to Peru since they began in 2010. The trips, which are open to students entering their senior year, have become so popular that three to four trips are now scheduled each summer to accommodate as many teens as possible.
Asked why the mission trips have drawn a high degree of interest from St. John’s students and staff, Costa said: “Because (that is where) they meet Christ.”
Costa said the trips are “life-changing” experiences for participants, adding the Hogar “emanates Catholicism, emanates the ideal of St. Francis.”
A mission trip to Peru is clearly not a vacation. Accommodations are simple and the work can be challenging. In addition to playing with the Hogar residents—who range from newborn to age 18—students also assist with personal care and will accompany the children on bus rides to appointments with medical specialists in Lima, a 15-mile trek that can take up to three hours because of archaic roads and traffic congestion. Each day ends with the volunteers and children attending Mass together at a nearby church.
Carli Kleinfelder, 17, participated in the mission trip last summer. She said the joy exuded by students who had gone on previous trips prompted her to follow in their footsteps. “I heard everyone talking about it. They said it was an amazing experience,” said Kleinfelder, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church, Bay Shore.
One of her responsibilities at the Hogar was to join other students in accompanying children by bus to doctors’ appointments in Lima. Kleinfelder was tasked with carrying an infant who was scheduled to have an orthopedic procedure. On another day she went with Dr. Lazzara to the market to shop for food.
“(The experience) made me realize that the problems we have aren’t bad compared to what (the children at the Hogar) are dealing with,” said Kleinfelder. “We take so much for granted.”
Liam Costa, 17, son of Richard Costa, has participated in three mission trips to the Hogar, one with his classmates at St. John’s and two with his family.
“It changed my view of life,” said Costa, a member of Our Lady of the Snows Parish, Blue Point. “I started to realize what things in life aren’t important, like Wi-Fi or a small injury. When you see what these children go through, it changes your outlook.”
Dr. Lazzara and his ministry have made a strong impact on the St. John’s students.
“He’s an incredible guy,” said Liam Costa. “He surrendered himself to God and followed what God wanted him to do.”
Dr. Lazzara, meanwhile, appreciates the sacrifices the missioners from St. John’s make each summer.
“They could be at the beach. They could be doing something else with their time,” he said. “Instead of thinking of themselves, they’ve chosen to do something very admirable, and I thank them for that.”