For one month, three students and a professor from Saint Mary’s College of California dedicated their time and energy to serve in a place they knew nothing about. Even after completing six class sessions and extensive readings and conversation about ethics and poverty, nothing could have fully prepared us for what we ultimately encountered in Scampia. The art, food, history, and culture in Naples–not to mention the rest of Italy, as well–obviously offer phenomenal tourist opportunities; they are nothing, however, compared to the living beauty we have experienced in the people of Scampia.
At first glance, Scampia is not especially charming. There is trash on nearly every surface, there are stray dogs everywhere, and the towering buildings seem to cage you in. It is almost impossible not to feel the moans and groans of a city overwhelmed by exhaustion and gloom. This is not Scampia, however.
Our perspective of the Scampia we’ve come to know and love has been shaped by our stay at CasArcobaleno, the “second chance” Lasallian school run by a very dedicated group of brothers, teachers, social workers, and psychologists. These leaders–in particular, the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Providence with whom we had the opportunity to live in community–have demonstrated an enduring dedication to the oppressed and an embodiment of selfless love. Despite the assumption that we come as volunteers in order to help the students of CasArcobaleno, the people of CasArcobaleno have ended up teaching us so much.
It is easy to see how people could overlook the beauty of this place, since poverty is often understood to be a result of laziness or a bad attitude; poverty actually works the other way around, however. Every time that the kids of CasArcobaleno choose to show up and do their best, it represents an achievement for them and a gift to their community. At times, the learning process can be frustrating for students, but to watch them push against that has inspired us to push ourselves further and to believe in ourselves. Even though everything seems to be stacked against these young people, they actively choose to find a better path. It is extremely inspiring to see what can happen when they set their minds to overcoming obstacles. One of the most poignant moments we witnessed occurred when the Superior Generals of the Christian Brothers came to visit and each of the students prepared a presentation about what they have been learning at CasArcobaleno. As they each stood up and took their turn speaking in English, the four of us were bursting with pride. We could not stop smiling. Despite any nervousness or fear of mistakes, each student showed everyone just how smart and talented they really are. What a beautiful sight!
Although at times it was difficult to find a way to communicate with each other, there were pivotal moments when we all connected so deeply. They challenged us as we challenged them; communication and interaction were cyclical, moving back and forth, in an ongoing process of give and take. As a result, friendships blossomed. We were able to experience deep hope and joy here, and we want to share that with the rest of the world. We have been given a beautiful and precious gift, inasmuch as we have been given the opportunity to witness and participate in the discovery of new life, hope, and joy–all of which simply need to be unleashed.
The message we want to leave with our friends at CasArcobaleno is this: America is not perfect either. Although there may be more and different opportunities in the United States, many face obstacles similar to those you encounter. We need not hope for the impossible. What we can all do is start with what is in front of us, taking advantage of each and every opportunity that presents itself, rather than choosing to avoid struggles and challenges.
Effort and persistence are crucial. When we do not commit ourselves completely to something, and end up failing, we may feel safe from the vulnerability of personal failure; we can blame it on something else. If, however, we never push ourselves beyond our imagined limits, striving to move beyond our comfort zones and giving everything we have, we will never really know how much we can achieve. We develop best as people when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, even if that means facing the possibility of failure.
Ultimately, education is what we will value the most–more than any physical item–because it is something that no one else can take away from us. Learning shapes us and our relationships–and it can provide the spark we need to empower us to be able to do something different with our lives. For each of us, the choice is ours. You are the journey–we are together the journey–but no journey begins if we never take that first step. A flower cannot grow if we do not let the light in.
When we make genuine human connections, our preconceptions and perspectives change. Knowing each of you and holding you in our hearts has transformed our perception of Scampia into something profoundly different than the place that we had initially imagined it would be. It is so important for all of us–those of us from Saint Mary’s College and each of the young people at CasArcobaleno–to press beyond surface level appearances. For those of us who traveled from California, we would never have been able to be a part of such a beautiful journey if we had not challenged ourselves to leave our comfort zones and to see more deeply. Beauty does not just come–we all have to seek it.
Our dear friends in Scampia, always remember that you are beautiful. You matter. You are worthy. You are important. And you are most definitely smart. The choice to continue the journey, despite the challenges you will inevitably and undoubtedly face, is yours, and yours alone. Never forget to keep taking one step after another, and never stop believing that you are loved and that your journey–the journey that, ultimately, we are all traveling on together–truly matters.