Charleston shares love with Guatemalan orphans

Father Patrick Watikha, AJ, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Charleston, visits with orphans living at Hogar Esquipulas in Guatemala this spring. Twenty of the children receive scholarships to attend Colegio San Benito.
Father Patrick Watikha, AJ, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Charleston, visits with orphans living at Hogar Esquipulas in Guatemala this spring. Twenty of the children receive scholarships to attend Colegio San Benito.

FORT SMITH — Partners in Benedictine Education, St. Scholastica Monastery’s ministry in Guatemala, expanded this spring with a mission trip hosted by Sacred Heart Church in Charleston.

Today, 29 girls and three boys receive scholarships at Colegio San Benito, a K-12 school on the grounds of the Abbey of Jesus Christ Crucified in Esquipulas. Twenty of those students reside in Hogar Esquipulas, a Franciscan orphanage that has become home base for Arkansas missionaries.

The program has grown to include other partners: Sacred Heart Church in Charleston, Subiaco Abbey and Academy and oblates, Trinity Junior High School Spanish classes and volunteer teachers from the River Valley.

In March, program director Sister Rosalie Ruesewald, OSB; oblate and volunteer coordinator Kathy Jarvis and Jennifer Verkamp, co-founders of the Partners in Benedictine Education program, accompanied Sacred Heart Church parishioners on a mission trip to Esquipulas. Five parishioners — youth director Veronica Frederick and daughter Nikkole, Tyna Burrows and Jennifer and Bethany Verkamp — were making their second visit to Guatemala. Lesa and Rachael Schluterman, and pastor Father Patrick Watikha, AJ, were first-time visitors.

Nikkole Frederick, a freshman at University of Central Arkansas, reconnected with a young friend, Estephania. Initially, the 7-year-old didn’t recognize her, but when Frederick showed her a picture of the two of them taken two years earlier, “just like that, it was as if I had never left. She clung to my side the whole rest of the time I was there.”

Lesa Schluterman, traveling with her teenage daughter Rachael, said their lives would forever be changed by the children in the orphanage.

“We would wake up to the children banging at the windows of our casita,” she said. “We couldn’t get dressed fast enough to go out and play with them.”

Father Watikha’s visit to Guatemala brought back memories of his own childhood in Mbale, Uganda. When he was young, a priest recognized his potential and gave him a scholarship to a Catholic school.

“I feel so very connected with the children I met in the scholarship program in Guatemala,” he said. “I’m the only one in my family who went beyond grade school … I think if someone helps a child become educated, that person is helping that child have a real future. That’s what happened to me.”

Program co-founder Jennifer Verkamp said the Partners program has had a lasting impact on her family. Her family has had a connection to Guatemala since her 14-year-old twin sisters were adopted from there. Her father, Deacon Mark Verkamp, was on the 2013 trip. She and her sister Bethany have visited several times, and both have discerned their future careers after their visits.

Bethany Verkamp will enter the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock this fall. She made the decision after hearing about orphaned children who had lost their mothers to unknown illnesses because of the lack of medical care. 

“I couldn’t imagine losing a parent, especially not being able to know what had caused their illness,” she said. “This is the moment it clicked for me; I could help; I could possibly change this type of situation for a different family. In this moment I knew that medicine was what I wanted to pursue.”

Jennifer Verkamp will pursue a master’s degree in social work at Boston College this fall. In her trips to Esquipulas she has seen the first scholarship students mature academically and socially.

“One of the 14-year-old girls in the beginning would hardly lift her head to greet me, much less speak to me,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised this time to see that she now stands tall and looks you in the eye when she speaks.”

“I find the enthusiasm of the volunteers for the Guatemala Scholarship Program very heartening,” Sister Rosalie said. “They recognize the need of education for girls especially, and they see the positive results of their efforts. Girls are being educated and are finding their voices. Missioners are being educated about the deep faith of the Guatemalan people. Both are coming to see that we are truly ‘one family in Christ,’ a lesson Pope Francis continues to teach. How exciting!”

Maryanne Meyerriecks

Maryanne Meyerriecks joined Arkansas Catholic in 2006 as the River Valley correspondent. She is a member of Christ the King Church in Fort Smith, a Benedictine oblate and volunteer at St. Scholastica Monastery.

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