Volunteering is an "opportunity" to Aidyanne Jeriliss Torres of Our Lady of the Americas Shrine Church, a mission of Blessed Sacrament parish in Albany.
So, when a relative encouraged the 17-year-old to join a mission trip to Chiquilistagua, Nicaragua, two years ago, "I took it just as quickly as I could," she said.
"God didn't make us just to benefit ourselves, but to go out and help others," said Aidyanne, an incoming senior at Albany High School. "Kids may come into the [mission] compound barefoot, but they're glad to see us. You're only in Nicaragua for a week, and you wish you could be there forever."
She's now completed two trips through North Country Mission of Hope, a Plattsburgh faith-based humanitarian organization that brings education, health care and ecological development to poor Nicaraguan villages. Volunteers canvass the barrios and distribute to each family a bag of rice, a bag of beans, rosaries and stuffed animals for children.
Aidyanne has assisted with health exams, built shelters of tin and wood, measured heights and weights of schoolchildren to ensure proper nutrition and distributed water filters. She also helped build a community garden at a school and gave out meals to students.
Residents subsist on rice, beans and fruit when available or other crops if they live on farms. There's some medical care, "but it's so expensive that people don't even bother," Aidyanne said. The number of people living in dumps has decreased with the help of the government and humanitarian organizations.
"We'd like to just give them all we have," Aidyanne said. "I feel like our most important role [is bringing] hope to the entire community. [I've] been able to help people in very heartbreaking situations."
Aidyanne's parents are from Puerto Rico, so she grew up speaking Spanish. She's been the main translator on her trips - something that "made me feel like I'm pretty much at home," she said.
She relayed to the other volunteers the story of Claudia, a second-grader who couldn't attend school because her mother needed to clean her colostomy bag regularly. Mission of Hope was able to buy Claudia more bags and fund another operation.
When Aidyanne returned to Nicaragua the following year, Claudia was going to school and playing with friends.
"It gives me satisfaction just knowing that I was able to be part of that," she said. "I leave knowing that I may have changed someone's life while I was there. It's something you pretty much can't describe."
The group gives out thousands of stickers to children. Aidyanne was touched when a child stuck one on a volunteer's ID badge: "That's when you know that even the smallest things are appreciated," she said, realizing: "I should appreciate what I have and what my parents give me."
At home, the teen volunteers at soup kitchens and goes to Plattsburgh to sort medical supplies and clothing at Mission of Hope's storage house. She sings in two competitive choirs at school and is a member of the National Honor Society. She also works 10 hours a week after school tutoring younger students at the New York State Museum in Albany.
"It's also important to show that we care about the kids here," Aidyanne remarked. School comes easy to her, but she says she's been "pushed" by her parents to do well, so it's important to her to give back to children without that kind of support.
Aidyanne plans to become a pediatrician. This summer, she's studying expiration dates of epinephrine auto-injectors in a research program at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
She's also very active with retreats, youth group activities and Spanish Masses at Our Lady of the Americas Church. Attending liturgies in Nicaragua "made me honor more the time I have in church," she said. "Although they may not have a lot, that is why they go to church."
People given the opportunity to do a mission trip should take it, she added: "It's an experience that will change your life."