She Left Her Heart in Honduras

Aisling Travers and her friend, Jose.

Aisling Travers and her friend, Jose.

Aisling Travers was always taken with the homilies delivered by Father Dennis O’Donnell, a visiting priest at her parish, St. Patrick’s, in Malvern. Father O’Donnell, past rector at Malvern Retreat House, along with Anthony Granese, a Villanova engineering graduate, and Granese’s wife, Christine co-founded of Amigos de Jesus, a Malvern-based nonprofit that helps to operate a home for impoverished children in Honduras.

“He would always incorporate the kids into his homilies and it would make us all feel like we were there with them,” says the 21-year-old West Chester University education major. “I always said to my mom, ‘I’m going to go there one of these days.’”

That day came last summer, when she was one of 20 people who flew to Central America for a short-term mission, one week with the boys and girls at the 200-acre property in the Santa Barbara area of Honduras. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but Father O’Donnell set the volunteers straight on the flight down.

“He said, ‘You’re not here to fix the children. They will fix you,’” recalls Aisling, a vibrant redhead and the daughter of Irish immigrants. “’I’m telling you now,’ he said, ‘you’re all caught up in feeding them, teaching them, saving them, being all they need and more, but you’ll find that you’re the ones who are really in need.’ I thought, ookaaay. I have no idea what’s ahead of me.”

She knows now and is ready for her June 28 return trip, this time with her younger sister, Ciara, and boyfriend, Joey Smith. “Some people go to check something off on their bucket list then go back to their old life,” she says. “Others, like me, found that Amigos de Jesus becomes a part of your life and you leave a part of you there. You leave so much of your heart there.”

That’s why Aisling has been juggling school and event planning for the last few weeks. She’s organized a fundraiser for Amigos de Jesus on Sunday, May 4, at St. Declan’s Well Irish Pub and Restaurant, 3131 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia. The choice of venue was a no-brainer: The pub is owned by her uncle, Aidan Travers, and Marty Spellman, whose daughter, Elizabeth, a former Philadelphia Rose of Tralee, spent two years teaching at the Amigos de Jesus orphanage.

“Our worlds seem to have come together,” says Aisling of Elizabeth Spellman. Aisling was the 2014 recipient of the Mary O’Connor Spirit Award, given annually at the Rose of Tralee selection event, which took place this year on April 11.

And she wants to bring other worlds together. “It continues to blow my mind how generous the Irish community in Philadelphia is,” she says. “I thought it would be good to get them behind this. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to say Jose is being sponsored by the Irish in Philadelphia?”

Ah, Jose. That’s the name of the eight-year old who greeted her as she got off the bus at the orphanage with her name written on a piece of cardboard suspended by string around his neck. And he is holding on to the part of her heart she left behind.

“Oh my, he was the cutest little boy I ever met,” she gushes. “There I was, getting off the bus, which had armed guard on board, thinking, this is going to be awkward since I don’t know anybody, and he came up to me. We fell in love. Every time I looked around he was at my hip. Every day we had a prayer circle when we would all meet and hold hands in a big circle, and he would make sure he was next to me holding my hand. During reflection times, he would sit on my, and fall asleep on my lap during Mass. Many nights I would carry him to bed. I wanted to take him home with me!”

Though Jose had a 1000-watt smile—as did most of the children—Aisling said she knew he had “a horrific” back story. While some of the children are orphans, most have parents who were either not financially able—or emotionally able—to care for them.

“I thought all the children were like little Oliver Twists with no moms and dads, but that was wrong. A lot of them were abandoned by their parents, or mistreated and they government got involved. They all carry some kind of scar. But I have to say it’s the happiest sad place you’ll ever go. These kids don’t have luxuries, they come from awful backgrounds, but they’re the happiest kids you’ll ever meet because they found this happy place and they feel safe.”

Aisling is no stranger to volunteer work. While still a student at Great Valley High School, she started a program called Kid2Kid which brought 150 teen volunteers to work with sick kids at Nemours/Alfred I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. She also launched a drive called Pencils for Peace which enlisted middle school children to provide children in Africa and Afghanistan with needed school supplies. But her Amigos de Jesus experience was different.

“Everybody has the potential to give back to society in their own bubble here in America. I needed to step out of this bubble to see what this world had to offer,” she says.

She wasn’t deterred by her lack of Spanish, though she knew enough words to translate the nickname given to her by one of the kids at the orphanage. “He called me ‘Mucha Blanca.’ I knew blanca meant white and mucho meant very, so my nickname was ‘Very white,’” she says, laughing. “It wouldn’t have been so bad but it spread like wildfire around the orphanage and Father O’Donnell picked up on it. During one of our reflections, he was talking about the Holy Spirit, and how you can find it in the dark, or how if you’re out in a field you can see it, ‘kinda like Mucha Blanca over there.’”

She bought the Rosetta Stone Spanish language program so she should be slightly more fluent in June, she says. But it really won’t matter much. “As long as you can open your heart and love those kids, “ she says, “you don’t need to know Spanish.”

The Amigos de Jesus fundraiser runs from noon to 4 PM on Sunday, May 4, and features live music, the McDade-Cara Irish dancers, and food for your $15 admission. There will be drink specials and raffle baskets. It’s the day of the Broad Street Run, so check local traffic for detours.

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