Winter's snowy winds swirling off the Allegheny River serve as a cold reminder that Mexico's sunshine soaked days are far behind.
A group of Alle-Kiski Valley youth, though, vow that the lessons they learned there the past summer while on a mission trip to Ensenada to help those in need, always will be with them.
They were part of a team that built a basic house in four days for a family that had been living within cardboard walls, on floors of dirt and under a roof of old rugs. Their electric wiring also was considered dangerous.
"It not only touched my heart, but changed my life," says Alexis Bradburn of New Kensington, a freshman psychology major at Penn State, New Kensington campus, Upper Burrell. "I learned to appreciate the small things in life and to realize who and what really matter in life."
"For a lot of us, it has taught us to appreciate what we have so much more," adds Christian Laliberte, 14, of New Kensington. "It was nice helping other people out."
Trip leader Paul Kostick III of Lower Burrell, youth pastor of Cheswick Christian Fellowship Church in Cheswick, says the experiences affect in their daily lives those who made the journey.
"We have been teaching on ministering more to others who need it," he says. "Our theme for this year is, 'It's not about me.' We are going to be doing other ministries locally, the next one a homeless outreach."
The Mexican trip in July and August provided a new sense of home for the 18 members of the church's Narrow Road Youth Ministry, most of whom attend or graduated from Cheswick Christian Academy.
"Everyone from our group cried when we presented the house to the family (which consisted of Miguel Chavez, his wife, Eden, and their two children, Caesar and Daniel). It was a very touching moment," says Allison Buirge, 17, of Plum, a senior at Cheswick Christian Academy. "Giving of oneself always turns out to be a blessing in return."
Turning the house over to the family and seeing how appreciative they were was the most satisfying part of the trip, Laliberte says.
Bradburn, who had become close with Caesar Chavez, all of 10 or 11, agrees.
"If you ever get the chance to see the look on someone's face when you give them a new home, a new start, you'll never be the same person," she says.
At a dedication ceremony, each member of the group had the opportunity to hold the house key, say a few words to the Chavez family, and pass the key on to the next person.
Bradburn, struck with the emotion of the moment, was first to speak through tears. "I said what I felt and meant it all. The key was about halfway around the circle, and I was crying even harder," she recalls. Caesar held her hand, and she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was his mom, Eden.
When the key completed the circle, the Chavez family spoke through translators to the group. "They told us that God blessed them with us. They thanked us," she says. Eden pulled her aside and gave her photos of her boys. "Then she told me that their house was always open to me," Bradburn says.
When it was time to leave, and former strangers turned newfound friends hugged, Bradburn began crying again. "I saw a single tear running down Caesar's face. That's when I knew I was never going to forget him and how he changed my life," she says.
There are some people who come in and out of your life, perhaps teaching you a lesson, she adds. "And there are others who impact your life, who make you realize what's important, who make you realize that love is the most important gift of all." she says.
Bradburn says she went to Mexico to show people the love of God by building them a house. "But what I never expected was how much they showed me the love of God. They have nothing; yet, they have everything."
It is a powerful dynamic, says Brandy Blazevich of Elizabeth Township, one of the adults on the tour. (She is the wife of Clinton Blazevich, Cheswick Christian's assistant pastor).
"Before I went, I saw Mexico as a country of poverty and want. I went there and saw poverty, but I also saw happiness." she says. "They are content with what they have and are so happy and eager to share it with you. The children have such joy. I was blessed by their attitudes.
She, like Bradburn, would return again. "It is an amazing experience. You spend the week serving and trying to help a particular family and the people of Mexico, and in the end, they end up helping you," she says.
Kostick says he definitely will be taking another trip back next year to help the nonprofit, nondenominational Yugo Ministries, which built 110 houses this year. (Details on the ministry at: www.yugo.org)
"Seeing the teens share and tell the family how much they meant to us, and how much they were going to miss them was very special," he says.
Alexis Bradburn says she never has felt more at home in her life.
"It was," she says, "the most amazing thing I've ever done."
A SUGAR-COATED LESSON
The youth-group trip he led to Mexico this year was filled with freeze-frame moments, says Paul Kostick III.
One of the most memorable, the Lower Burrell resident says, was the day he gave candy to a Mexican boy to share with the 30 or so neighborhood children who were playing soccer with his group.
"Once Caesar finished giving all the kids candy, he came and gave me back the extra candy," says Kostick, youth pastor at Cheswick Christian Church. "I was so surprised, because here in the U.S., when I have given candy to kids, I would never have received any extra back. But they were so grateful to get the candy, they were very generous and shared willingly with each other."