From the Lakeshores of Michigan to the Rainforests of the Amazon

Sacred Heart students embark on a journey of a lifetime

By: Monique Mansour

A journey abroad provides an excellent opportunity to experience new sights and to see the world as it truly is –a place as diverse as the languages we speak and the countries we call home. Students of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills know this well, as the Roman Catholic school hosts a highly regarded program called “Project Term,” which allows for students to engage in meaningful travel trips.

The program offers distinct categories of travel, such as a service trip, an intellectual growth or career exploration trip, and a personal challenge trip. In addition to these three trip categories, which all students partake in throughout their upper school years, there are other ample travel opportunities offered to students. One of these additional trips took place just this past April. The destination? The Amazon rainforest.

Three Chaldean students of Sacred Heart –Isabella Jonna, Veronica Sheena, and Alexandra Kejbou travelled to the Amazon over the Easter holiday. “We experienced a lot during our time spent in Peru,” said Jonna. “We did service work, engaged with the local culture, fished, hiked, visited an orphanage, and ate the native foods, which usually consisted of rice, a protein, vegetables, plus a type of plantain.”

Spending the Easter holiday with the locals left a lasting impression on the young women. “On Easter we went piranha fishing, swam with local children, and walked on the canopy walkway during sunset,” said Sheena. “We prayed and observed God’s beauty on earth.”

“Our local tour guide, Roldan, was great throughout the whole trip,” said Kejbou. “There was never a time when he wasn’t with us, guiding us, and making sure the experience was great for all of us. Our teacher, Mr. Rossi, has been going down to the Amazon for several years and we all are so appreciative that he takes the time to set up this trip and give us the opportunity to experience the Amazon.”

The young women brought back with them newfound insight. “I am much more appreciative of basic things such as fresh, clean water and electricity that we tend to take for granted in my home community,” said Jonna.

“Before my trip I was excited to explore the rainforest and lend a helping hand to the people of Peru. But now after the trip, I realize that the people of the Amazon impacted me more than I could’ve ever impacted them. The happiness they all had, even though they had so little, helped me have a revelation that I will hold with me throughout my life,” said Sheena.

“I hope to pursue a career in the medical field when I’m older, and being able to see people who may not be in the healthiest conditions only added more passion to my cause,” said Kejbou.

Jonna, Sheena, and Kejbou all expressed sincere thanks and gratitude to Mr. Ron Rossi, a teacher of graphic design and technology at Sacred Heart. Rossi has been organizing “cultural exploration experiences,” as he likes to call them, to the Amazon for fifteen years. “The Amazon is real and it’s organic,” said Rossi. “The people, the environment, everything about it. The people consume only what they need, they are family oriented, and they are warm and welcoming to all.”

Several profound moments were had from this most recent journey with Jonna, Sheena, and Kejnou. “Seeing the faces of the girls as they saw and experienced the magic of this place was special,” said Rossi. “From when they first landed in Iquitos, to when they fed the manatees and boated through the city of Belen…they saw extreme poverty, laid in hammocks, ate the local food… you can’t put a price on the genuine look of happiness and wonder on their faces.”

Though this most recent cultural exploration experience to the Amazon has ended, the cause to encourage others to learn more about this region of the world has not. The students and Rossi brought back handmade goods, such as baskets, bracelets, and carvings. “All the money goes to our non-profit EKOAMAZON, which in turns puts the money back into the Peruvian Amazon,” said Rossi. The money raised from last year’s proceeds went towards the construction of boat-buses, which assists students in the region with their commutes to and from school.

Michelle Shamam Jonna, Jonna’s mother, couldn’t be more thrilled that her daughter and friends got to experience the Amazon firsthand. “As Chaldeans, we have a unique culture to share with others, and, in turn, it’s wonderful when our Chaldean children can go out into the world and discover new cultures as well,” said Shamam Jonna. “I couldn’t be more grateful to Mr. Rossi for his dedication and assistance. I can’t wait to see how the girls will use this experience to help shape their bright futures.” We’ll all be watching to see.