"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the 
least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me' " (Matthew 25:40)

March 26, 2008

St Francis Nat'l Park Foundation
The Mission
Ripon Mission
Christian Medical Missions

This is the second in a series of stories highlighting Ripon’s sister city — Wacuco, Panama — and the work being done there by Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski.

This week’s article focuses on a group of citizens and students who recently returned from a 10-day mission trip to Panama. Next week will focus on how east-central Panama has improved in Father Wally’s 20 years of service to the region.

by Ian Stepleton

Ripon builder Peter Kasuboski, younger sibling of “working priest” Father Wally Kasuboski, has travelled to Panama numerous times to help his brother in the rural village of Wacuco. “They all start to run together,” he admits of the visits. “I’ve been eight, nine times; I lose track.” While nothing is routine in rural Panama — even a trip to the hardware store is an adventure — Peter and other veterans from past trips didn’t know what to expect during this latest visit.

The March 6 to 16 visit included a couple of firsts: one of the largest groups to ever visit (22), and the first group of Ripon College students to make the trek. The relevant number, as it turned out, was not that of the age of the workers, but just how many were able to travel.

“I was a little apprehensive having college kids and a large group,” said Ripon Ald. Bill Boesch, who made his third trip to Wacuco. “But I think it worked out the opposite.” With such a sizeable group, the Riponites accomplished as much as they ever have in helping the impoverished region of east-central Panama.

“I am happy with the production of everyone,” Peter said. “Those were some great projects.”

What the group did while in Panama, though, proved a surprise. Those travelling left America believing they would be building a dam to improve the water system in the Wacuco/Torti region. But, upon arrival, Father Wally announced a different goal for the trip.

“When we got down here, plans changed,” said Rollie Alger, a former Ripon High School principal who now lives in northern Wisconsin, of how Father Wally’s immediate needs changed. Instead, the group found out it would be helping on a couple of smaller projects, as well as one major undertaking: finishing a convent. “The plan was to have the house ready for the sisters,” Alger said.

Arriving in Wacuco March 6, the group quickly set to work on several fronts. A culvert system was installed on one rural road, enabling it to better withstand the torrential rainfall that comes every rainy season (May to November). Later, the group built the footings for a new home for one of Father Wally’s poor neighbors. But the majority of the effort on this trip went toward building a new home for two Sisters, who have been living in Father Wally’s compound for nearly two years.
When completed, the convent in Torti — about five miles from Wacuco — will be able to house several more nuns, in addition to those two, and open the opportunity for local women to enter a spiritual life of giving.

When the first crew arrived at the future convent, the building was little more than a shell. The second floor was nonexistent, while the first floor and basement remained uninhabitable. But, over the course of a week, residents of Torti watched as a series of steel trusses and a steel roof rose on little more than willpower, water and sewer lines were constructed inside the building as well as on the outside, electrical wired every room of the building, stairs were built and rooms painted. And all was done on the backs of volunteer labor.

“The roof got done a day earlier than I thought it would,” said Paul Elsen, a former Riponite who now works in construction outside Milwaukee. “We made tremendous progress,” Alger said. “As a result of the teamwork between the adults and the college students, we accomplished a lot.”

What had appeared to be an impossible dream to those on hand March 7 was only a couple steps away from being lived in Friday, when work came to a stop. “I’ve been very pleased,” Father Wally said of how the group meshed to get so much done. “If this group didn’t come down, I would have had to [build the Sisters’ house] or find someone to do it.”

Boesch admits he “would have like to have gotten further,” but various hurdles impeded the group’s progress. “One of the biggest challenges was to get construction materials,” Alger said. Cement was expensive and hard to come by. Basic supplies, such as screws, were in short supply at the local hardware store.

Unlike America, where rows of boxed fasteners line the walls of the store, in Torti an employee brought out a single tray containing an odd assortment of loose screws. “I have a jar at home with a better selection in it,” Alger noted repeatedly on the trip.

Language, too, was a barrier. “It was hilarious to try to describe what we needed at the hardware store,” Boesch said.
“It was like ‘show and tell,’” Alger said. “He would say he didn’t have the stuff, then we’d go around the corner and there it was.”

The work done by such strange faces is not lost on the residents of Torti and Wacuco. “It’s wonderful,” said Epifario of Wacuco, “because we’re a small town, but people come from many places because of Father Wally. “It’s like an embassy here because so many people come [from foreign countries to help] like ambassadors.”

They appreciate all the work, but even in this remote area near the equator, the locals’ pride is important to them. It was important to offer something back to those who came to work. So, during the celebration of St. John of God, patron saint of Torti, locals embraced the visitors and invited them to a feast of beef — something special, since it is rarely eaten in the region. Chicken is the usual fare. And, after the feast, an elderly woman identified as the founder of Torti offered a hug and kiss on the cheek to each of the volunteers.

“The people were just so friendly,” said Brian Smith, a Ripon College professor who was on the trip. “The elderly woman, who was the founder of the town, was so welcoming. She kept hugging me, kept hugging others.” Smith said others from the feast were equally responsive.

Andres, a local restaurant and co-op owner, also “was so grateful ... it really was so touching,” Smith said. “It really a very mutual moment of each receiving the other, and it was really, really very nice.” Why were these residents so appreciative? It wasn’t just because of the physical gifts the local residents offered. “We are grateful and thankful you’ve come and share your faith with us,” one parishioner of Father Wally said.

For as appreciative as were the residents of east-central Panama, the irony may be in that the Riponites who travelled to the rural region said they felt they took as much from the experience — or more — than they were able to give back.
“I just wanted to come and help as much as I could, and at the end of the day I have been really satisfied,” said Theresa Kedinger, a Ripon College sophomore from Rosendale.

The ultimate benchmark may be each person’s desire to return. “I can’t wait ’til next time,” Elsen said, to which Boesch agreed. “I can’t wait until I come back.”

Last modified: June 18, 2013