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President's Blog: From the Heart

God's Song of Creation

By Dominic Sanfilippo

(Over spring break a group of University of Dayton students traveled to Ecuador, the first international service-learning trip since the pandemic, to work with the Marianists, volunteer with the local indigenous community, and learn about the Andean tropical cloud forests. Here’s a glimpse of their experience through the eyes of Dominic Sanfilippo ’16, a graduate assistant in religious studies who served as a facilitator on the trip.)

"Look carefully, now — it's full of life," Brother Giovanni Onore, S.M., told our UD Spring BreakOut group in a lilting Italian-tinged staccato, eyeing a ripe passiflora fruit that dangled alongside several others on an overgrown garden path high above the Otongachi Ecological Reserve in the Andean cloud forests of Ecuador. "Don't be afraid of it." He grabbed the passionfruit right off the tree and opened it cleanly, seeds spilling over its sides, offering it to us to taste.

Onore wears many hats; as a world-renowned entomologist, the retired director of the Quito Catholic Zoology Museum, and the founder of the Otonga Foundation, a non-profit conservation force that brings people together from down the street in Ecuador to across the ocean, he stays pretty busy. If you asked him to describe his work, though, he'd simply say that he's spent a lifetime listening closely to God's song of creation and joining the dance. His joyful attention to the smallest of nature's details — the way a particular moth's wings bend, or which fruits make for the best jams in springtime — have fueled a distinguished career; indeed, he recently received a national honor from the President of Ecuador and has dozens of species named in his honor (or onore, if you'll forgive the pun.)

Onore's colleague and close friend, UD professor emeritus of biology PK Williams, has led 15 BreakOut trips to Ecuador since 2005, all sponsored by Campus Ministry's Center for Social Concern. Together, they've welcomed a generation of UD students into a vibrant Ecuadorean community and helped them learn on the ground about the interdisciplinary heart of biological and conservation field work, supply chain decisions that affect families in real time, and Marianist meditative reflection on how traces of the divine can be seen in the natural landscapes of "our common home," as Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si'.

"It's been really interesting to see his Marianist approach to seeing ourselves as both part of nature and partners with it," said Precious Henderson, a first-year history major. Liz Riedel, a senior civil engineering major with a sustainability focus, agreed. "Bro. Giovanni is so skilled and has done so much, but he's humble. It makes me want to work outside and with nature after UD, and not be at a desk all day!" Sarah Lamb, a junior pre-med and Spanish double major, echoed Liz, saying that "Giovanni lives out his sense of vocation so's inspired me to want to experience that depth of relationship between my work and values throughout my life."

Liv Westendorf, a first-year pre-med major, laughed as she recalled Brother Giovanni repeating "Welcome to the Marianist family!" early each morning with a booming laugh as our group shuffled sleepily into our communal breakfast space at the Otonga Foundation headquarters in Quito, grinning at us and holding out more colorful, new-to-us fruits that he'd collected the day before. "Let us be thankful for the people whose work and lives helped this fruit find its way to our table." His team's connections with folks from all sorts of backgrounds (from amphibian researchers down the road in Quito to farming families from quieter, waterfall-dotted communities in Ecuador's more rural areas) helped us foster real friendships in a matter of days.

"So many people here seem to have stronger ties to their community beyond individualism," said Lizzie Vear, a junior environmental biology major who helps coordinate Dayton's EarthFest. "Watching people sit outside their shops or market stalls, chatting in friendly ways with neighbors—it made me think of sitting on our campus porches back home in Dayton, and how it's rarer to see that in larger American society. We've seen just a fraction of people's stories here in makes you think, how many other stories are unfolding all over the world?"

To echo Lizzie: how can we build real community in a fast-paced, sometimes fragmented world? Being open to relationships across perceived barriers is one way to start. "I was initially a bit nervous about connecting with the students at the local Malton School because of our language barrier," Matthew Grzesiak, a sophomore biochemistry and psychology double major, reflected. "But once we offered out a few mutual words and started kicking around a soccer ball, everyone was smiling, and those nerves disappeared."

"The world is so connected," Zach Rudich, a senior pre-med major, noted. "Whether it's taking a few seconds in the morning for quiet thanks for people whose work affects our lives in ways we can't see, or trying to ensure nothing goes to waste in our communities...we can take actions to make our lives a little more connected every day."

The late poet Mary Oliver wrote that "attention is the beginning of devotion." On this extraordinary Breakout immersion trip, our travel group of relative strangers became a family; moreover, we were lucky to take part in a crash course on paying attention to life's intricacies and little wonders. I can only hope that the beauty and hospitality we encountered on city streets and amid soaring forests in Ecuador will help us see the interconnections between life's joys and challenges back home, and in all the other places and spaces our wandering feet take us.

(Photo by Elizabeth Riedel '22)

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