A Long Way From Home

A Long Way From Home

BC family reunion in Belize is an affair of the heart and spirit

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Director of Employee Development Bernard O'Kane and his wife, Patricia - graduate admissions coordinator for the Lynch School of Education - have always considered their household a close-knit one. Even when the oldest of their three sons, Conor, graduated from Boston College in 1999, they still expected to maintain the family ties as much as possible.

Conor O'Kane '99, at left, with group of schoolchildren in Belize, where he works as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
What they did not expect was that it would involve traveling thousands of miles to a remote Central American village in the middle of July.

But that is where the O'Kanes and their two younger sons ended up this summer when they went to visit Conor, who has just completed the first of a two-year stint in Belize with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. The family were together for nine days, much of it spent in Punta Gorda, the country's southern-most village that is Conor's current place of residence.

The experience gave O'Kane and his family a snapshot of Conor's life and times not only as director of religious education for the local school district, but as a Punta Gorda resident who has been warmly accepted by his neighbors.

For a family with a longstanding dedication to faith and service, O'Kane says, the Belize trip proved a revelation and deepened their commitment. From a parent's perspective, he adds, seeing his oldest son's transition to adulthood was reassuring - and satisfying.

"Clearly, Conor is thriving in so many ways," said O'Kane, interviewed a few weeks after returning home. "That is, obviously, the most important thing. But it is very rewarding to see the values you've always believed in and taught reflected in the lives of your children. What Conor does comes from inside him, from his own ideas, interests and beliefs.

"I think Conor exemplifies many of the students we see at Boston College who, in turn, are also indicative of their generation's belief in using their talents and abilities to help others."

At the same time, O'Kane acknowledges that he and his wife could not help but feel a twinge of parental concern, as well as pride, about their son's decision to go to Belize.

"You're ambivalent. You're proud and excited about what he's chosen to do, but there is a certain amount of anxiety about what he might encounter. And underneath it all, of course, you know that he's not a child anymore, and you have to let him go."

Conor, who arrived in Belize last August, is one of four JVC volunteers in Punta Gorda. The village is among 25 included in the school district of Toledo, which is operated along with all other districts by the Catholic Church. As director of religious education for Toledo, Conor travels to the villages to speak with administrators and teachers, help organize retreats and professional development programs, and do whatever else needs doing, whether leading a confirmation class or making sure a school has enough chalkboards.

The travel can be as demanding as the job itself: Conor's modes of transportation usually include a battered 10-year-old dirt bike, canoe, pick-up truck or his own two feet.

Bernard O'Kane notes that the family has been active in volunteer programs abroad: He, Patricia and 15-year-old Greg worked with Ignacio Volunteers in Jamaica, and he also served as an adult volunteer for the program in Belize. But the simplicity and openness of Conor's life in Punta Gorda was striking nonetheless, he said.

"We grew to appreciate his house, but not for what was in it," he explained. "It was the little kids of the neighborhood, knocking on his door to borrow dominoes or tennis balls. Or it was the people in the street who said to us, 'You must be Conor's family. Don't worry, we'll take care of him.' It's wonderful to see how they have touched his life, as he has touched theirs.

"In fact, Conor told us, 'I'm the one who's receiving.' He describes what he does as a 'ministry of presence,' where it's the small daily tasks - answering questions, solving problems - that help make a difference. When he talks about the people he lives and works with, he tells us not what they don't have but what they do have: the pride and joy of seeing their child or grandchild confirmed, for example."

Still, O'Kane adds, there was plenty to remind the family of how different an outlook on life many in Belize have.

"We met one boy the same age as our youngest son, and he had walked 20 miles to the village to look for work so he could support his family," he said. "You read and hear about this a lot, but when you see it for yourself, you can't help but come away with a good lesson."


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