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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Man on a mission: Early retirement means time to serve others in Mérida

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David W. Keelan
David W. Keelan
Pennsylvania native, relocated to Maryland in 1994. David W. Keelan retired in 2020 and living his best life in Mérida, Yucatán.
Nueva Vida staff in Mérida, Mexico drop off gifts on Day of Children or “Dia del Nino.” New volunteer David W. Keelan, from Pennsylvania and Maryland, is pictured at right.

At the ripe old age of 55, I decided to retire early, leave the United States, and relocate overseas. A number of life events drove my decision: a house fire, divorce, downsized at work (again), my parents passing away a week from one another, children grown, pandemic fatigue, and the fact that my siblings are far-flung and spread across the United States. I was burned out. I had to do something different, but the plan did not include sitting on a beach as tempting as it was.

All these events occurred in a relatively short period. My family and friends often asked how I was dealing with so many life incidents, one right after the other? I received a lot of sympathetic looks and well wishes. Well, what is one to do? My brother Dan often reminded me that a problem is an opportunity in disguise. So I decided to open a new chapter in my life. Why be driven by circumstances when one can create them? I am not under any delusion that I can control life events; there are just too many unknowns. But there are things I can control, and changing direction and starting again was one thing I could do.

I decided to move to Mérida, Mexico, for a number of reasons: safety, proximity to the U.S., and economics and announced this to my friends and family. There were many comments, and most of them positive. But then another unexpected event occurred. Fortunately, nothing tragic, as I was not up for more drama. As I prepared to relocate, a college friend, Rob, called and asked if I was aware of an organization in Mérida called “The Mission of Friendship” I was not, so he went on to explain the organization as best he knew. Rob and I had not been just college friends; we were also in formation together at St. Mark Seminary in the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania. Rob went on to become a fabulous priest, but I left the seminary to begin a career and start a family.

The Mission of Friendship is a collaborative effort between the Diocese of Erie and the Archdiocese of Yucatán. The Mission of Friendship has been serving the economically disadvantaged families of Mérida since 1971, and 2021 marks its 50th anniversary. Why did I not learn about this organization when I was doing my research about Mérida? Why did I learn about it only after I’d decided on Mérida? Coincidence? Luck? Providence? I do not know, but I knew that I needed to learn more. So, after a few emails, I was introduced to Patricia “Trish” Pipkin, the Mérida-based director of the program, we exchanged emails and arranged for a Zoom call.

Trish and I agreed that my biggest weaknesses was my unfamiliarity with the Mission’s goals, organization, and function, and lack of Spanish speaking skills. She suggested, and I agreed, that it would be best if I helped with facilities maintenance as a means to learn about the Mission and improve my Spanish.

Getting to Mérida presented some logistical (and expensive) problems. To make a long story short, I ended up making a six-day drive with my 55-pound dog, my cat, some personal possessions and clothing. I arrived in Mérida on Dec. 19, 2020. I am no trailblazer, many people made this move before I did, but I knew that I wanted to be part of something in Mérida. I was not obsessing about the Mission and what led Rob to making that phone call, but it was on my mind a lot.

After settling in for a couple of days I emailed Trish and asked, “When can I get started cleaning bathrooms?” Before long I was assisting the Mission’s director of logistics, Jose, in preparing the pre-school and after-school (Nueva Vida) to reopen post-pandemic. We stripped paint, painted, cleaned, did yard work, fixed the roof and more. I knew the sun here could be brutal, and as you may know – the sun here is brutal. Twice a week now I make my way to the Mission and do what is needed under Jose’s supervision and guidance. Fortunately, I have not had to clean a bathroom. Yet.

I came to learn that among the initiatives overseen by the Mission of Friendship are a subsidized preschool to help working families; an after-school program called Nueva Vida (New Life) providing a meal, academic support and enrichment classes for elementary-school girls; a medical clinic; a program for visiting groups providing opportunities for adults and college groups to experience another culture; the Amigos Program, a sponsorship opportunity that supplies essential financial support to impoverished families, and The Sister Parish Program, which pairs entire parish communities in the Yucatán with parish communities in the Diocese of Erie.

The teachers and staff at Nueva Vida are an amazing and dedicated group of women. Despite my lack of Spanish and other shortcomings, they make me feel welcome – embraced really. That feeling was reinforced when the Mission invited me to accompany some of the staff on April 30, Day of Children or “Dia del Nino” to visit the program’s children and families at their homes to drop of gifts. At the time I did not understand that Dia del Nino is a celebration much like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day in the U.S. It is a big deal. As we drove through south Mérida to deliver packages of food, school supplies, and toys to 18 families — and up to 29 after the pandemic — served by Nueva Vida I noticed many cars and trucks decorated with colorful balloons, streamers, and ribbons. Entire families were packed into the cars to parade and celebrate the day in honor of their children. La familia!

I rode with Trish and we spoke a lot about the families, the successes, the disappointments, and the area of south Mérida, but mostly about being involved in the lives of the families and how much the families return to the Mission which makes the work so rewarding. Helping one child in one family does make a difference.

Dia del Nino was an eye opener for this expat. Intellectually I understood who the Mission was serving but visiting the homes of 18 families is quite a different experience, and my understanding grew deeper. Every home we visited sparked a different reaction from the girls – mostly excitement, but some shyness. Siblings watched from the house, a window, the yard, or jumped right in with the visits, mothers held babies on their hips as they watched their daughters, fathers looked on proudly and expressed gratitude for the food. I remember one young father standing in the doorway of their home holding his new born son in his arms and smiling proudly at his wife and daughter as they greeted our group. I witnessed families, in some cases, the entire family, who were happy, proud of their daughters, providing for their families despite the poverty and unique challenges that poverty presents. One family encouraged their daughter to thank me in English, which she did. As her mask was falling over her nose, she looked up, held her finger to her temple to think, then she said “thank you” to cheers from all around. I was charmed. Her mother and father, like the rest, are committed to obtaining the best for their children and see education and language as a key to their daughter’s (and family’s) success.

After day of the children the Mission was now more real than ever. I witnessed an important part of Mérida.

Nueva Vida – New Life is what the mission is trying to provide for these girls and their families — a chance to provide a higher education and help provide these girls a better shot at going to University. Trish said that won’t just change the girl’s life, it will change the entire family’s life for generations. Whatever led me here, and to the Mission of Friendship, Nueva Vida has also breathed new life into me, and has given me a different perspective on my own series of events that led me here to Mérida. Despite my setbacks, despite my personal tragedies, despite everything I have, it is petty in comparison to what these families endure, and I have received much more in return than I think I am capable of returning to them.

As the Mission of Friendship celebrates its 50th year serving our community I hope you have the chance to see their work first hand, and maybe even find a way to help them continue their work for another 50 years.

Previously: Sister cities Erie and Mérida celebrate a special bond

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