TANZANIA — While many college-age students are returning to their families for the holidays, Sacred Heart-Griffin High School (Springfield) graduate Isabella Farris is spending her first fall and winter since her 2018 graduation far, far from her home. Isabella, known as Izzy to her family and friends, is in the midst of a “gap year” that has her stationed — for now — in Tanzania, East Africa.
In Tanzania, Isabella is volunteering at the St. Nicholaus Children’s Center. The center is a Catholic residential home for orphaned, disabled and vulnerable children, operated by the Bukoba Catholic Diocese and founded by Stefanie Köster, director and German lay associate, and Sister Anne Carlino of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis in Springfield.
Isabella arrived at the center in September and plans on being there until February. She traveled there with her father, Stephen Farris, and he stayed with her for the first 10 days. Isabella had never ventured so far away from her family and admitted, “Goodbyes are always hard but having my dad with me made leaving home a little bit easier.” Two other young German volunteers are also working at the center, she said.
In April, Isabella will continue with her gap year when she travels to Jarpa, Lima, Peru, where she will be living with Springfield Dominican Sisters. There, she will be serving in cities, mountainous and rural areas, with populations who are suffering from ecological, economic and political instabilities. The Sisters’ ministries include ecological and social justice programs, religious formation and education, counseling and communications.
“I will be staying at the Dominican convent. We will be taking a vehicle up to the mountains in Peru and helping the indigenous people with anything they need.” She plans on staying in Peru until June, when she will return home to Springfield and will enjoy some time with her father and her mother, Blanca Farris, and her family and friends. “Once I’m back, I plan to either study speech pathology or social work,” she said.
Isabella originally planned a more traditional route after high school graduation, but her long-time love of service won out in the end. Before she graduated from SHG she had already received the Benedictine award; attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C.; was a SHG student ambassador, underclassman retreat leader and freshman focus leader; was on Student Council; was chosen to travel to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis; was involved with Kairos, Joshua and OPTeen; and visited the religious sisters at the Dominican motherhouse.
“I have had the idea for a gap year for about a year now,” Isabella said just before she left for Tanzania. “At first the plan was to go to college, but after I completed all of my applications, my parents and I brought up the idea for a gap year. I’m really unsure where the inspiration came from. I have always been involved with different service opportunities and I loved all of them. I just really wanted to step it up and do something bigger.” She said she had many mentors as she grew who helped shape her missionary spirit.
Isabella and her mother researched different volunteer organizations. “Most of them offered either a one-month trip, which was not long enough for me, or a year-long trip, which would have required a bachelor’s degree. Since I’m freshly out of high school, I couldn’t do that,” she said.
“Vicki Compton (who was until recently director of the Office for the Missions for 15 years) gave us the most information about different mission trips. She gave us all the contact information, including contact information for the mission trip her daughter (Sydney Compton) went on for her gap year. I decided on Africa and Peru because the people in charge of the trips were extremely nice and helpful and very laid back. I got to choose when I get there and when I leave and that helped tremendously.”
While she is on her gap year, Isabella is keeping in touch with her family and friends as best she can, given the remote areas where she is staying. She believes her trip is helping her to “realize how obsessed I can be about meaningless things in life such as money or objects, rather than focusing on values and morals.”
Isabella is equally philosophical about how the people she is serving will change her own life. “People in the lowest places find happiness and joy from the smallest things, whereas I sometimes feel like I need the newest clothes or phones and to have money, but that should not matter,” she said. “We don’t realize how greatly we are blessed. I will appreciate the little things more and I believe the kids will have a greater effect on me and my views toward life than I will on them.”