April 18, 2012
By Craig Chval Jr.
Looking for a reprieve from schoolwork - and South Bend's occasionally inhospitable weather - Notre Dame students will often flock to southern locales over spring break to recharge for the second half of the semester.
Although she did travel to Mexico, sophomore Alexa Aragon did anything but relax during her week off. Instead, the cross country and track runner volunteered with her father to repair children's cleft lips and palates in Puebla. In the course of the week, 62 children received free surgeries as a part of the organization Smile Network.
Working 12-hour days, Alexa helped radically alter the lives of the dozens of children she encountered.
"There was this 18-year-old girl, and she had been out of the house 10 times," said Aragon. "Her dad wouldn't let her out because, according to him and her, she looked like a monster. So she never went to school, and she wore a mask if she ever did go out of the house.
"They're kind of thought of as cursed children - there's a social stigma against them. So she didn't have any friends, and she told us that if we'd do the surgery for her that we'd all be her friends."
Although the girl came to the hospital late in the week - after screenings had taken place - the doctors were able to fix her mouth.
"It was just amazing to see how a surgery that takes maybe 45 minutes can change her life," said Aragon. "Now she'll be able to get an education, get married and start her life. If it weren't for that surgery, she would still be in her house and never be able to go out. It's just crazy how that 45-minute surgery that these doctors perform can make them heroes in these people's lives."
Pursuing a minor in poverty studies in addition to her pre-professional major, Aragon tries to balance not only academics and two varsity sports, but also as much volunteering as she can manage. Being active in the community is something that has been instilled in her from a young age.
"To those that much has been given, much is expected, and it's something that I've always told my children," said Alexa's father, Chuck, who was also a runner at Notre Dame. "It's not about making money or running fast or getting good grades. Sometimes that's all part of it, but really it's what kind of person you are and what you're going to give back and what the world will remember of you. Those are things that are important to us as a family, and important to each of us as individuals in our family."
Somehow, Alexa has managed to answer her father's call to give back while also excelling as a student-athlete. Admitting to having a "crazy life sometimes," she has had to adapt to the challenges of college academics and Division I athletics.
"She's very intense," said head track coach Joe Piane, who is also Alexa's godfather. "She always has been, and that comes probably from her parents. She's a very good competitor, and whatever she sets her mind to do, she's going to probably do it. I think maybe more students could learn from her that if you really organize your time, you're going to be O.K. And she doesn't waste time, that's for sure. She doesn't just blow things off to blow them off. She'll get her work done."
Although her primary motive for the mission was to help children in Puebla, Alexa also received invaluable experience in the operating room. She is not sure what her career choice will be, but she is considering the possibility of becoming a doctor or nurse, and the trip gave her opportunities that would be difficult to find anywhere else.
"I think it's given her an exposure to medicine and some of the really wonderful reasons to be in medicine," Chuck said. "The basic reason we go into medicine is to be able to help others. She got to do quite a bit on this mission that she probably wouldn't get to do in any medical school or in the United States. She got to be right in there helping with the actual surgery."
Chuck has made several similar trips in the last few years, often bringing Alexa or her sister Danielle, who will be attending Notre Dame next year and running cross country and track. Alexa's prior experience came during her junior year of high school, when she, Chuck and Danielle went to Chiapas, Mexico.
"I felt like I was contributing a lot more to this one," Alexa said. "Before, my sister and I would just entertain the kids, see them back, get them ready for the OR (operating room). I'm not sure if I want to be a surgeon, like a plastic surgeon or anything, but it was a really good experience for me.
"I'm not 100 percent sure I'm going to med school or not. But if I did become a doctor or a nurse, I'd like to be doing mission trips like this - to third-world countries."
More than the volunteer work or the medical experience, these trips offer the Aragons a different perspective than they find at Notre Dame or their home of Billings, Mont.
"It's just amazing to see all the things that we take for granted here because we have these resources," said Alexa. "You never see kids walking around with cleft lips and cleft palates here because it's fixed right when they're born. But it's also really cool to see even though they have so little, they find joy in so much, and they're just so thankful."
Exhausting her days in the operating room over spring break, Alexa unquestionably missed opportunities to get ahead in schoolwork, train for track or merely sleep in. But with her help, 62 children in Mexico have the chance for a new life.
She may have gained new perspective on her mission to Puebla, but it's certainly possible Alexa has had the right one all along.