Originally published June 11, 2012.
"Live simply so others can simply live - that is my motto. That is how I try to live my life," Steve Widelski says.
The lifelong Huntington resident says he has modeled his life after the advice given by Mother Teresa.
Widelski is a lay missionary and has been working with the Catholic Church in Third World countries for more than 15 years.
He says that Rev. Paul McCarthy, a former pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntington, inspired his interest in missionary work during the mid-1990s when Widelski was a college student at Indiana University.
McCarthy gave him a magazine from the Catholic Volunteer Network, filled with information about how to become a missionary. He says he started browsing and was immediately interested. Widelski noticed most missionary groups desired college-educated volunteers, so he decided to finish his degree before he applied for his first mission.
Widelski graduated from Indiana University in December of 1996 with a psychology and criminal justice double major and a minor in Spanish.
Widelski was living in the Dominican Republic by Feb. 1, 1997.
His first experience as a lay missionary was in the city of Guayabal, where he worked on a safe drinking water project, translated for medical missionaries and worked on construction.
In Guayabal, he says, he was "spoiled" - but not in the sense we would normally think.
"I was spoiled in that without knowing anything about how the rest of the world lives, I was comfortable in the lifestyle," he says. "This prepared me for any type of conditions."
A drastic change from Midwest America, Widelski found himself eating beans and rice, sleeping under only a mosquito net and having no electricity and no vehicles for transportation.
In spite of these conditions, he says, "I fell in love with it." He knew then that this was what he wanted to do with his life.
Widelski spent 13 months in Guayabal.
When he returned to Indiana, he immediately started searching for another mission. He found the Salesian Lay Missioner program, based in New Rochelle, NY, and has traveled with that program for the majority of his 15 years of service.
The program, as Widelski describes it, is a religious order of priests, brothers, sisters and lay missioners who travel to countries around the world that are predominantly Catholic (there are a few exceptions, including his upcoming trip to Yanji, China) and offer aid to civilians.
Once Widelski was accepted to the program, he was assigned to Loma Alta, Bolivia, where he spent one year teaching math and English in a junior high and high school. He also drove the school bus and helped coach basketball and volleyball.
After his stint in Bolivia, he returned to the Dominican Republic to the Haitian and Dominican border. Here, he taught religious studies, translated for medical missionaries and participated in another safe drinking water program.
During this mission, he spent a year and six months living in El Llano with a group from the Salesian Lay Missioners.
He then traveled to West Africa and lived in Sierra Leone. This was his longest mission, lasting two years and three months.
In Sierra Leone, he helped run a youth center and taught math, English and religious studies in a vocational school.
Widelski says the stint in Sierra Leone has been his longest - and favorite - mission so far. He says the African people had very little, but they were open to receiving the missionaries.
At the time he was living in Sierra Leone, a civil war had just ended. Widelski able to see how his presence as a missionary really benefited other's lives.
By the time he returned from Sierra Leon, it was 2006. His next stop was Venezuela, where he lived in El Morro, a small village in the Andes Mountains. In El Morro, he worked in a home for junior and senior high school students. The students lived together to allow for a shorter walk to town to school.
Forty students lived in the house, where Widelski was in charge of 20 boys and a Venezuelan couple was in charge of 20 girls. Here, he says he was a mentor and tutor, and he helped with sports and maintaining the house.
His next mission was in Imbau, Brazil. This time, he did not go with the Salesian Lay Missioners; instead, he was a part of a group from his sister's parish, St. Louis de Montfort, in Fishers.
He could obtain only a six-month visa from Brazil, making it his shortest mission. Widelski taught English and assisted with a welfare program.
After the first six months in Brazil, he ended up returning with the Salesians to Ji-Parana, Brazil. Widelski says it was a five-day boat ride along the Amazon to reach the town. He spent six months there, teaching English and helping with parish activities.
Then he crossed into Bolivia, where he spent six months in Yapacani teaching religious studies and assisting with a program similar to the adopt-a-child program widely known by its infomercials in the United States.
In 2011, Widelski went to Gros Morne, Haiti, where he lived for one year with the religious order of Jesus and Mary sisters.
Here he worked in a program for safe drinking water, which was increasingly relevant post-earthquake due to a cholera outbreak.
He also helped translate to medical missionaries and ran a summer camp for 200 children ages 7 to 12, which ran through the month of July in 2011.
Widelski returned to Huntington from Haiti in May 2012.
While he is here, he stays with his parents and spends his time with friends and family reconnecting. He says sometimes he works part-time to raise money for his next mission.
As a consequence of his career, he is not married.
"I am never in one place long enough," he says with a laugh.
Widelski finds the lifestyle rewarding.
He says in the late '90,s when he started traveling, it was hard to keep in touch with everyone through "snail mail." Now, he credits technology with the ease of staying connected.
"I can have four different conversations in four different languages on my Facebook page at a given time," he says.
He also utilizes Skype when he is on a mission to call home for free.
Widelski says that in Bolivia, he would travel three hours one-way to get a dial-up Internet connection. Now, with wireless Internet, he says it is much easier to stay connected.
Even without the instant connection to friends and family back home, Widelski found rewards in his job.
"I feel like I receive so much more from the people I help than I personally help them," he says".
He says the places he travels to are very poor; there is a gross lack of food, water and medical services available.
"But they still have faith," he says.
"These people are open and even generous with what they have."
For 15 years, Widelski says, "God has allowed me to pursue this ... I will be able to keep doing it as long as I want.
"I have never felt uncomfortable - I have never felt afraid," he says of his missions.
"I feel this is my vocation. I know it is my calling."
Widelski will travelnext to Yanji, China, where he will teach English at the Yanji International Cooperative Technical High School.
Complete caption: Steve Widelski (back row center), a lay missionary, is surrounded by a group of children from Gros Morne, Haiti, in July 2011 during a summer camp he managed while stationed with the Salesian Lay Missioners group. Widelski has been traveling the world for 15 years performing missionary work in poverty-stricken countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, West Africa and the Dominican Republic. He will soon travel to Yanji, China, where he will teach English at a technical high school.