Panamanian sisters Yamitzla Reid and Yariela Reid-Thomas experienced the past two World Youth Day (WYD) events in Brazil and Poland together as a family. But it was different for their third WYD.
That’s because this time, one key family member wasn’t going to be able to hear about their adventures and experiences when they returned. Their mother died about a year ago.
“That was the last thing she wanted to do – go back to Panama,” Yariela said. “She always asked us when we’re going back to Panama. I said ‘Well, not yet mom. We got to make you get better,’ but unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
So going to Panama was like “going home – not only for us, but for her, too,” Yariela said.
For Yariela, this pilgrimage took her to the land of her birth, which she visited alongside her younger sister Yamitzla, who was born and raised in Queens.
For Yamitzla, the path to Panama was paved with good intentions and a lot of financial sacrifices. The 24-year-old college student does her best to balance her personal, professional and spiritual workloads, which includes working double shifts at a local Dollar Tree and teaching catechism to middle school students at her parish of St. Gerard Majella, Hollis.
Eventually, her hard work and faith paid off. As the two Queens women waited for the bus with their fellow diocesan pilgrims in Panama City, she reflected on her journey of perseverance.
“To finally see what the process was and all that hard work come together and actually get to experience this, I’m actually a lot more excited than I thought I was going to be. I was excited to come, now I’m ecstatic to be here.”
Less than two weeks before the trip, at the pre-departure meeting in Douglaston, Yariela sat in the back row by herself, awaiting the directions that diocesan pilgrimage director Father Gerard Sauer was giving the crowd about their upcoming journey to Panama.
Yamitzla would have liked to have been at her older sister’s side. Instead, she was working a double shift at her job at a local Dollar Tree store. She would add her wages to the funds she’d already received from her sister and church community to further cover the cost of the pilgrimage, which totaled more than $3,000 for those traveling with the diocesan contingent.
“St. Gerard (parish) helped me in the past and they helped me go to Ireland,” said Yamitzla, who attended the World Meeting of Families in Dublin last year.
“I said, ‘All right. If they’re going to help me for Ireland, then I’m going to help myself for Panama.’”
To help pay for Panama, she put in up to 40 hours a week at work, and also picked up odd jobs, like babysitting in the Bronx and teaching dance classes.
Faith, Family, Sacrifice
For Yamitzla and Yariela, who come from a family of eight, their cultural roots reflect an identity built upon faith, family, hard work and sacrifices for the greater good – aspects they hope pilgrims to their home country will take with them after attending World Youth Day.
“I love Panama,” said Yariela, who migrated to the U.S. with her family when she was a child. The second-grade teacher at SS. Joachim and Anne Catholic Academy in Queens Village recalled some of her favorite childhood memories.
“We lived close to the beach so we went fishing with my dad and we went to church almost every day with my mother. It was something that was fun to do. We didn’t see it as a chore or boring. We always sang, we always prayed. It was a close-knit family. Every Sunday after we went to church, we all got together with the extended family and all the ladies cooked a humongous meal.”
While the sisters’ immediate family is spread across New York City, a longtime connection to their faith community not only made Queens the place they call home, but also solidified an extended family connected in love for Jesus Christ.
“I love SS. Joachim and Anne because we are a family,” Yariela said, explaining that her role in students’ lives goes beyond textbook education. They engage in prayer and praise and they see “that we were all one. They see me as a human being, not only a teacher.”
Yariela not only teaches in Queens during the week, but she also commutes from the Bronx every Sunday to volunteer as a catechist at her Hollis parish, just like her younger sister. She caught up with some of her former students in Panama during a dinner with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio at the Panama Canal.
Yet, as much as Yamitzla was very involved with her home parish as a young adult – joining her mother at Mass, going to Catholic school and even attending previous WYDs – her personal journey was more cookie-cutter Catholic and going through the motions out of duty, rather than a personal desire to grow in her faith.
“I went to World Youth Day with my sister in Brazil and at that time a lot of people didn’t know that I didn’t want to go,” she said. “When I was younger, I wasn’t necessarily more into my faith because after going to Catholic school and coming to church on Sunday, I was really reluctant.”
Yamitzla said she harbored a lot of anger as a young teen during some of her lowest points in her life.
A Mother’s Prayers Move Mountains
How does reluctance for the Church transform into a burning desire to learn and give more? A mother’s love and prayers.
Anamaria Reid Boles raised her six children in a household surrounded by the love of family and centered on the love of Christ. Toward the end of her life, she had one more wish: for her beloved daughters to go back to Panama.
Sitting in two different pews of the Hollis church that their mother also called home since the late ’70s, they both held a firm conviction that the foundation of their family goes beyond church walls, but to the universal Church whose home is within the heart of every brother and sister in Christ.
For a moment, Anamaria’s youngest child looked at her eldest. “I’m happy that she didn’t give up on me and I’m happy that she consistently prayed and she kept on the path that she did because she saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Yamitzla said.