Just out of college, Michelle Navarro didn’t want a job. She wanted to serve.
She joined the Peace Corps, stashed away her worldly possessions and moved to rural Honduras. Once there, the then-23-year-old was met with machete-wielding locals in an area so dangerous it was nicknamed the “death corridor.” She was expected to “make herself useful” and started teaching English. She quickly saw a need for farming, and with the little experience she had “tilling” her parents’ Orange County tract-home backyard, she jumped in.
Michelle took farmers to a local agricultural university to learn more about their trade. She taught them how to plant on a hillside. If she didn’t have the answer to an obstacle, she figured it out.
“They were the most gracious people,” says Michelle, 43, who spent hours as a teen stacking old newspapers in plastic bins to raise money for San Antonio Church in Anaheim Hills, serving in soup kitchens and handing out turkeys at Catholic Charities. “They had so little but they gave you everything they did have. It really stuck with me.”
She felt empowered and impactful.
Two years later Michelle returned home and eventually earned a master’s degree in teaching, married and had four children. Her drive to contribute to society and St. Norbert Catholic School, where she graduated and now teaches 5th grade and her children attend, is contagious as she illustrates the importance of helping others not because we have to, but because we need to.
She teaches not by words but by example.
In 2009, Michelle and her husband, Paul, joined the Order of Malta’s pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, as volunteers. She bathed the sick. Gently dunked women in cold water in concrete baths. Witnessed the healing and power of prayer.
Michelle committed to return the next year. Only that time she brought along her son. In the last seven years, all but one of her children have joined the volunteer team. This May is Michelle’s sixth pilgrimage coordinating the 250 volunteers who join the 100 sick (referred to as “Malades” in French) and their 50-plus caregivers during the week of service and devotion.
The profound religious experience also has touched her family. With tears in his eyes, Paul recounts one pilgrimage in particular. The Malade’s spouse joined the group not because he believed in God or the hope of a cure, but because his wife did.
“On the last night of the pilgrimage, he shared he was the miracle,” Paul says. “He came to believe he needed healing.”
Son Micah, now a senior at Servite, will participate for the third time in the youth pilgrimage to Lourdes this summer. Rosary freshman Elena looks forward to her fourth pilgrimage this year.
When Bella, 12, joined her mom in 2018, she instantly “got it.”
“After we arrived I thought Bella was lost, I couldn’t find her,” Michelle says. “She was already at church, ready to start washing feet. From the moment she got there she knew she had to get water and prep the towels. Wherever she needed to be, she was there to help.”
While 8-year-old Joaquin waits for his turn, he joins his family on regular visits to Mary’s Kitchen. They bring friends and family eager to help and whatever they can get donated for the homeless who flock to the facility in an industrial area of Orange.
Joaquin happily serves up burritos and hands out new shoes, jeans and fresh socks, sometimes to kids his own age. He wants to help those in need. He, too, wants to serve.