This year, the playground at St. Raphael Catholic School in Crystal will be a little less upbeat — and a little less sweet — without two people who brighten up even the cloudiest days. Don and Carolyn Pugh, two of St. Raphael’s most dedicated school volunteers, are not done volunteering. They’re just taking their generous, joyful hearts and childlike energy to a new community: Haiti.
“[The Pughs] really are good people. We all want to be good people, and we all meet nice people. But then you meet people where their heart just leads every decision. Christ is truly in the center of what they do,” Principal Ann Coone said.
Even before they started volunteering at the school, the Pugh family was no stranger to St. Raphael. Don remembers attending grade school there, along with his six siblings, and his father helped lay the bricks of the school building in 1951. Before they married, Don and Carolyn independently attended St. Raphael parish. After they married, they continued to attend and also send four children to the school. Their son, Seth Pugh, now teaches third grade in the same building his grandfather helped construct. Don and Carolyn regularly see their son when they volunteer as recess supervisors. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, the Pughs never miss a recess day.
“[Don] pulled his knee out, he’s done his back in, he’s done different injuries and he shows up limping,” Coone said. [The Pughs] continue to come back here two to three times a week. Through the winter, they’re bundled up and playing.”
The Pughs will be the first to say they enjoy every minute out on the playground regardless of the weather conditions.
“What better thing to do than hang around with a bunch of kids having fun,” Don said. “You kick a ball back, and they go, ‘Wow, you can kick?’ and they look at you like, ‘How can you kick? You’re old.’”
On their last day of recess duty, the Pughs brought ice cream treats for every student at St. Raphael. But despite all they give, they seek little in return. To the Pughs, making a positive impact in the lives of kids is reward enough.
“I always say, if we just showed them a little volunteering and the impact that you have on other people, and one gets it, I’m happy,” Carolyn said.
The Pughs will spend the next two years volunteering with Healing Haiti, a nonprofit that gives people the opportunity to be “the hands and feet of Christ” through Christ-centered mission trips to Haiti. The nonprofit works with orphans, children and seniors to provide clean water, food, medical and dental care, job opportunities, churches and education. The Pughs have been on nine mission trips to Haiti, but this one will be different from their typical seven-day visits. This one will be a long-term commitment of two years.
“I’m looking forward to the expansion of Healing Haiti and the things we do there. We’re opening a bakery there shortly, the school will open in the fall, and we have a new church down there also,” Don said.
The Pughs will serve new kids in a new location, but their priorities remain the same.
“I think that working with these kids in Cite Soleil or anywhere in Haiti … it’s building those relationships because that’s what’s important in life. It’s not the materials you have or what you’re doing in your house. Nobody cares. It’s really the relationships outside your home. It’s really building those relationships and being consistent,” Carolyn said.
Sad to be leaving St. Raphael and the relationships they’ve built there, the Pughs know it won’t be forever.
“We’re not saying goodbye, it’s just a ‘see ya later.’ Like I told Father [Michael Rudolph, pastor], we’ll be back for Christmas Mass,” Don said.
While fifth-grader Rebecca (Reba) Ranning said the school will miss the Pughs and all they’ve done for St. Raphael, she added, “When they come back, they’ll get a big warm welcome back.”
And she’s happy that the kids in Haiti will get to know two people she’s come to admire so much.
“It’s kind of sad, but [the Pughs] are doing the right thing. And they’re such joyous people, and they’ll put so many smiles on the kids’ faces in Haiti,” Ranning said. “Those kids in Haiti are very, very lucky that they can have them come.”