Donovan Catholic alums, students, staff changing global communities for better

At the end of a long work day, a GOES mission team celebrates the end of laying block. Photos courtesy of Donna Milana


By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor

What began as admiration of a goddaughter for her godmother’s outreach to the poor has grown into an ongoing personal mission to improve housing.

Donna Milana, a 1980 graduate of Donovan Catholic High School (then St. Joseph’s), Toms River, was inspired by Sister Kathleen Marie Skurka, her godmother and Spanish teacher in the same school, who did mission work in Peru and would collect “Pennies for Peru.”

“She had a huge impact on my life, and I’m proud to be following in her path,” Milana said.

When Milana became a Donovan Catholic teacher, their friendship blossomed as she began assisting Sister Kathleen, and eventually visiting her when she was hospitalized.

“In the hospital, I became friends with Chris Percy, who taught Spanish [at Donovan Catholic]. The conversation led to [his summer work] in the Dominican Republic. So I credit Sister for bringing us together.”

Milana asked if she could join the mission trip in the Dominican Republic and bring along her three sons, who were then Donovan Catholic students. “I didn’t realize I would keep doing it every year!” she said.

In 2008, the group became a 501(c)3 with the GOES acronym – Groups of Extraordinary Students. “Our motto was to ‘see the world through service,’” she explained.

Home and Abroad

“We fell in love with the village.” Milana said of Luperón, in the Puerto Plata province, not far from the Haiti border. “A lot of us are godparents to children there; we go back year after year.”

The mission trips, which have also included Peru and the United States, focus on both home and community building.

“Adult volunteers work with the local community, and identify four to five families in need,” Milana explained. Criteria include owning the land and having it cleared, as well as providing construction water for mixing cement. Families also work alongside the volunteers. “The homes are about 25 by 25 feet, and are made of blocks and wood with tin roofs,” she continued.

GOES makes three to five mission trips to the Dominican Republic per year, rotating groups of students. Milana spends almost the entire summer there, arriving about a week prior to students and chaperones to ensure construction equipment is in place.

“Each trip is nine to 10 days, with 20 students per trip,” she said. “It’s a huge commitment.”

On the most recent trip, they partnered with another mission group, Experience Mission, as their guests, serving the population of the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona. They learned about Navajo traditions and customs, and how progress or lack thereof has affected reservation life.

“We were very taken aback that there are places in the U.S. without electricity and running water,” Milana observed. “They also face challenges in education, health care and development.”

Next summer, GOES will plan three or four trips to the Dominican Republic and a trip to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.

Ongoing Impact

Milana has seen time and again the effect of the GOES trips on both the families they serve and on the volunteers.

“Nearly every family comes back and works with us side by side each summer,” she attested. “And the students have a renewed appreciation for [their blessings] .”

The days conclude with a circle time in the evening to review and reflect. “Social justice has to be processed with teens,” Milana explained. “We don’t want them feeling guilty, but to have a renewed hope to use their blessings and talents to change the world. We are a living example that a dedicated few can have an incredible impact on families.”

Another beauty of the experience, she said, is seeing Donovan Catholic alumni return on mission. “The ripple effect is unreal and beautiful to watch. Walking this journey with them is one of my greatest joys.”

Francesca D’Aloia, 2012 graduate of Donovan Catholic, said she has enjoyed “returning each summer and seeing the children grow up.” D’Aloia has participated since 2016, traveling to Peru and the Dominican Republic three times.

“Despite the days being incredibly hot and the work being physically demanding, I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “These experiences have honestly shaped me … because I know I want to do something with a purpose.”

Nicole Jimenez, Donovan Catholic junior, just completed her first GOES mission. “Happiness radiated from the local people. Although the villagers live in poverty … they are just grateful for everything. Volunteering in these communities … was an experience that I will never forget.”

Attending the 2018 Dominican trip and the 2019 Navajo Nation trip, Donovan Catholic 2018 graduate Melissa Buxton agreed that the happiness of the people was infectious.

“It has impacted me more than I ever would’ve imagined,” she said. “The children find happiness in the simplest things. Seeing this makes me realize how much we take our privileges for granted.”

Anna Staiger, a 2019 Donovan Catholic graduate, has attended three GOES trips – joined by sister Abigail, and this year by her mother and Donovan math teacher, Shannon.

“Building homes in the Dominican is a simple way I, as a young adult, can help change the world little by little,” she said.

Jimenez wholeheartedly recommended the experience, as did the other young volunteers.

“The experience is life-changing, and makes a lasting impact on your personal life,” she said.  

 To learn more about GOES, visit, or find them on Facebook at G.O.E.S Groups of Extraordinary Students.

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