ROME – Angelique “Ducky” Vargas, a once-homeless teen whose older sister committed suicide and who’d been promised a dream trip to Rome as part of putting her life back together, was set to board a plane just as the COVID-19 coronavirus started to show up in Europe.

Not knowing the situation would become so dire, she and her small group decided to go for it.

Soon after their arrival, however, she discovered Rome as essentially a ghost town, with most traditional tourist sites closed off and the city’s legendary restaurants and bars inaccessible. But they forged on, determined not to let this hinder their experience.

After some 10 days touring what they could of the country, the group made it out a day early, just hours before a ban on all travel to and from the U.S. to Europe issued by United States President Donald Trump went into effect.

Although the ban does not apply to American citizens, most flights from the U.S. to Europe were being canceled because of the declining number of passengers flying, and staying longer meant risking getting stuck abroad with no clear sense of when they would be able to return.

Yet despite the adrenaline of it all, Vargas, 18, said she doesn’t regret going. While part of her wishes it could have been rescheduled, “we were there for a reason and although it was a scary experience it was an adventure.”

“I would do it again and I plan on going back,” she told Crux.

Planned a year in advance, the March 6-12 trip to Rome and Assisi was the seventh Rome “pilgrimage” organized by the Denver Homeless Ministry (DHM), and consisted of three people: Vargas; trip organizer Tanya Cangelosi, and fellow traveler Cassi McPhail, who also used to be homeless but managed to pay her own way.

Angelique Vargas (left), Tanya Cangelosi (center) and Cassi McPhail (right) pose for a selfie during a brief visit to Assisi March 7, 2020. (Credit: Courtesy of Tanya Cangelosi.)

An organization committed to providing awareness of homeless persons in the Denver community and providing opportunities to serve them as both equals and friends, DHM for the past seven years has bought homeless youth to Rome as a means of inspiring these young people to change their lives and not let themselves be controlled by their circumstances.

Cangelosi decided to launch the pilgrimage after having a dream about it. Each year she selects the individual who will go through a special process: prayer. After asking God who should go, Cangelosi said either a name clearly comes to her mind, or she unexpectedly bumps into the person within a few days and gets a gut-feeling they are the one.

However, this year’s process was different.

In comments to Crux, Cangelosi said she “was praying about who the Lord wanted me to take,” but wasn’t getting a clear answer, so she asked last year’s pilgrimage attendee, Katie Henke. Without hesitating Henke suggested Vargas, because 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of Vargas’s older sister’s suicide.

“My heart did a flip-flop and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt she was the one that should go,” Cangelosi said.

RELATED: Homeless woman says seeing Rome, meeting Pope was ‘life-changing’

Vargas says she was raised by drug-addicted parents and an abusive stepmother, and was one of six siblings in her family, but she only shared a home with two: Her brother Christopher and her older sister Lucinda, who in the midst of the family’s instability became like a mother and protected Vargas from the physical and emotional abuses the others often endured.

When things got too bad at home, Lucinda, known as “Binky,” among their crowd of homeless friends, would take Vargas to the streets to get away from it all.  However, on March 9, 2010, that all changed when Lucinda hung herself in a closet inside the family’s home.

After her sister’s suicide, Vargas began to have problems of her own and started running away at 15. She lived with her grandparents for a stint but was kicked out and sent to her mother’s house. When Vargas’s mother refused to take her in, she went to live on the streets, hitch-hiking and rail riding her way around the U.S.

After a year she decided to come home to patch things up with her family and moved back in with her mother. Though the relationship isn’t perfect, and problems still abound, Vargas has committed to making things work, and is striving to do better than what life has handed her so far.

When she was asked by Cangelosi to come on this year’s Rome trip, Vargas told Crux that “I didn’t believe that it was real. I’ve always said, ‘nice things like things like this don’t happen to people like me.’”

Despite the ups and downs of the visit and the uncertainties brought by the almost daily new developments of the coronavirus outbreak, Vargas said she was impressed by both the city and the culture.

“It was a real culture shock, but almost everywhere you went it was different. Everything had detail to it. Buildings, the ground, people,” she said, noting that “A lot of energy, time, and thought was put into that country.”

On March 9, the day marking the 10th anniversary of her sister’s suicide, the group visited St. Peter’s Square. Though they couldn’t get into the basilica that day, they spent time in the square remembering Lucinda and sharing memories.

“I was very emotional on that day, but I got a lot of stress and anger out,” Vargas said, recalling how when the group went to lunch that afternoon, at one point she went outside and “cried out everything I had to give.”

“I haven’t cried that hard for my sister in a really long time,” she said, “so it was ok.”

This year’s trip also marked the first time another formerly homeless youth, McPhail, 27, was able to go despite not being selected.

Angelique Vargas (left), Tanya Cangelosi (center) and Cassi McPhail (right) pose in front of Rome’s Piazza Venezia on March 8, 2020. (Credit: Courtesy of Tanya Cangelosi.)

Spending a large portion of her adolescent life on the streets due to family problems and addictions at home, McPhail as she got older would sleep in her car for months at a time when she couldn’t afford rent.

After getting her first job at 19, McPhail changed course; she went back to school and eventually joined a medial assistant program, and today works at a family practice and holds another part-time job in retail to make ends meet.

Hearing about the trips Cangelosi organized for other homeless youth, McPhail wanted to go, and was able to save up the money to pay her own way for this year’s visit.

Speaking to Crux, Cangelosi said both Vargas and McPhail, while disappointed they couldn’t see the bulk of the things they wanted to due to the coronavirus, had a positive attitude and were even a little excited to be at the center of such an historic moment.

For Cangelosi, “Learning to just ‘be’ and learning to sit and enjoy each other’s company” was the highlight of the trip. “We laughed a lot,” she said, adding that Vargas and McPhail “were amazing and didn’t want to leave, they would have been ok with a 30-day lock down!”

One of the events that was canceled amid all the coronavirus closures was a March 11 general audience with Pope Francis, which Vargas had baciamano tickets for, meaning she would have met the pope.

“You can’t really have an impression on someone you’ve never met, but I think it be wonderful if I could get the chance to meet him and maybe have a nice conversation with him,” Vargas said. If the opportunity for another meeting arises in the future, she said, “I hope he is interested as well.”

Going forward, Vargas said she plans to save money and go on more trips, possibly leading her own visits to Rome like the one she was able to take.

“I want to do something good with my time while I’m young,” she said. “I plan to learn more about the life around me and do good things for mine and others’ lives. I want to do something life changing.”

Now confined to a 14-day quarantine after having re-entered the United States, Cangelosi said she does not regret taking the trip.

“I believe the trip was meant to be and often it won’t show it results right away, but there will be results and they will be positive,” she said, adding that “I may not see what the Lord sees until after the fact, but He has never disappointed.”

Others who have gone on the trip have changed their lives, she said. They are holding down jobs and apartments, some have had conversions, and parents have regained custody of their children.

Speaking of Vargas, Cangelosi said she believes Vargas “is going to blossom like a butterfly. Not only has her life been impacted by her experiences but she will change the way people around her view the world!”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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