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Instead of racing off to Florida’s ever popular and over-crowded beaches, I spent my junior year’s spring break sleeping in a room without air conditioning, cold showers, cleaning up trash, picking weeds, and wiping little kids’ runny noses. Punishment? Forced community service? Guess again- I and twenty other motivated teenagers willingly and excitedly flew to the gorgeous island of St. Lucia for a mission trip.
No matter how many times someone may try describe the impact of entering a third-world economy, the change in your heart and mind is neither felt nor understood until you actually experience it first hand. My team and I spent that week traveling to eight different primary schools where we sang songs, acted out skits, gave personal testimonies, and preached the Gospel of hope and salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is where my first big challenge approached me. Public speaking: yikes! Even though I had successfully progressed through twelve years of schooling, I had yet to master the art of calming my nerves and steadying my voice when all eyes were on me. The first thirty seconds were mortifying as I looked out to these seemingly judgmental eight and nine year olds. I stood in front of them on the dirt floor of their classroom in the deadly heat of that April afternoon, wondering what they were thinking of this stranger standing in front of them. Once I reminded myself of my purpose, however, I not only was able to relax my shoulders and talk slower, but I also managed to get a few laughs and even an applause at the end. After the program that day, I met a handful of girls who followed me around like infant goslings observing and minding their mother. They wanted to touch my ivory skin and reddish-blonde hair because it was radically different from any of their skin and hair. They were anxious to tell me about their brothers and sisters, boyfriends, jobs, school work, hopes, and fears. I found myself in a paradox: half of me feeling much older than my seventeen years as they looked up at me like I was an idolized American superstar, and half of me wishing to be as young, naive, playful, and free as these malnourished, underprivileged children. Ironic? Most definitely.
Miss Regina’s house was challenge number two. Miss Regina was forty years old with one child of her own and seventeen other children ‘under her care.’ After finding and taking in an abandoned two-year old while walking along the beach one day seventeen years ago, Miss Regina quickly fulfilled the community’s foster care mother position. Though she had neither a husband nor a job, she bore the responsibility of feeding eighteen mouths and providing shelter and clothes for those eighteen children everyday. People who knew her tried to help when they could, but in a society of limited resources and extreme poverty, inevitably there are days where someone goes without food. I learned that when Miss Regina couldn’t make ends meet on a given night, she would turn her old radio up as loud as it could go, signaling a fast to come that night. Every child, aged two to twenty, knew what the loud music meant: no food, no questions, no complaining.
The mission team I was with spent a large portion of its time at Miss Regina’s house giving and sharing our love, food, school supplies, and any materials that could better their situation. It took all I had in me to keep from dropping my jaw and staring at the sight of dirt floors, kids sleeping on the front porch, and flies eating three-day-old macaroni in an oven that was in a kitchen that was also a garage. As the week progressed and I developed relationships with some of the younger children, I realized something that I’ve heard and I’ve been told but have never fully grasped until that week. I learned about joy. Joy is found anywhere, anytime, in anyone. Joy is about smiles and laughter at the simplest of things; its about showing gratitude when receiving a handshake, a good conversation, or a hot meal. Joy is about appreciating every single thing one has been blessed with, which constitutes far more than what can be seen with the human eye.
When I was lying in bed the last night of the trip, I thought about what it really meant to need something versus wanting it, what it means to be hungry, and what it takes to find peace. Furthermore, I realized that when one is greatly blessed, one also bears the responsibility to give more of his/her blessings to those in need. I wouldn’t trade my weak of cleaning, working, helping, teaching, and learning for any beach on this Earth.
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