Christina, Cont.: ... soon-to-be bedroom for the ninos, that holds our blood, sweat, and tears (literally). It is such a satisfying feeling to know we have contributed to numerous children’s lives that will inhabit our creation. The fact that we can say we have built a foundation from scratch is something that not many can relate to. Dad you’d be proud! Each one of us made the choice to put ourselves in a position that was unfamiliar to us and with others whom we may have not known well, but we will leave with memories, friendships and our footprint in Mexico.
Today we had the honor to hear to Gaby’s story and how the children’s home came to be. We were touched and inspired by her willingness to open up and share such a personal journey and struggle in her life that has made her one of the most selfless individuals I know. She is truly doing God’s work. The kids are SO happy and she is the reason behind all of their smiles/laughter. The world needs more of this kind of love, thoughtfulness and dedication to each other. We have been here less than a week and already can see the change in each one of us. From Mexico to CT, the team will be bringing home that same spirit that has been found here! GO TEAM!!
John C., Cont.: ... such a special connection to a little girl named, Marisela. Marisela is an 8 year-old girl who impacted me the most this week. She has been one of my closest friends here at the children’s home. I remember the first time we met, it was Tuesday and I was sitting down eating lunch and she came and sat next to me. We began to chat and joke around with each other. Then she challenged me to try the hot sauces on my food. From that moment on I realized that we had already formed a very special bond with each other. The bond between Marisela and me is a bond that is unforgettable, unbreakable, and real.
Alison, Cont.: ... fulfilled, loved, compassionate and caring. This week long journey began with 18 members coming to the children’s home nervously as strangers in a new situation. I believe I can truly say that we are all leaving as friends. What we have been blessed to experience together has been life changing.
I was honored to take the trip with the school bus this morning to experience what their schools looked like. As I drove through the town with the children, they laughed and sang the whole way to school. The high school children were dropped off first - each child got out of the bus and hugged the 3 older “brothers and sisters” before they left. I watched, mesmerized by the love they shared for each other. The children seem to have no concept of how difficult their lives could truly be.
Each of the schools were basic brick structures, painted with bright colors of pink and purple. The children were all congregated in the outside middle of the school waiting for their friends to arrive. As each child walked to the middle, they were greeted with hugs and high fives from their classmates.
When the children leave in the morning for school, they stop to hug every volunteer around them. They come back hours later, and repeat the loving process. They look into our eyes and genuinely reach out to hold our hands while we walk. Gaby has created an atmosphere in this house that excludes nurturing, selflessness, and love. Smile, laugh and love with all your heart, like a child. This is the way we should live everyday.
Jesika, Cont.: ... I’m exhausted. I have volunteered at many places in the past but I had never built such profound relationships like I did with these kids. I have a difficult time getting close with people and I take full responsibility for it. I’m not the most approachable person out there but there was this one kid who made the effort to talk to me. This 14-year-old boy, by the end of the trip, changed me for the better. He’s funny, strong, smart, and “the man of the house.” He took responsibility for taking care of the kids at home and not once did he complain about it or anything else. I’ve worked with kids older than him that whine about having to carry their own shoes or have to serve their own food. This kid carries so much potential and patience that I only dream of having. I envy being able to have the patience to deal with over 15 other kids daily and not protest about it once. He doesn’t have to be told to clean the dishes or care after the kids, he does it on his own. At home, I would never consider doing the dishes or run errands on my own unless I am told to do so. No kid should have to deal with making such big decisions at a young age, but he does. Being introduced to him made me discover a new part of who I am. I’m not a fan of hugs but every time I saw him, I’d attack him with hugs. I would never talk to someone unless the person started the conversation with me, but I found myself doing that with him. Every time I saw him, I’d rush to talk to him and when he saw me, he would too. We’d crack jokes to each other whether it be about how I lost my basketball skills or how dancing wasn’t our forte (we really did suck at dancing compared to everyone else). I never expected to learn so much from someone younger than me but I did. It hurt having to say goodbye, I never felt a connection with someone like I did with him. I hope I get the chance to see him again but if I don’t, I hope he knows I’m glad I met such an inspiring person like him. I’ll never forget him and I only wish he won’t either. I’m proud to say that he’s my friend and will always be. Thank you for being in my life Pedro.
Lauren, Cont.: ... emotions, simultaneously being one of the most amazing and upsetting days of my life. Waking up this morning knowing that I would be leaving in less than 24 hours, I woke up with a sense of unshakable sadness and saw everything as the “last” of that moment which only worked to make me more upset. However, I now know I was wrong to think this way. I should have been seeing every “last” moment as an opportunity to be grateful of the time I have experienced here and instead use this as fuel to propel me forward as a better person. Every action from that point became stemmed from motivation to do my best for the people I had built relationships with because even though its only been a week, I have made connections here that will stay with me forever. Everyone’s love for one another came out in full force today and it was clear that everyone planned on making the most of out last hours with the children. In addition to being Valentine’s day, it was also Gabi’s birthday which made the already important day even more special. We got the chance to show our appreciation for everything she had done for us up until this point and everything that this trip will continue to do for us as we go back home. We celebrated for hours on end, dancing to music played by a mariachi and embracing every beautiful and joyful second we had left together. At one point, the environment around me was so genuinely perfect and uplifting that I shed tears out of the sheer gratitude I felt for having been given the opportunity to be here amongst amazing people this week. Saying goodbye to the children was without a doubt the most devastating thing to happen this week and I could probably say the same for the rest of the team, but to reflect on it now I realize that I will not be losing anything, but have instead grown and received more than I ever thought I would on this trip. To have gotten the chance to meet the lovely children and staff here in the first place is in itself a blessing and even though I will inevitably be going home tomorrow, I can with 100% certainty say that I will be going home an improved person and for that I have the Round Hill Church and Simply Smiles to thank for.
Dan, Cont.: ... if you are reading this post, you have had the opportunity to read the reflections of our team members from our time together. Though I have been to Mexico multiple times on vacations and service trips, this was my first time in the beautiful region of Oaxaca. This area is surrounded in every direction by mountains and the city itself rests at an elevation of over 5,000’. To say that the scenery takes your breath away would be very accurate, as we all felt a bit of the altitude difference the first day. But like most things, your body reacts and adjusts, and before long we were comfortable and right at home. Home is a good word to use because the Simply Smiles Children’s Home where we stayed and volunteered is just that ... home. It is home to 17 children and was home to use for 8 days and 7 nights. Home is more than just a building or location, it is a feeling of welcome, warmth, acceptance and hospitality. That is exactly what Gaby Chavez, the director of the Children’s Home and her staff provided for us. The children living there are all well adjusted, happy and healthy. They are cared for and provided for with incredible compassion and love … so much so that they instantly opened their home and their hearts to us from the first day!
Our team of volunteers made instant connections and life-long impressions. It certainly helped that the vast majority of our team spoke fluent Spanish, but more than the language and cultural similarities, our team was committed to serving and giving themselves fully and completely to the children and whatever tasks or projects were needed. During our week, the foundation of one new dormitory needed to be laid down. This meant moving massive piles of sand, rocks, and dirt and hand mixing hundreds of buckets of cement. This was indeed hard work, but always done with smiles and much enthusiasm for which I am so proud. The children were all in school during our morning work sessions and when they returned home we ate together and shared delicious, home-cooked Oaxcan meals.
After homework time, often with assistance from our team members, a wide range of fun activities, games, arts and crafts would consume the afternoons leading up to our late afternoon family walks and park playtimes.
One of the aspects I so appreciated was the communal aspect of living together. Even after the children went to bed, our team members played cards, journaled, washed the dishes, laughed and simply enjoyed being together in community.
So often at home we’re isolated, and miss out on the pure joy of experiencing life with others. Even mundane tasks like drying dishes, sweeping the floors, or clearing plates takes on new meaning when done together, with a purpose. This was one of many lessons learned and a gift I hope to bring back to my home and family. I also loved played loud and long games of UNO. Without the distractions of television, phones or other personal media devices, our team enjoyed good ole’ fashioned fun and loved every minute of it!
We worked hard, played hard, served well, loved much, laughed often and lived life to the fullest each moment and every day. We made efforts to be fully present with and for one another and the children living there. I hope to continue to embrace each moment as the gift that it is.
This trip has made an indelible impression upon our team, so much so that having to say goodbye was one of the most emotional and difficult farewells I can remember. Many in our team shared how they discovered a second “home” and a new family in Oaxaca. Those memories and friendships will last a lifetime and continue to shape the hearts and minds of all who were impacted.
I am deeply grateful for the work and witness of Simply Smiles, whose mission is “Dedicated to building bright futures for impoverished children, their families, and their communities.” Through their faithful presence and consistent witness, this organization works hard to provide dignity while respecting and embracing the culture and traditions of the local people. They do outstanding work in Oaxaca as well as La Plant, South Dakota, and I highly recommend this organization to anyone looking for meaningful volunteer opportunities.
One final note: This week in Oaxaca marks my 30th service trip with three different congregations. It is a milestone for me personally, and has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the quality and character of the partner organizations, congregations and the hundreds of volunteers who have willingly made sacrifices for the greater good. My life and faith would not be what it is today without every one of these trips and, most importantly, the impact of those I served with and alongside. I am eternally grateful for the many destinations and discussions over those years and the all of the greater good collectively we have been a part of. I want to believe that I have made some positive influence in the lives of individuals and communities I have served, but what I know deep within my heart is the lasting impression and impact everything and everyone has had upon me and my calling. With deep gladness, gratitude and appreciation, Dan