By Sara Thiessen. Over the course of their two-week spring break 76 high school students attending the Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI) () set their sails ablaze traveling to the far corners of the earth to take part in a unique cross-cultural mission trip.
For the past sixteen years, MEI has sent out teams consisting of two staff and six to twelve students to serve alongside different missionaries and mission organizations in locations that have included Costa Rica, Haiti, the Philippines, Thailand, the Ukraine, and Zambia … and the list goes on. For many, the mission experience is life-changing.
Students are left with a better understanding of the privileges and opportunities they have as Canadians and are inspired to use their newly discovered freedom in contributing to the grave needs of local and global communities. The mission team becomes a surrogate family for two weeks during which students are taught to work together, step outside of their comfort zones and meaningfully engage with the needs of others.
This spring break I had the privilege of leading — alongside Henry Zukowski (long-term mission leader and high school teacher at MEI) — a team of eight high-school students, five of whom live in the Fraser Valley, to Kabwe, a city in Zambia with a population similar in size to Abbotsford. While in Kabwe, we would be working with Hands at Work, a community-based organization (CBO) recognized by the UNAIDs society for best practices in the area of community care.
Hands at Work recognizes that an institutionalized approach to caring for over 14 million orphans across Africa is not only overwhelming, but also unsustainable. As a CBO, the staff and volunteers of Hands at Work endeavor to care for the most vulnerable children by providing the basic needs of food, education and medical care within their communities.
As local churches and businesses are mobilized to support the needs of vulnerable children, Hands at Work will graduate the newly self-sustaining community and use the funding to support a new community in need, in turn creating sustainable change, empowerment and independence.
Before setting foot in Zambia, our team of ten, along with parents and supporters, had the opportunity to meet with George Snyman, founder of Hands at Work. As Snyman began to speak, the small audience was still.
Snyman’s stories unfolded beautifully, educating us in an almost incidental manner on how to engage and genuinely respond to the harsh realities of pain, poverty and disease that we were about to encounter.
Snyman told stories of his experience trekking through the outskirts of South Africa and the seemingly unreal poverty for the first time.
He told of how it led to a moment of authenticity in which he responded to the call that he felt God was placing on his heart and said ‘yes’ to whatever it meant for him to help meet the needs of those surrounding him.
Never once bragging about himself or the work of his organization, he viewed statistics, numbers and convincing graphs as minor details. Snyman understood that this was not about him or ‘us’ and what we were bringing to ‘them’ but more importantly what we could all learn from each other.
On that note our team left for Zambia with our hearts and eyes open for what Snyman called “diamonds in the rough.” To say that I was merely impressed with the grade eleven and twelve students’ attitudes, involvement and sacrifice during our two-week stay would be an understatement.
It was inspiring to witness students boldly stepping outside of their comfort zones thousands of miles away from the familiarity of family, friends, hobbies and schedules.
A typical day working with Hands at Work in Kabwe involves many activities: gathering together in the morning with local care workers for devotions.
These always involve song and dance.
The day is spent accompanying care workers (sometimes walking up to 5 km in the hot sun) on home visits where we would offer help with chores, encouragement and prayer, assistance with lunch preparations; and leading an afternoon of games, song and dance to over a hundred excited children not accustomed to routine (a nearly impossible task!).
As the days advanced, our laps became beds for tired children and our hands a tool for chopping vegetables, washing laundry and weeding gardens. Our skin was soaked with color and our hearts were changed.
For me, it wasn’t what the students did on the trip that left the biggest impression – it was the evident growth that I saw in their expression of authentic care for each other and the people of Zambia.
As our time in the rural communities of Kabwe progressed, so did our understanding of what it meant to love.
We were humbled by the strength, conviction and belief in Christ expressed by local care workers – a belief that shaped their entire lives, carrying them through death and spurring them towards love and sacrifice in some of the most unlikely circumstances.
Taking part in the daily celebration and joy (naturally resulting from close relationships between members of the community) revealed to us the rich value that results from caring for one another. Thousands of miles away from the security of our individualist Canadian culture and prominent materialism, we experienced personal healing, gaining greater perspective on what is really of value.
In returning home, we now face the challenge of applying these newly discovered truths and values in our lives and the choices that we make each and every day.
Photos by Team Photographer Henry Zukowski and others. Click on images to see images full size.