A small group of CJ students and chaperones spent five days near the coast of the Caribbean Sea in the country of Belize addressing the needs of others and deepening their faith for a fourth consecutive summer. The purpose of this annual mission trip continues to remain the same, but each student's personal journey is unique from year to year.
First-time participant Matthew Dudon ‘14 reflected on his own experience serving members of the small Central American community this summer. The senior is a member of F.L.I.G.H.T. ‘14, a Project Lead the Way engineering student and a four-year varsity soccer player.
“In the last week of June, eight students, two teachers, one CJ family doctor, and myself went to Belize, Central America for a mission trip. Wow, what an experience! When we first walked off the plane, the heat, humidity and blazing sun were quite evident. Yet, the simplicity of life, shining smiles, welcoming hearts and happy souls weren't so clear until we encountered our new home and the Belize locals. When we walked into a store, a school, or around town, we felt welcomed. This not only inspired us to bring back the same welcoming hearts but also to serve the people there in Belize with everything we had.”
It took the group two flights and a long car ride before finally touching down at their destination in Belmopan, Belize, where they would spend nights and eat meals at the Baptist Training Center. Upon their arrival Sunday, the power went out at the facility due to the high humidity. Fortunately, electricity returned around 10 that night and spirits stayed high.
“Prior to leaving for Belize, we had little idea of our work. We knew we would be spending time at King’s Children’s Home orphanage and distributing the Toy’s For God’s Kids (TFGK) wooden cars many of the CJ students helped make. We soon found out that the lifestyle in Belize was very unscheduled and worriless. Our mission work seemed to follow. The King’s orphanage was under construction building a new housing complex for the orphans. To help assist but not hinder their process, we were given the task to prime the outside of the building for paint. While putting on coat after coat of white primer, we got the opportunity to interact with some of the orphan boys working beside us. Even with the burning sun and the sweat dripping down their faces from constant hard work, they always seemed to have a smile, an interesting story and a great time.”
In the school year leading up to the trip, CJ initiated a new R.E.A.C.H. service site known as Toys for God’s Kids. The goal of the STEMM-themed project is to design, build and distribute wooden toy cars to children in need. The toys are generally boxed up and shipped off, but in this instance, Matt and his classmates were able to personally hand deliver the cars to children in town. Students also distributed friendship bracelets made by Key Club members and library books, and were able to assist Dr. Steve Huffman, CJ parent, in treating patients at the Good Shepherd Clinic. Despite a slight language barrier during these interactions, the foreigners and natives discovered a common bond in music and connected by singing and playing familiar Christian hymns with one another.
“Besides applying primer, we would venture out into the villages and little towns in the afternoons to hopefully find a school or two where we could serve. After about 15 minutes or so of driving -- trying to avoid big holes in the roads and slowing for speed bumps -- we would come up to a Roman Catholic school. We would graciously walk in and the welcoming spirit was felt right away. The kid’s faces would light up. They enjoyed learning simple math and spelling, looking at us as if we were heroes. At one school, we even got to go outside and play recess. From basketball to jump rope and futbol, the kids were always joyful. None of us will ever forget their bright smiles, welcoming hearts and the radiating energy they had for the simple things in life.”
In total, the group spent time at two children's’ orphanages (one for girls and one for boys) and two schools -- St. Francis Xavier and St. Jude. During their leisure time, students and chaperones enjoyed learning more about Belizean culture. Activities included sightseeing at the Mayan ruins of Cahal Pech and Xunantunich, ziplining over the jungle, cave tubing and swimming on local rivers, searching for wild tarantulas (large but docile spiders) at night, and shopping at local village markets. Days began with Mass and ended with time for reflection.
“The Toy’s For God’s Kids project has been a wonderful experience. It was great to see CJ students enjoy something simple like building a wooden toy car because they knew it would have an impact. And it sure did make an impact in many different ways. We made about 110 cars to take down to Belize. Many mission groups travel to Belize and hand out free items to children, so we had to be aware of how the toys were being distributed. About 20 of the cars went to one of the schools we visited. One-third of the cars went to one of the orphanages that needed toys and supplies. The last part of the toys ended up staying at the Baptist Retreat Center for the director to distribute to local children so that they can make a small profit in the villages. Even though this requires the least amount of direct contact, it is truly best for the Belizean people -- it puts the power and responsibility in their hands.”
Mission trips are meant to be mutually beneficial experiences. Part of the goal is to empower the people who you are serving so that your work makes a lasting difference instead of a short term change. The group was able to leave the children of Belize with the tangible fruits of their labor and intangible impressions made through their interactions. Meanwhile the students developed a better understanding of Belizean culture, the needs of the rural poor and their own spirituality.
“The experience I had with TFGK at CJ and in Belize will be one I remember for the rest of my life. I could definitely see myself carrying this project on in the future and doing something similar as part of my career. Belize was an unbelievable experience that none of us will forget. We are all hoping to incorporate the things we learned in Belize back home. Don’t stop Belize’n!”