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Mission Trips: Fears and Truths of Helping Abroad


In May of each year, "summer talk" begins. Friends and family share their plans for beach time, European vacations, and adventure travel. Like a child watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, an uncontrollable "ooh" or "ahh" escapes my lips in response.

Recently, I've noticed a spike in the number of families who take summer mission trips. My response to their plans is different. I praise them as good souls. I attest to how great it is for the kids, fabulous for the family, and wonderful for the recipients of their labor. And gee, I wish I could go along with them. Then, like a politician caught in a lie, I recite excuses in a laughable attempt to justify why I am too busy to squeeze it in. If I had the courage, I would admit that I harbor guilt for not following their example.

I'm hesitant to make a mission trip out of concern that my family won't measure up in the do-gooder, Mother Teresa category of life. What if we aren't religious enough? What if everyone's kids are hard workers, but mine complain about the lack of room service? What if writing a check is easier than coming face to face with those in need? What does it say about my character if I am comfortable keeping a geographic distance from hopelessness?

This year, I began volunteering with an organization that assists Guatemalan orphanages. Every summer, the group plans a mission trip to provide supplies and gifts for the children. They assist with the infrastructure of the orphanages. Given the Third World status of the country, the orphanages' needs are basic. I was intrigued by this organization, in part, because my youngest child is adopted from Guatemala. So, with knee-jerk speed, I signed on for the trip. It was time to shed my self-absorbed concerns.

We arrived in a mountainous and beautifully lush country. The vegetation is rich. The country and its people are poor beyond what I imagined. We delivered supplies to a school for children with Down syndrome and an orphanage for infants and toddlers. The Down syndrome children soaked up our attention and gathered hugs like a valuable commodity.

At the orphanage, we cuddled infants and played with toddlers. They have rudimentary care, but a short supply of love. We heard stories of abuse that bruised our hearts and stories of superhero sacrifices by ordinary people that saved these children from malnutrition and life on the streets.

We then traveled to an orphanage in a rural area that is home to 48 children from ages 5 to 18. Armed only with their faith and hard work, two women operate the orphanage. They have a selfless mission to care for, educate, feed, and clothe children who've been mistreated in ways the likes of which we only see in movies. They have little money; each month, they face something of a "Sophie's choice" to buy food or pay the electric bill.

We painted and completed small construction projects. I worked outside and found myself avoiding the orphans. I was afraid to connect to these children, for fear that a flood of despair would swallow me whole. Finally, my daughter asked me to hold the youngest orphan. She fell asleep in my arms. I did not feel despair. Instead, the heat of her small body warmed my heart. Before we left, the children sang, marched, and danced to "Seventy-Six Trombones."

This mission trip and the faces of these young strangers took us from the shallows of our lives to the depths of humility. The only question I have now is why I waited so long to help.

This article was written by Michele Valdez and published in the Preston Hollow People on August 17, 2012.


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